Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
According to the 2011 Census, the number of Gypsy/Traveller/Irish Traveller is 63,200 (0.1 per cent). However, the total population of Roma (a category not used in the Census) and Travellers in the UK is estimated to be at least 200,000 – a reflection in part of obstacles to their participation in official data collection. Estimates have ranged from 120,000 (the Traveller Movement) to 150,000 – 300,000 (the Council of Europe), in part a reflection of different approaches and definitions used.
There are several different communities and ethnic groups. The traditional groups include the UK Irish Travellers, Scots Travellers (Nachins), Welsh Gypsies (Kale) and English Gypsies (Romanichals). Irish Travellers are in Northern Ireland and England. Some members of the traditional travelling communities now live in static homes. Subsequent generations have grown up in this setting, although they can still face discrimination on account of their heritage.
More recently, from the 1990s and following the accession of a number of Eastern European states to the European Union in the 2000s, many Roma have left for the UK to escape poverty and discrimination in their home countries.
There are records of Irish Travellers in England in the twelfth century. Laws were passed against them in the fifteenth century. Roma are first recorded as ‘Egyptians’ in England in 1505 but they may have already been there for some time. The Egyptians Act of 1530 banned Gypsies from England. If they did not leave the country their property would be confiscated. In 1554 this was amended to allow Gypsies to stay if they gave up their nomadic lifestyle. If they refused, they would be executed. The earliest known written example of the Romany language with an English translation dates from 1547. This was followed by over 100 Romany words and their English translation in The Winchester Confessions 1615-16, depositions recorded by the Winchester House of Corrections. Gypsies and Travellers were banned from Scotland on pain of death in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Indo-European origin of the Gypsies, or counterfeit Egyptians as they were sometimes called, was recognized in the eighteenth century. Quaker author John Hoyland showed in his book The Gypsies, published in 1816, that the Roma were heavily discriminated against in Britain. Travellers were included in the 1891 Census. Many performed in travelling shows and some were photographers. The Sussex police kept a detailed record of Gypsy activities from 1898 to 1926.
Nomadic Gypsies and Travellers travelled more in the spring, summer and autumn months when they could get seasonal agricultural work and provide other services to rural communities. They had traditional stopping places on the edges of large towns and cities for the winter. Settled Roma had bought land for their caravans close to cities to work in industry. After the Second World War mechanization in agriculture and the more intensive use of the land forced more nomadic families to marginal land in and around urban areas. The 1960 Caravan Sites Act was directed against private permanent caravan sites, such as those of the Roma.
Local councils were obliged by the 1968 Caravan Sites Act to allocate sites for the Gypsies and Travellers in their area and it became a criminal offence for the travelling community to live on unauthorized sites. This encouraged local authorities to move Travellers on in order to reduce their liability. Conditions attached to the sites they provided included a ban on keeping animals or trading, thus destroying the traditional Traveller way of life and source of income. More sites were set up when central government provided grants for this purpose in 1980. However, in the 1980s the greater numbers of New Age Travellers produced a backlash of opinion in the general public, which resulted in the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. This removed the councils’ duty to provide sites, allowed them to dismantle existing sites, and also gave the police greater powers to impound vehicles and evict people. Gypsies and Travellers were advised to buy land but the majority of their planning applications were rejected.
Lobbying and legal challenges from the Traveller community resulted in central government guidance in 1998 requiring a more sensitive approach from the authorities regarding unauthorized camp sites. Further guidance was issued in 2004 following consultation with Traveller representatives. The 2004 Housing Act required local authorities to adopt a strategy for providing sites for Travellers and Gypsies.
This was, however, watered down by the 2016 Housing and Planning Act which replaced it with a more general duty to assess the need for caravan sites as part of a broader assessment of mainstream housing requirements. This change was preceded by another initiative which is proving to have very negative consequences. In the 2015 Planning Policy for Traveller Sites, the definition of ‘Gypsies’ and ‘Travellers’ was changed, excluding those who have stopped travelling permanently. By 2019, this change had led to a 75 per cent decrease in the number of sites assessed as necessary by local planning authorities; this figure was based on research conducted in a representative sample of 20 randomly selected local planning authorities. Romany Gypsies were recognized as a distinct ethnic group under the 1976 Race Relations Act. Irish Travellers were accorded this status in 2000.
More recently, the communities have been targeted by right-wing political groups. The British National Party promised to evict Travellers in its 2004 local election campaign, and there have been racist attacks on camp sites.
While some improvements to the legal protections of these communities were put in place – the Security of Tenure Bill for Gypsies and Travellers on local authority camp sites was introduced to Parliament in July 2006, and legal reform to give Gypsies and Travellers equal opportunities in Scotland was introduced in 2005 – their situation has remained precarious. In May 2007, families of Travellers lost their High Court case, over plans to move them from their East London site, to make way for the 2012 Olympic village. Some of the families had lived in the area for over two decades. The judge in the case ruled that the Travellers had not had their human rights breached by the decision to move them to new sites elsewhere in London.
Another high-profile incident occurred in October 2011 at Dale Farm, where around 80 families settled without authorization within an established Traveller community were forcibly evicted.
Significant numbers of Roma have migrated to the UK from the 1990s onwards, following the fall of Communism, with others arriving after the accession of various Central and Eastern European countries to the EU in 2004 and 2007.
Contrary to some presentations in the media, the majority of Gypsies and Travellers live in permanent housing: 76 per cent, according to the 2011 Census. However, while the majority of the Traveller community live on authorized camp sites, some are based on public or private land, often with little access to basic services. According to the 2017 national caravan count, 16 per cent of Gypsy and Traveller caravans were in unauthorized locations – largely as a result of the lack of authorized sites. This situation, as in the case of the 2011 Dale Farm evictions, can result in tensions between Travellers and surrounding communities as well as local authorities, which argue that these settlements are in violation of planning law and therefore illegal. However, Travellers’ advocates point out that a lack of secure land effectively renders many communities homeless and at constant risk of eviction. The facilities at many sites are inadequate with the result that the Gypsy and Traveller community suffers from poor health. According to the British Medical Association, the community has the lowest life expectancy and highest child mortality rates in the UK. Ofsted has reported low levels of educational achievement and high rates of illiteracy among Traveller children on account of disrupted education and bullying from other children at school.
The lack of authorized sites has been made worse by the 2015 Planning Policy for Traveller Sites, whereby the definition of ‘Gypsies’ and ‘Travellers’ was changed. This excludes those who have stopped travelling permanently. By 2019, this change had led to a 75 per cent decrease in the number of sites assessed as necessary by local planning authorities. The figure was arrived at by studying a representative sample of 20 randomly selected local planning authorities. Only eight authorities sought to meet the needs of Gypsies and Travellers who did not meet the definition contained in the Planning Policy – resulting as the researchers said in a kind of ‘postcode lottery’. Key groups that are left out include the elderly, persons with disabilities and those with serious health conditions, who are no longer travelling but naturally wish to remain within their own communities. The lack of authorised sites also makes it harder for Gypsies and Travellers to continue travelling in order to prove their status.
Despite broader shifts within the UK on how minority communities are presented, racism against Roma and Travellers remains entrenched, with a 2017 report by the Traveller Movement describing it as ‘the last acceptable racism’. This research found that almost 77 per cent of surveyed Travellers had been the targets of hate speech or hate crime, including discrimination in education and employment, with many as a result choosing to hide their ethnicity.
These inequalities are evident in social disparities across a range of areas. In educational attainment, for example, just 18 per cent of students from Irish Traveller backgrounds and 9 per cent from Roma and Gypsy backgrounds achieved five or more A* – C GCSEs in 2016, compared to 57 per cent of the population as a whole. Unemployment levels, too, are the highest of any ethnic group among Gypsies and Irish Travellers. They also are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system.
Updated October 2020
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