The largest Irish Traveller community in Britain, home to over a thousand residents on a former scrap-yard in Essex, has lost the legal battle against the forced eviction of more than a third of their community.
Dale Farm has two parts: the initial legal site with planning permission, first established in the 1970s, and a site where the land is owned by Travelers but where planning permission has been refused as it lies on green belt land. On July 4th, 2011, Basildon Council gave written notice of eviction to 86 families living in the unauthorised part of Dale Farm, obliging them to vacate their homes by midnight on August 31st. Roughly 400 residents will be affected, many of whom are children and elderly people.
Amnesty International, expressing deep concern about the planned eviction, said it would leave residents without access to crucial services such as “schooling for children and treatment for residents with serious illnesses”. Amnesty has further reported that many residents had trouble understanding the written notice of eviction due to limited literacy. On a recent trip to the site, I witnessed such problems: many residents were incapable of signing their names to a Legal Aid petition.
The UK is in danger of breaching her human rights obligations if the eviction goes ahead as planned. The UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing, Racquel Rolnik, has warned in the context of Dale Farm that “evictions constitute a grave breach of human rights if not carried out with full respect for international standards”. A report by the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, ‘Forced Evictions-Toward Solutions’, has recommended that the UK either grant Dale Farm residents planning permission or offer suitable alternative land within the District Council.
An elderly Dale Farm resident I interviewed told me that she was afraid that the eviction of the site would result in the breakup of her extended family, who have been living together for many years. She objected to the idea of living in “bricks and mortar” housing: having lived in a caravan all her life this is the only way she knows “how to live”.
Many Dale Farm residents fear further discrimination if they are forced to live outside their traditional communities. Those I interviewed said they were not allowed in local restaurants or supermarkets, and were met in town with graffiti saying ‘Gypsies leave’. President of the Dale Farm Resident Association, Gratton Puxon, has described the eviction as concrete proof of the “rise of racism and the terrible intolerance and prejudice against gypsy people”. I got a taste of these attitudes when the cab driver I hailed in Basildon refused to take me to “gypsy land” and dropped me off a short walk from the site.
In a time of economic crisis, Amnesty International has reported that the cost of the planned eviction to the national budget could be up to £18 million. Basildon will provide a third of its council budget, £8 million in total, towards the demolition of the site. The Essex Police Authority (EPA) will contribute £4 million; the Home Office, £6 million pounds.
John Barron, Conservative Party MP from Basildon and Billericay, has praised the government’s commitment to the eviction as confirming that “no one individual or group is above the law” in the UK. Many Dale Farm residents I have interviewed have countered that they are tax-paying, law-abiding citizens. Yet they also warn the police that if they are forced to leave their caravans at the end of the month, they will not do so peacefully. According to BBC news, one traveller said “they would set gas cylinders on fire and use petrol bombs”.
I would urge Basildon Council, before early September when the forced eviction is predicted to take place, to consider the words of Rita Izsák, the UN Independent Expert on minority issues: “Eviction inevitably renders all affected families extremely vulnerable, including with regard to their access to essential services. This is doubly so for Travellers who may have traditionally rooted specific housing needs, and who face considerable discrimination and hostility in wider society.”