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A visit to embattled Dale Farm

6 October 2011

Marcin Derkacz, MRG Legal Cases intern, paid a visit to Dale Farm in Essex, UK, to show support and see for himself how Irish Traveller residents were bearing up under the threat of imminent eviction from their homes

It seems to be a never-ending story. A real, fascinating, gripping rollercoaster of a ride. However, for its main actors – the residents of Dale Farm – this story is a nightmare.

Living under constant threat of being cut off from their water and electricity supplies, watching bailiffs getting their heavy machinery ready in preparation for an eviction, being harassed by the local Council and last but not least, living in the media spotlight, has been the everyday life of these residents who, in spite of all adversities, decided to stay at Dale Farm – a place they have called home for many years.

I had a chance to visit Dale Farm a few weeks ago – just before lawyers for the Travellers obtained a High Court injunction preventing bailiffs moving in while the courts were asked to rule on several areas of contention. The Traveller site reminded me of a village under siege in a war zone: a helicopter hanging over the site, massive, reinforced gates at the entrance, an army of bailiffs stationed just next to the farm, TV crews waiting for sensational developments. A sense of apprehension and anxiety could be felt in the air.

After being held at the gate for over an hour by a bunch of kids, I was permitted to enter the site. The camp looked deserted at first; however I was told that many of the residents had moved their best caravans to Stockwood Park, a large public park on the outskirts of the nearby town of Basildon.

All the people I spoke to declared they would fight for Dale Farm, however, their morale was obviously shaken. “We are people stripped of our basic rights; we are deprived of land which we legally occupy. We want to stay but we don’t know what tomorrow will bring” a red-haired woman in a green raincoat told me. “But God is with us – he sent rain to put off the bailiffs from taking any action”. Indeed, it was in fact raining, although I suspect the bailiffs were probably put off by unresolved legal issues rather than the rain.

The residents of the former scrap-yard were preparing for the worst. There were at least three barricades blocking the main roads to the site, erected by activists who had come to Dale Farm a few days before in order to support the Travellers and try to prevent the eviction. Their role should not be overlooked or underestimated – they spent their own time and money in order to support Dale Farm and give its residents hope for a better tomorrow.

Children face upheavals in schooling and access to health services if evicted. Credit: Marcin Derkacz

Despite the evictions and uncertainty, Dale Farm looked surprisingly well-organized. I met a few women sweeping their porches and pottering around their caravans. “We want to live like human beings and the world should see that we are not animals” said one, “We eat, we sleep and we have fun here. It is our place to live so we take care of it,” she continued.

It was hard to disagree. A small investment in Dale Farm could make this place even better and certainly the alleged £18 million which the Council plan to spend on the forced eviction seems to me to be preposterous and absurd. If the worst came to the worst and the Travellers have to leave, this money could be better used to fund developments that would allow the residents at risk to move voluntarily and peacefully to culturally adequate new locations. This solution is dictated by logic and simple good will; however it seems that both are the Achilles’ heel of Basildon Council and its leader Tony Ball.

I left the site in a gloomy mood. Irrespective of the final result there will be no winners at Dale Farm. Traveller life has already been disrupted and it is never going to be the same. Despite the economic crisis, millions of pounds are going to be wasted and the Council is going to lose its credibility and be stigmatised as a heartless violator of human rights. It seems that something went wrong at the initial stage of the negotiation process and every further decision worsens the situation. Unreasonable stubbornness, lack of good will and an inability to reach a compromise have been the main culprits of the conflict. And everyone is a victim here.

This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.