The government proposes the cultural cleansing of the Romani and
Traveller life from Britain.
By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 13th
This is how it begins: with a theatrical attack on a vulnerable
minority. It’s a
Conservative tradition, during election campaigns, to vilify Romani Gypsies
and Travellers: it tends to play well on the doorsteps of Middle England. But
what the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, proposed last week is something else. It
amounts to legislative cleansing.
document she released on the last day of Parliament aims to “test the appetite
to go further” than any previous laws. It suggests that the police should be
able immediately to confiscate the vehicles of “anyone whom they suspect to be
trespassing on land with the purpose of residing on it”. Until successive
Conservative governments began working on it, trespass was a civil and trivial
matter. Now it is treated as a crime so serious that on mere suspicion you can
lose your home.
When I say “you”, obviously I don’t mean you, unless you are a Romani Gypsy, a traditional Traveller or a New Traveller.
If you’re on holiday in your caravan, it does not affect you. It applies only
if you have “intent to reside” in your vehicle “for any period”. In other
words, it is specifically aimed at travelling peoples. It is clearly and
It’s true that some people have sometimes behaved appallingly,
damaging places, leaving litter and abusing residents. But there are already
plenty of laws to prosecute these crimes. The government’s proposal,
criminalising the use of any place without planning permission for Romani and
Travellers to stop, would exterminate the travelling life.
The consultation acknowledges that there is nowhere
else for these communities to go, other than the council house waiting
list, which means abandoning the key elements of their culture. During the
Conservative purge in the late 1980s and early 1990s, two thirds of
traditional, informal stopping sites for travellers, some of which had been in
use for thousands of years, were sealed off.
Then, in 1994, the
Criminal Justice Act repealed the duty of local authorities to provide
Over the past few weeks in Grimsby, Lincolnshire, local people
have been debating
the merits of the council’s proposal for an official transit site for
travelling people. According
to one of the councillors, there have been threats to stone, bottle and
petrol bomb anyone who uses it, if planning permission is granted. For
centuries Romani and Travellers have been hounded from parish to parish,
suffering prejudice and bigotry as extreme as any group faces. Now the
government is stoking it.
Patel’s proposed laws belong to the most dangerous of all
political categories: performative oppression. She is beating up a marginalised
group in full public view, to show that she sides with the majority. I don’t
know whether she really intends to introduce these laws, or whether this is
empty electioneering. In either case, she is playing with fire. Already this month, three caravans in Somerset have been torched by suspected arsonists.
Travelling peoples have
been attacked like this for centuries, and sometimes murdered. In 2003, a 15-year-old Traveller child, Johnny Delaney, was kicked to death by a gang
of teenagers. One of them is reported
to have explained to a passer-by, “he was only a fucking Gypsy.”
I asked a traditional Traveller how Patel’s legislation would
affect her. Briony (not her real name) told me she has ploughed her life
savings into her motorhome, which she parks out of people’s way, beside roads
within easy reach of her children’s school. She has good relations with local
people, many of whom know her and see her as part of the community. But none of
this will help.
If this proposal becomes law, “the police will have the power to
kick my door in, take my home, arrest me and take the children into care. We
won’t get them back because we won’t have a home. Because of my work, I can’t
afford a criminal record. When I walk out of the police station, I will have no
home, no assets, no children and no career.” It would also leave her without
state protection. “Sometimes we’ve had to call the police when we’re on the
receiving end of hate crimes. This legislation would mean we had to go under
the radar.” Understandably, she is terrified.
She has nowhere else to go. “There’s one transit site half an hour
away, but you can stay there only for 28 days a year. So my only option is
roadside. Roadside is our cultural heritage.” Stopping by the road has already
been made extremely
stressful and precarious by existing
laws. Patel’s proposal would stamp it out altogether. It would end a
migratory tradition that’s as old
As Briony points out, this is collective punishment. “The
majority of us are minding our own business. We’re providing our own housing,
not relying on the government. But everything I do that’s positive is lost in
people’s minds. Most people I meet have no idea I’m a Traveller. We’re
invisible until we do something wrong. Then people notice we’re Travellers.”
A week before Priti Patel launched her consultation, the Weiner Holocaust Library in London opened its exhibition on the Porajmos: the genocide of Roma and Sinti people carried out by the Nazis. It shows how ancient prejudices were mobilised to destroy entire peoples. I’m not saying that this is how the situation will unfold in this country, but the exhibition shows us the worst that can happen when the state sanctions the demonisation of an outgroup. First they came for the Travellers …