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Gypsies and travellers under continual attack

Today is International Holocaust Memorial Day. But have the lessons of the persecution and discrimination which preceded genocide been learned? Not for travelling people. PETER LAZENBY reports

SHOAH is the Hebrew word for the nazi Holocaust which killed six million Jews.

Less well-known is “Samudaripen.” It is the word used by people from the Roma travelling culture for the Holocaust.

Travelling people were the second-largest group slaughtered by the nazis.

Estimates of the number murdered range from 750,000 to 1.5 million, with the latter figure gaining more credibility in recent years.

How sickening then that in 2020 — the 75th anniversary of the Red Army’s liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp — Britain’s Tory government is planning to step up its own persecution of travelling people.

In the run-up to last year’s general election, Home Secretary Priti Patel announced plans for a “consultation” on giving local authorities and police greater powers to stop travellers setting up camps, and to evict them if they do so.

Cabinet Minister Michael Gove listed cracking down on “illegal traveller incursions” as a priority.

In the weeks before the general election, dozens of Tory candidates shamelessly made “inflammatory and discriminatory statements about Gypsies, Roma and Travellers” as a vote-catcher, promising action against local traveller camps, according to research and campaign group OpenDemocracy.

The modern history of travelling people in Britain is one of discrimination and persecution enshrined in law.

Here are some personal experiences.

In the 1980s I worked for the Yorkshire Evening Post, and my wife was a solicitor in Leeds, sometimes representing travellers.

An extended family of travellers in four caravans set up camp on a piece of disused industrial land east of the city. There was no-one living nearby. They were harming no-one.

Police and council officials made a night-time raid on the camp. The family’s gas cylinders were confiscated on the grounds that “they may have been stolen.”

The raid left the little community without heating and lighting and with no means to cook in a cold November. 

The oldest member of the extended family was the matriarch, a woman of 90. The youngest was a six-month-old baby.

For many years I lived in the town of Guiseley, a suburb of Leeds. Rumours spread that a travelling community was heading for a disused piece of land outside the town.

A public meeting was immediately called. It was chaired by a local Liberal Democrat councillor. More than 100 people turned up, some of whom I knew.

The hatred spouted against travelling people was chilling. One woman said that if the travellers’ children were allowed to attend the local school she would withdraw her own children because she didn’t want them “infested with lice.”

A farmworker said he and his friends would “get out our shotguns” to deal with the travellers.

In another instance, an official site for Irish travellers in Leeds was raided by council officials, security guards and police to remove an extended family, including infants, whose teenage sons were deemed to be “disruptive” even though they did not live on the site. 

It was a huge operation. West Yorkshire Police even mobilised the police helicopter for the eviction.

The family’s caravans were torn from their moorings and dragged from the site. I was threatened with arrest for being there.

Now the Tories plan to ramp up the hatred and persecution even more, using travellers as “other” — a scapegoating of people who simply have a different way of life.

Keith Lomax is a leading human-rights lawyer who represented residents of the Dale Farm travellers’ site in Essex in 2011. 

The site was home to 1,000 travelling people. They owned the land — they’d clubbed together to buy it. But that wasn’t enough for Basildon District Council. 

The council used Green Belt regulations to evict them, despite a spirited resistance from travellers’ supporters and six years of legal action. The eviction involved another huge police operation.

Lomax told the Morning Star: “Gypsies and travellers have long been persecuted, as common land was privatised by people seizing it for themselves. 

“Traditional stopping places became harder to find and travellers found themselves increasingly pitched against the interests of the settled population and land owners. 

“Travellers and their various cultures have been under constant attack. Their persecution has become virtually normalised by the failure of central and local government to enforce their rights and protect them.

“For around two decades, from the late ’60s to the ’80s, councils were required by law to provide sites for Gypsies and travellers. Some councils complied with the law. Many didn’t, and carried on as if the law of the land was irrelevant.   

“When the law was relaxed, removing the requirement to provide sites, the government introduced provisions that were meant to encourage local authorities to positively assist with planning permission so Gypsies and travellers could have their own land on which they could lawfully reside. 

“The reality has been endless rounds of evictions, pushing travelling families back onto the roadside and leaving them with little option other than to trespass somewhere else. Whole groups of people with different cultures are treated as ‘a problem,’ when the relatively simple act of providing transit sites and more permanent sites could resolve most of the so-called ‘problems.’

“Today we inherit the consequences of the unlawfulness of councils across the land. Instead of providing for people who happen to want to live in homes on wheels, councils spend fortunes of public money on persecuting families. 

“The police are called in to move people on, and to protect bailiffs when they are destroying and burning people’s homes and wrecking sites.

“The government is now looking at increasing police powers to enforce against Gypsies and travellers. Interestingly, the police appear to have a more sensible approach: to force local authorities to provide for their accommodation needs along with everyone else. They say police powers are enough, thanks. 

“Over the many years when I acted for Gypsies and travellers faced with eviction, vast sums of money were spent in litigation and bailiffs’ fees while families tried to defend themselves and secure at least a few years of education for their children, and a few years with the same GP practice and hospital provision, and so on. 

“Six years of holding back the eviction from Dale Farm meant a whole primary school education for some children, which was some success. 

“While accusations of anti-semitism are headline material in the media, there’s scant concern for anti-Gypsy behaviour. It seems the government is determined to carry on driving wedges in our society with no expense spared.”

Daniela Abraham is a Roma from Slovakia who as a child suffered constant persecution when she lived there, and was even shot. 

She has lived in Britain for 20 years and is organiser of the recently founded Sinti-Roma Holocaust Memorial Trust.

She says there are an estimated 300,000 Roma living in the UK, but that they no longer travel. They are “settled” — the word used for travelling people who live in ordinary homes.

In November she helped organise a protest against a visit to Britain by the Slovakian neonazi “People’s Party — Our Slovakia.” It was the first time Roma in Britain had mobilised in their own defence.

This year she has been invited to participate in today’s Holocaust Memorial Day commemorations. It is the first invitation to a representative of travelling people since the memorial day began in 2001.

She says that because Britain’s Roma are “settled” and living in houses there is little persecution. They have other problems, such as fear of what will happen to them as Britain leaves the European Union.

But she recognises that other groups, such as Irish Travellers, do face persecution. She is concerned about where persecution of travellers ends.

“Before the nazi era the Roma-Sinti population in Czechoslovakia was 700,000,” she said. “Afterwards there were only 600 came back. It was a complete genocide. Then there were the deportations from Austria, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Belgium.”

In Slovakia Milan Mazurek, an MP for the People’s Party — Our Slovakia, proposed that all Roma-Sinti people be put into “work camps” as a prelude to deporting them to India, from where they came over 600 years ago.

“He says we are anti-social, parasites,” she said. “How can this be, in the 21st century?”

Mazurek was sacked as an MP after being convicted of racism against Roma. But the persecution Daniela Abraham suffered as a child continues — taunts of “dirty Gypsy,” denial of jobs, bullying and victimisation at school and physical attacks on the streets.

“One woman was walking in the streets with her husband and children in Bratislava. Some people were shouting ‘dirty Gypsy’ and ‘Jew slag.’ They attacked her. Her husband saved her. They would have killed her — and she works for the European Parliament.”

But there are positive developments.

“There were Roma who stood up against the nazis, but that is not shown in the media. Now they are fighting back again. Two hundred neonazis demonstrated and there were 1,500 Roma. The press said 400, and they said Roma were being paid to go to the demonstration. They are lying,” she said.

As in Britain, in Slovakia anti-Gypsy racism is encouraged in the media.

Now in Britain there are plans for government legislation which, if enacted, will further persecute travelling people, criminalising threm for trespass.

Martha Spurrier of human-rights advocacy group Liberty said: “The government is looking for feedback on proposals to criminalise trespassing and ‘unauthorised encampments’ — plans which mean Gypsies and travellers could face imprisonment for their way of life. 

“Gypsy and traveller communities are already some of the most persecuted in the UK. Criminalising trespass would make this far worse and act as justification for the discrimination they face.

“The plans also give police powers to ban communities from returning to a specific area for a year — disrupting access to education and healthcare — and to seize property, meaning they could take away Gypsy and traveller homes. 

“The police have said they don’t want these powers and the consultation even acknowledges that the real problem is the lack of authorised sites. 

“But instead of solving this issue, the government is treating an entire community with contempt.”

Daniela Abraham said: “It is not right what they are doing. They are targeting them. This is a democracy and you have the right to live as you want to.”

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