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UK Gypsies and Travellers take a stand against discrimination

Facing persistent racism and a critical change to planning law, which has been accused of being at odds with the Equalities Act and the European Convention of Human Rights, UK Gypsies and Travellers are saying enough is enough.

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Search “define gypsy,” and Google's first hit is www.urbandictionary.com. The website's 'top definition' describes gypsies as the “Fucking scum of the earth... Biggest scumbag wankers...” Hate speech of this kind – which, directed towards any other ethnic minority, would be deemed reprehensible – is commonplace for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) groups. In a recent article for the Guardian, Mike Doherty of the Traveller Movement called discrimination against Gypsies and Travellers “the last acceptable racism.”

'Roma' make up Europe's largest ethinic minority, and the UK is home to 300,000 Gypsies and Travellers, yet “Who is 'a Gypsy'?” is a complicated and contentious question. GRT groups are diverse, and – whether definitions focus on nomadism, ethnicity or heritage – there is little coherence between different policies, for different purposes.

What is clear however, is that GRTs are among the most marginalised people in Europe, suffering high levels of exclusion and discrimination. In the UK, GRTs experience extreme levels of poverty and inequality: poor educational provision, leading to low educational outcomes; worse health and lower life expectancy; stereotyping and abuse; job insecurity; and poor mental health. Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers in the UK are recognised as separate ethnic minority groups and are protected by the 2010 Equalities Act, but this safeguarding is seldom felt by GRTs.

Racism is propagated, says campaigner Shay Clipson, by “irresponsible and hostile media reporting.” And perpetrators of discrimination or attacks, she says, don't view themselves as racists. "But we are an ethnic group! You cannot have meetings about us in village halls.” Clipson feels such community meetings are reminiscent of those addressing the 'problem' of black and Asian people, during her youth; "They think this is different – because we're the same colour."

“We've been slow to respond to discrimination in the past,” says Clipson, “but now we're taking people to task. We've had enough.” Speaking to the Equal Times, Doherty says he agrees the tide is turning, and that the internet – while also the scene of abuse – has sown the seeds of organised campaigning for GRT rights.

One recent campaign was started by Clipson herself. The petition on 38degrees.org.uk is against a change to the planning policy definition of 'Gypsy or Traveller', which – benign to the untrained eye – in fact “threatens [Gypsies' and Travellers'] very existence.”

In August 2015, the definition of 'Gypsy or Traveller' changed in the government's planning policy for traveller sites. The policy sets out guidelines for councils to follow when assessing the need for Gypsy and Traveller sites. Prior to August 2015, the definition of 'Gypsy or Traveller' – which an individual must fall under to be eligible for a mobile home or caravan site – was as follows: 

Persons of a nomadic habit of life [for economic purposes] whatever their race or origin, including such persons who on grounds only of their own or their family's or dependents' educational or health needs or old age have ceased to travel temporarily or permanently...”

Paragraph 15 of Circular 1/06

The critical change is that the words 'or permanently' have been removed; and this small edit poses serious challenges for Gypsies and Travellers. It means that those who have ceased to travel permanently – for whatever reason – may lose any realistic chance of obtaining planning permission for a site on which they can lawfully station their caravan.

Yet the majority of Gypsies and Travellers in the UK are in fact settled. Moving around is increasingly difficult due to the absence of stopping places and a lack of jobs. And discrimination makes a 'nomadic habit of life' doubly difficult. By settling in one place, Gypsies and Travellers have access to stable employment, healthcare, other vital services and education. 

Human rights barrister Marc Willers QC stated in an article for the Travellers' Times that “the concept of Gypsy status can be seen to restrict those ethnic Gypsies and Travellers who wish to continue living in caravans to low paid and manual work... Ethnic Gypsies and Travellers... should have the ability to pursue any career they choose without fear of being disenfranchised when it comes to seeking planning permission for a Gypsy site.”

In positioning nomadism for economic purposes as a prerequisite, this new definition of 'Gypsy or Traveller' is “grossly insulting” to ethnicity and cultural heritage, says Clipson. 'Gypsy or Traveller' culture is often centred around living in a caravan, on a site with a close-knit community of family and friends. “They are treating being a Gypsy, Roma or Traveller as an occupation rather than an ethnicity.” 

Campaigners believe that GRTs are being placed in a Catch 22. “We are being required to stay on the road to keep our cultural identity,” says Clipson, “but then there is nowhere to legally stop.” On the other hand, staying settled may mean losing the chance to obtain permission for a caravan site, being evicted and facing an uncertain future. With many GRTs set to lose their status, the petition states that the new definition is an attempt “to artificially reduce the number of Gypsies and Travellers at the stroke of a bureaucrat's pen,” therefore eliminating the need for sites. “I'd call it ethnic cleansing,” says Clipson, “no guns or bloodshed, but it's the iron fist in the velvet glove, making it impossible for people to exist and practise their cultural way of life.”

And it's the vulnerable who are most likely to suffer most, says Willers, speaking to the Equal Times; those who can't travel due to sickness, disability or old age. Single mothers are also at risk, he says, as they are much less likely or able to travel for work. The threat of upheaval or homelessness, then, is biggest for those already at risk. “There is a lot of evidence that Gypsies, Romas and Travellers forced into bricks and mortar suffer mental health problems,” says Clipson.

Willers believes these changes to the planning law are against Gypsies' and Travellers' fundamental rights. The Equality Act protects ethnic minorities from discrimination and affords respect for cultural traditions; Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights promises respect for private and family life and home; and Article 14 safeguards equality of the sexes.

While no legal challenge has yet been brought against this new definition, there is a recent example of a successful challenge to the government's treatment of Gypsies and Travellers. In January 2015, the High Court ruled that the government had been discriminating against Romany Gypsies, and the former Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, was found guilty of breaking the Equality Act and breaching human rights in two cases – of a disabled mother and a single mother. In demanding that all Traveller planning cases on the green belt be recovered for his own determination, the judge ruled that the government had “discriminated unlawfully against a racial group.”

With cases such as this setting the tone, many GRT activists think the time has come to speak up. “The traditional way of coping,” says Doherty, “was to hide your ethnicity and hanker together but, more and more, we're seeing people coming out and saying 'I am' a Gypsy or Traveller, rather than 'I come from that background'.”

“It'll be a long, long battle,” says Clipson, “but people need to understand that we are like everyone else. At seven o'clock we're putting the kids to bed, walking the dog. We go to work, pay tax, save our money in the bank.” It should not need to be stated, but the vast majority of Gypsies and Travellers in the UK are law-abiding citizens who reside on legal sites or in houses.

The petition against the changes to planning law has almost reached its goal of 4000 signatories, and a protest outside the Houses of Parliament – “the first of its kind,” says Clipson – has been organised for 21st May. Josie O'Driscoll, chairperson of the steering group organising the “lively but peaceful” protest says, “The march will send a message to the Government that enough is enough. The last acceptable form of racism is no longer accepted by GRTs in the UK.”

This article was originally published in the Equal Times.

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About the author

Sophie Hemery is a writer and freelance journalist. She is a feminist investigative journalism fellow with openDemocracy's 50.50. Follow her @Sophie Hemery

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