I live in a small village in South East England. I first heard the word Traveller used to describe a group of people when I was about 10. I was sitting at my friend’s kitchen table and her parents were chatting about some Traveller boys who lived across the road. “F*****g p*keys” her dad said.
The hatred a lot of settled people in my village feel towards the Irish Traveller community is often handed down to them by their parents. Accusations of theft, trespassing and anti-social behaviour are regularly thrown at anyone who happens to be a Traveller. I’ve seen men denied access to the pub for no reason other than someone whispered they came from the campsite down at Smithy Fen. A boy from a Traveller family who went to my school was thrown down a flight of stairs. A friend of mine got punched in the face and called a ‘gyppo’. You can almost guarantee that under any post on the village Facebook page about anything going amiss, there will be a ‘funny’ comment asking if any caravans were in the area at the time.
I was therefore disappointed, but not surprised, when the Pontins ‘undesirable guests list’ scandal hit the headlines earlier this month. These names were Irish, but this blacklist process was specifically designed to prevent Irish Travellers from holidaying in these parks.
Dubbed ‘the last acceptable form of racism’ by Sir Trevor Phillips back in 2004, discrimination against Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller (GRT) peoples is endemic throughout the UK and the rest of Europe. ‘Traveller’ and ‘Gypsy’ are often (sometimes wrongly) used as catch-all terms to denote an incredibly diverse population, each with their own cultures, traditions and linguistic practices. There are English and Welsh Romani Gypsies, European Roma, Irish Travellers, Scottish Gypsy Travellers, Bargees, Boat Dwellers, Showmen, and various other ethnic and cultural groups who may identify or be referred to as ‘Travellers’.
GRT communities are some of the most marginalised in the world, with some countries still sending Romani children to segregated schools. It is thought as many as 500,00 Romani people were murdered in Europe during WW2, and some scholars estimate this number to be much higher. In the UK, 77% of GRT peoples have experienced hate speech or a hate crime, and a shocking 91% have experienced discrimination because of their ethnicity. This discrimination is common and, for some reason, acceptable in many circles. Even at UCL. Over a few drinks at Mulley’s, after asking someone to stop shouting the word ‘p*key’, I was told I had clearly never met a Traveller before, and that they are all criminals. This was met with nods of agreement and laughs from everyone at the table. Thinking back to my friend’s black eye, and the boy at school that got thrown down the stairs, I did not find this funny.
Violent physical attacks on members of GRT communities are sadly not unusual. One of the most horrific cases happened in 2003 when 15-year-old schoolboy Johnny Delaney was beaten to death in a playground by other children, one of whom said: “He deserved it, he was only a f*****g Gypsy”. It was just two years later that The Sun newspaper ran the headline ‘Stamp On the Camps’ – a call to arms for councils and communities to expel Travellers.
Media representation of GRT communities has done infinitely more harm than good, with shows like Channel 4’s ‘The Truth about Traveller Crime’, widely denounced as being dehumanising. Social media posts seen online after the show was aired included calls for Travellers to be gassed and sterilised. For centuries, that is exactly what has been happening. The Romani Holocaust, or the Porajmos (literally the ‘Devouring’), carried out by the Nazis was officially recognised by the West German government in 1979. As recently as 2007, Roma women in Czechoslovakia were subjected to a brutal eugenics policy, facing forced and systematic sterilisation. Spikes in such vile social media attacks are deeply worrying, as a 2020 study found that hate crimes directed at GRT peoples have led to a rise in suicides. This rise may also have been affected by the nationwide lockdown, during which it was found GRT communities have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. In some situations conditions have been extreme, with sites lacking basic amenities like clean running water. GRT peoples already had higher rates of mortality than the general population prior to the pandemic, the coronavirus now threatens to cause community collapse as difficulties in accessing medical services worsen.
The systemic marginalisation of GRT peoples can no longer be ignored. Using anti-Traveller slurs can no longer be dismissed as ‘banter’. Racism, bullying and discrimination against Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities has led to higher death rates, higher suicide rates and even murder – how many more have to die before this changes?
The burden of educating settled people about GRT experiences has rested with community activists and scholars for too long. It is up to us as individuals to educate ourselves about GRT history and culture, and confront the racism and discrimination we see head on. As a first step, write to your MP to speak out against the new anti-encampments bill which will make trespass with vehicles a criminal offence, a direct attack on the nomadic way of life.
To find out more about GRT culture and history follow the @dikhlocollective on Instagram, and to stay up to date with campaigns, cultural awareness training and education initiatives visit https://www.gypsy-traveller.org/.
Header Image: Wikimedia Commons