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Between tradition and exclusion: struggling for the right to pitch a trailer

It took an epic legal battle of many years to evict some 300 Irish Travellers from their land at Dale Farm in Basildon, Essex, United Kingdom. Although they owned the plot, they were prohibited from pitching their trailers because it was declared part of the “green belt” where no development is allowed, in order to protect the environment.

The Irish Travellers’ advocates pointed out that the designation was questionable – the Dale Farm plot had previously been a contaminated scrap yard, used by the Basildon authorities themselves, rather than a part of pristine nature. Moreover, Dale Farm is adjacent to a legal plot where other Travellers have long been living. In the end, however, the Travellers lost. The largest forced eviction in modern British history took place on 19 October 2011 amid violent clashes between the police and so-called supporters of the Travellers.

“What is worrying is that the general public confuses these ‘supporters’ with the Travellers themselves,” says Candy Sheridan, Vice Chair of the United Kingdom’s Gypsy Council, which includes representatives of all groups generally identified by the majority as “Gypsies” (Irish Travellers, Roma and British Gypsies). “But the people who picked up fights with the police were radical students who have their own political agenda, not Travellers.” In addition to being stigmatized as “Gypsies”, Irish Travellers are also conspicuous by their fervent Irish Catholicism.

Candy herself is a relative of the Dale Farm residents but she never lived there. Unlike them, she has long been an activist. “It didn’t actually start with Traveller-specific issues. I got drawn into local politics because – like many Travellers – I am an antique dealer, and I joined a more general public protest against the establishment of a big shopping centre. The Liberal Democrats offered me a place on their electoral list to my town’s local council, and to my surprise, I got elected. Then I was sent on a crash course on how to be a local councillor,” smiles Candy. “It was tough but I learned a lot. And I was empowered to represent my people.”

She also emerged from her political experience as a staunch legalist, aiming to always act in accordance with the law and expose unlawful conduct of the authorities wherever it happens. In the Dale Farm saga, she led “her people” through legal battles, finding solutions which professional lawyers failed to identify, while always putting an emphasis on the well-being of individuals – above all the children, the sick and elderly Travellers – and seeking reasonable compromise.

However, more than a year after the eviction, a large part of the evicted families still live by the roadside, a stone’s throw from their former plot, in deplorable hygienic conditions. The authorities say they should go somewhere else; Candy says they have nowhere to go. Sewage pipes which were dug up during the eviction remain broken, threatening the health of people at the adjacent legal site and at the roadside.

As Candy points out, Travellers suffer the double effect of marginalization. “The authorities are willing to spend large amounts of taxpayers’ money on forced evictions rather than smaller amounts on sensitive solutions, just to appease local voters,” says Candy. “Moreover, prejudice against us is still considered OK. It is still possible to use ‘Gypsy’ in public speech in such stereotypical, prejudiced ways that would not be acceptable in the case of any other minority group in Britain. And the so-called supporters steal the show by speaking and acting as if on our behalf, which is relatively easy to do because most Travellers are media-shy and many adults are in fact illiterate.”

The Dale Farm eviction was part of a systematic effort of the authorities across the UK to increase enforcement of planning law. “The problem is that at the same time, the number of pitches available to Travellers has decreased and our applications are routinely turned down,” points out Candy. Although the Government also has a policy of positive measures aimed at the Travellers, the new Localism Act, introduced in 2010, has significantly reduced the obligations of local authorities to provide pitches for them.

The difficulties faced by Travellers are in stark contrast to the UK’s positive contribution to the well-being of many Central European Roma migrants. In their home countries, many Roma children were labelled as “intellectually disabled” and shunted off into special schools in their home countries. However, as shown by a 2011 study by the NGO Equality, as migrants they did well in mainstream British schools.

“Unlike the new Roma migrants who tend to join the cosmopolitan urban environments, Travellers are traditionally rural. Not only are rural areas far less multicultural, but the space for Traveller lifestyle is decreasing due to gentrification,” says Paul d’Auchamp, Deputy Regional Representative for Europe of the UN Human Rights Office. D’Auchamp visited Basildon in February 2012 and was involved in efforts to start mediation between the Travellers and the authorities. The Regional Office for Europe also invited Candy as a panellist for one of its Human Rights Day commemorations, thus drawing attention to the Travellers’ side of the story – mostly overlooked by the media which often prefer stereotypical images of ‘Gypsies’.

In the past, Irish Travellers travelled all around Europe, living from small buying and selling or from their crafts. “When we still travelled, I even went to Rome,” remembers Candy. Today, most of them have abandoned the traditional travelling lifestyle, but prefer to live in pitched trailers, not in bricks-and-mortar accommodation (which they often refuse when it is offered to them). In the context of the Dale Farm eviction, the UN special rapporteur on adequate housing, Raquel Rolnik, and the independent expert on minority issues, Rita Izsàk, have urged the authorities to provide culturally appropriate alternatives, but to no avail.

“I am proud of our Traveller traditions, but of course change is coming to the Travellers, too,” says Candy. “We don’t want to live permanently apart from other people. We want our children and grandchildren to have an education, to study, to have opportunities in life. But this development must come from within the Traveller community, from our own choices, not as a result of being forcibly dispersed and displaced. And we should not be forced to renounce our identity.”

 3 June 2013

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