Friday, 24 September 2010

Travelling community comes under pressure in Europe

Once again it would seem anti-traveller sentiment is gathering momentum across Europe, with President Nicolas Sarkozy leading the way with his deportation of the Roma to Romania and Bulgaria.
The President has moved to dismantle 300 illegal camps and squats, claiming they are "sources of illegal trafficking, of profoundly shocking living standards, of exploitation of children for begging, of prostitution and crime".
A recently a leaked memo from the French interior ministry indicated there may have been deliberate targeting of the Roma in contravention of the French constitution and international law.
Some 5,000 Roma (gypsies) have so far been deported this year back to Romania and Bulgaria.
The French government reaction came after violence flared in July between police and Roma in the Loire Valley town of Saint Aignan.
There has been shock amongst many of the population in France and internationally at the severe actions taken by the President, though support from others. Some 100,000 people recently rallied against the policy.
Internationally, EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding has also warned France of the possibility that infringement proceedings for discriminatory application of the Free Movement Directive may be launched. "I personally have been appalled by a situation which gave the impression that people are being removed from a member state of the European Union just because they belong to a certain ethnic minority. This is a situation I had thought Europe would not have to witness again after the Second World War." said Ms Reding.
There have though also been robust actions taken in Italy to demolish travelling community camps.
Hostility to the travelling community in Britain and Ireland has been more muted. The most open hostility came last year when 115 Romanian Roma were driven from Belfast.
Yvonne McNamara, director of the Irish Traveller Movement, likens the upcoming eviction of Britain’s biggest camp, Dale Farm in Essex to actions taken in other parts of Europe. “No provision has been put in place for the families being evicted from the area,” said Ms McNamara.
Roma and Irish Travellers are protected by the Race Relations Act 1976 in Britain, yet this does not stop discrimination of an open and institutional nature being widely practiced against this minority. In its worst form, this resulted in the murder of 15-year old Irish Traveller boy Johnny Delaney in Ellesmere Port in 2003.
Traveller children regularly experience discrimination at school with the ITM reporting nine out of ten children experiencing racial abuse, while nearly a third have been bullied or physically attacked.
The story of Irish Traveller Kathleen Stoke’s youngest son is instructive. All four of her children were bullied at school. Her youngest son fought back and was expelled. “When he went to another school, my second eldest advised him not to say that he was a traveller,” said Kathleen, who lives in Dagenham. “He hasn’t, so now he is just seen as being Irish and is not bullied.”
Chester based GP, Joseph O’Neill has told of the worst health conditions that exist among the travelling community with asthma, bronchitis and chest pain all more commonplace. In the area of mental health, self reported mental illness was 19 per cent compared to nine per cent in the general population. The travelling community has the highest level of maternal deaths among ethnic minority groups, with a miscarriage rate of 29 per cent compared to 16 per cent for the general population.
The worse health conditions no doubt contribute to a life expectancy that is 10 years less than for the settled population.
The major touchstone subject that causes most animosity regarding the travelling community in Britain is lack of site provision.
The level of opposition to traveller encampments struck home recently when nine acres of agricultural land in Essex was bought by 16 local householders for £180,000. Agricultural land costs on average around £5,000 an acre, so in this case the locals were so concerned about the possibility of travellers moving in that they paid four times the going rate to stop that eventuality. The Essex example is not unique.
The vociferous opposition to travellers moving into an area, no doubt has much to do with the hysteria whipped up in the media. The image of people who create a mess wherever they go and commit crime does not make them popular.
The reality is usually somewhat different. It is ironic that the very qualities that the most vitriolic newspapers like the Daily Mail and Daily Express claim to uphold are most prevalent in the travelling community. Most gypsies and travellers marry at a young age. They have stable relationships, with teenage pregnancy outside marriage is rare. Family life is sacrosanct.
That said maybe the travelling community and their advocates need to do more to break down some of the negative stereotypes that cause such blatant racial hostility.
One aspect that seems to cause particular resentment is the creation of unauthorised sites on land owned by travellers. This involves a piece of land being bought ostensibly to keep horses. Electricity and water supplies come in for the animals. Then overnight caravans move in. Application is made for retrospective planning permission and a site has been created. As evidenced in a recent Parliamentary debate, this type of development is creating real friction between the travelling and settled communities across the country.
The travelling community ofcourse claim this only happens due to lack of site provision.
The lack of provision has been contentuous ever since 1994 when the Conservative Government repealed the Caravans Act 1968 which put a statutory obligation on local authorities to provide sites. As a result, travellers was put into a state of perpetual motion, continually being moved on from one place to another.
The last Labour Government did move to address the issue, pushing local authorities to identify areas under the regional spatial strategy that could be used for sites. The government then provided a fund to develop the sites.
The Coalition Government has done away with this strategy, returning in main to the public order approach. The one sop is offering some financial incentives to local authorities to provide sites There is a clear hostility across Europe to the travelling community, often born out of ignorance. Developments in France and elsewhere indicate a further step backwards toward intolerance toward this much maligned minority.

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