Travelling communities have suffered bigotry and attacks for centuries - frequently characterised as petty criminals, they are seen as a soft target whose culture and way of life are illegitimate. Jake Pace-Lawrie reports from Dale Farm, Essex, where Travellers are struggling against eviction.
It was early morning in Essex when men in high-visibility jackets surrounded the trailers of Hove Fields. The families woke to find a gang of bailiffs had descended on them, and they were soon presented with a notice ordering that they leave their homes. At the end of a mobile phone Jay's voice was wrought with the panic of a child's first sense of extreme fear: "Hurry, hurry, the bailiffs are here; they're bringing the bulldozers." Jay, 12, was home on a school day, but unlike other kids, who might have been bunking off, she found herself making calls to activists and the press, trying to stop the loss of the place she has called home for over half her life. She was the first person in her family to attend school long enough to learn how to read. Now her schooling looks likely to cease.
The evictions of Irish Travellers in Essex are a part of the sweeping attacks on other travelling groups in the wake of the recession. This is an attack on a vulnerable, migrant worker, community. The various travelling groups' requirements are at odds with the accepted norms of property and migration of other workers, making them an easier target. Furthermore, the basic provision of brick housing is not adequate for them. Travellers have lived on the road for many hundreds of years in tight-knit communities, and their cultural ties and traditions are integral to their identity.
Such differences may distinguish them, but attacks on the travelling minorities are distorted with the same smoke and mirrors of other tired racist stereotypes - in this case the suggestion of a genetic criminality. This myth runs from the Middle Ages, through Hitler (who exterminated half a million Travellers), and is kept in popular discourse by right wing vitriol across Europe today. Travellers now face persecution from the Italian, French and British governments, and nationalist parties in the Czech Republic and Hungary.
Petty crime exists within travelling groups, as in all socially deprived communities. But the causes are attributed to ethnicity, rather than socio-economic problems, by the right wing press. Unlike attacks on other groups, these ideas have gone largely unchallenged in political debate. Cynical parliamentary manoeuvring forces Travellers into worse social conditions and their increased vulnerability opens them to further attack.
The left has not fought with enough vigour against the legislative persecution and media scapegoating. In France the recent "round-ups" have caused large mobilisations and potentially the start of an effective fightback, but it is only now that the severity of the attacks echoes those of the 1930s that there has been any real political response.
In Britain a series of laws have criminalised the entire travelling community, making many permanently homeless. Councils have ceased the creation of sites, a provision to which they were once legally bound, forcing Gypsies to either buy land and settle or be continually evicted by police armed with the Criminal Justice Act 1994 and the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003. Even if Travellers buy land and settle, there is slim chance for planning permission to be granted.
"They come and they put a law on you, and when you abide by that law, they give you another one and another one," said Walter Brown, a Romany man in his 60s. A naturally humorous man with a warm grin for greeting new friends, he was relentlessly pessimistic about the future: "If it was up to the council they'd put us in a compound and chuck bits of raw meat over at us. A lot of people settled down. There aren't as many [travelling people] as there used to be. They have moved onto sites. It's because they had to, because they're closing in on us."
In Essex the most vulnerable Travellers - those with children or disabled relatives, or the elderly, and those who can no longer put up with the cat and mouse game of living on the road - bought land adjacent to Dale Farm, an area that was given to the Travellers by a Labour administration in the 1970s. Around Dale Farm they began to build lives for themselves, maintaining their community ties and the ability to travel, but also beginning schooling - illiteracy among adults is estimated at 90 percent.
At Jay's home in Hove Fields, one of several sites near to Dale Farm, the toothed scoops of three bulldozers eat into the ground. A bailiff operating one of the machines blares out an electronic dance song on the tinny speakers. Safety regulations are largely ignored. Alternative sites are simply not provided. But this is only a warm-up for the rolling tracks of the bulldozers. This site was once a plot of six families, around 30 people. At Dale Farm the number of Travellers is closer to 1,000, with around 90 to 100 children attending a local school. It is the bulk of this larger plot that the teeth of the bulldozers are to grind next.
Concrete green belt
Tony Ball, the council leader, has made the removal of the Travellers a primary campaign issue, using the pretext of the protection of green-belt land. His argument is extremely flimsy. At Hove Fields the destruction left by the bulldozers is incomparable to the previous scene. Big heaps of debris are left piled high in the fields while safety fences surround each former plot; often such detritus is left without being cleared for many months. At Dale Farm the green belt argument is even weaker - the contested area was previously concreted over and used as a scrap yard before it was sold to the Travellers.
Meanwhile new plans for the development of a group of expensive private homes on green belt scrub were unveiled by Fox Land and Property. The council has since accepted the proposal. Bill Sharp, a local Tory councillor, was quoted in 2007 as saying, "If you think about it carefully and decide which areas of green belt you wish to release for development, you can protect those areas of green belt land you really want to protect." The selective hypocrisy of the council is soon to make many families homeless and deprive around a hundred children of schooling.
At the Hove Fields eviction a child approaches us. He is only eight or nine years old but he wants to know why his parents have to leave their homes. Unable to answer he tells us with fire, "Maybe they have to leave because of yous." Turning his back, he walks off angry. Tricia from Southwark Travellers Action Group explains his hostility: "If you're a Gypsy child or a Traveller child, and you grow up here, you learn not to trust people, people who are going to come and rip your home apart."
Tricia was surprised by the eviction, but not for the same reason as less experienced activists: "They are being really careful today because of the press. We've got footage of people being beaten to the floor, wheelchairs burning on bonfires, children's toys being thrown on fires in front of them, and a woman who was trying to get her small child and her eight month old baby from a trailer screaming. She was hysterical and pregnant and they said, 'If we let you back in there you might not come back out again'." In June the Constant & Co bailiffs were less careful than at Hove Fields. Photos were taken of children walking in imminent danger from the bulldozers, improper safety provisions were provided and the firm was put under investigation. So far it has amounted to nothing.
The impending loss of another generation's schooling and healthcare will further isolate the Gypsies and Travellers. The increase in crime that will accompany the ensuing social deprivation is likely to be exploited by the tabloid media and the situation will continue to snowball. Tricia observed recent effects on the ground: "Since the new government came in we are seeing a lot of changes that are really negative. You feel as though you've worked years and years trying to achieve something and with a change of government it all gets ripped apart."
Grattan Puxon, a Gypsy Council member and fiercely committed organiser for the Dale Farm campaign, said, "We want a response from Eric Pickles, the communities minister, who is being asked by the UN [Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, or CERD] to halt these evictions - they haven't been halted. They're going on right now." The CERD's pleas were ignored. It seems apparent that the only way to halt the evictions is with a large mobilisation, including many Travellers alongside non-Travellers. Such a network does not presently exist, but without that the prospects for the Dale Farm families look bleak.
"Dale farm is a huge community, full of desperate people. And I wouldn't like to say what's going to happen there," Tricia said grimly. "Those people are fighting for their homes. That's the bottom line."