Time to stand up for Roma people

Julie Ward reports on anti-Roma racism in the North East

Every summer, the highways and byways of County Durham are dotted with colourful horse-drawn wagons as the county’s largest ethnic minority group make their way to Appleby Horse Fair in Cumbria. This event is the biggest annual gathering in Europe for the Gypsy Romany Traveller (GRT) community. Last year’s fair was cancelled due to the pandemic, and Government Covid restrictions delayed this year’s gathering, but at the beginning of August approximately 10,000 people from the UK community travelled to Appleby on the banks of the River Eden to enjoy the rights granted to them by James II in 1685. A further 30,000 visitors enjoyed the spectacle of painted wagons and horses being washed in the river, bare-back riding children and women decked out in their finest attire. However, beyond economic benefits to the tourism industry and behind the voyeurism there is a pervasive anti-Gypsyism in our society emboldened by Tory rhetoric.

The Government’s anti-Traveller legislation will do nothing to combat this specific form of racism, giving police greater powers to break up roadside camps, move people on and prosecute those in breach of the law. Even before the 2019 General Election, Priti Patel’s proposals to appropriate GRT property were described by George Monbiot as “legislative cleansing”. Other leading Conservatives such as Michael Gove had also piled in with their own anti-Traveller rhetoric, as documented by Open Democracy in a research project which gathered evidence from campaign activity in the lead up to election day. The study found that dozens of Tory candidates had shamelessly made “inflammatory and discriminatory statements about Gypsies, Roma and Travellers” as a vote-catcher, promising action against Traveller camps.

Anti-Gypsyism is not new. The Roma remain the most discriminated-against minority in Europe. Along with Jews, trade unionists, disabled people and gay men, the Roma were rounded up and sent to ‘labour camps’ during the Nazi regime. Up to 1.5 million Roma may have been exterminated, representing 75% of the population. Unlike Jewish survivors, the Roma have received no reparation from the German government. In what is now the Czech Republic, the Roma were completely wiped out and a pig farm was established on the site of a Roma genocide, even receiving EU funds. The ‘Dignity For Lety’ campaign, led by the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement, was successful in challenging the authorities, with support from the European Parliament, and I was proud to be part of that campaign. The site is now earmarked for memorialisation.

The Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing (PCCS) Bill currently making its way through Parliament threatens the GRT way of life. If the bill becomes law, transgressors could be fined up to £2,500, imprisoned, and have their homes (vehicles) confiscated, simply for stopping on the roadside. Those who find themselves imprisoned may have their children taken into care.

Legal campsites are inadequate, with insufficient places to accommodate the GRT population – as becomes obvious every year when the pilgrimage to Appleby begins. The author of a letter in the Teesdale Mercury (28th July) was openly hostile to a Traveller who had stopped to give his horses respite on a patch of what is now common land in Barnard Castle. The writer warned that the town would be “inundated” with unwanted Travellers and concluded with a threat that echoed centuries-old violent racism: “get the Gypsy Council told there will be no stopping in the town”.

The award-winning Friends, Families and Travellers support organisation has been doing its homework, however, along with other human rights and anti-racist organisations, lobbying at the highest level. On 5th July, the Council of Europe Commissioner on Human Rights wrote to the House of Commons and House of Lords urging all members “not to accept provisions on the new criminal offence of trespass” and to reject Part 4 of the PCCS Bill.

According to the Commissioner for Human Rights, the Bill raises serious questions about “compatibility with the UK’s obligations under international human rights standards”. The Commissioner’s letter followed a report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights which concluded that Part 4 of the Bill gives rise to several human rights concerns.

Once again the UK is out of step with its European neighbours and prepared to ride roughshod over international human rights norms. Meanwhile, for 19-year-old Dylan, who was residing on family-owned land in County Durham with his siblings and mother (an anthropologist and trained teacher), it is too late. Following a sustained barrage of racist abuse over several years, this gifted student took his own life in May this year. The #JusticeForDylan campaign, spearheaded by Labour activists and trade unionists, raised nearly £9,000 to help pay for Dylan’s funeral and support the family.

In order to prevent further tragedies, the Labour Party needs to step up support for the GRT community and demand education and awareness-raising campaigns as well as robust opposition to the PCCS Bill. Activists should also get behind the Drive 2 Survive campaign, which has been mobilising rallies over the summer and was at the Tory Party conference along with other Kill the Bill activists. Follow @Drive2Survive3 on Twitter for info.

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