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Travellers

Salman Shaheen

 

council evictions create havoc on travellers sitesImagine a desolate landscape, a wasteland forgotten by civilisation, strewn with debris; the flotsam and jetsam that some great chaotic cataclysm has left behind, and you will begin to paint a picture of Englandís green and pleasant fields as they have been left after the travellers have been evicted. Perhaps then we can understand why Conservative leader Michael Howard has begun an attack on Britainís traveller communities, and why Cambridgeshire councillors are planning an eviction of the Cottenham site, which has sparked the possibility of as many as 20,000 gypsy families descending on the region in protest.

 

But look a little closer, and we can begin to see through the vicious lies, damn lies and statistics that the right-wing media and the Tory propagandists have been espousing in order to demonise traveller communities. The picture we have painted is not of the mess left behind by a bunch of unwashed, anti-social squatters, but the destruction wrought by the councilís recent forced eviction of the Paines Lane travellersí site. Whilst some local residents have been quick to blame the travellers for the chaos, it was in fact created by the councilís own hand, in an effort to prevent the travellers returning to the fields they once called home. The access track barricaded, the fields turned into a wasteland, bricks, rubble and fuel canisters strewn about the churned up landscape and a single chair, sitting alone amidst this desolate scene; all for the destruction of the lifestyle of one group of people by an intolerant society. This is not emotive writing, this is descriptive.

 

The travellers at Paines Lane may be long gone, but around the country many other sites are facing eviction. June 10th is the date set for the eviction of the Cottenham site in Cambridgeshire, and talks are underway amongst council circles as to whether force will be used if the families refuse to move. Protests have been promised amongst the traveller communities, and as many as 20,000 families from around the country may be expected to arrive in the area in an effort of solidarity with the threatened Cottenham travellers. Roger Slattery of the Gypsy Council at Smithy Fen suggested that protests may include blocking off the A14, but said that they could take place anywhere and at any time.

 

Cottenham is not an isolated case, and traveller families all over Britain are constantly threatened by eviction. But why is there so much hostility towards gypsies? The hatred directed towards gypsies did not die with the destruction of Hitlerís Nazi regime, but lives on amongst the British media and political parties, with The Sun (not to be confused with the Socialist Unity Network!) recently coming out with the overtly racist headline ĎStamp on the campsí. The media would like to have us believe that travellers are criminals, squatters, tax (and soap) dodgers who refuse to work and sponge off the state. Sounds familiar doesnít it? Whatís that? Who said asylum seekers? But just as a quick glance at the statistics published by the Commission for Racial Equality can dispel the myths the tabloid press create about asylum seekers, so too can we see that their portrait of traveller communities is little more than lies intended to whip up resentment and popular hostility. This is nothing short of legitimised racism.

 

I recently visited traveller sites, with Cambridge Indymedia, at Woodside and Hamlet Hill, along with the evicted site at Paines Lane where we recorded the devastation. The travellers that we met either owned or rented their land, were friendly, welcoming and their sites were clean and tidy. Most of them were employed and were tax payers. The Roma at Woodside said that they liked to travel, but wanted to have a base where they could return to. They were forced to travel far more than they wanted to because of constant evictions, which forced them not only from their homes, but from their work and from receiving health care. An important distinction, which is often not made by the media, is between the different types of travellers. The Roma Gypsies at Woodside were quick to distinguish themselves from the Irish travellers, who we met at Hamlet Hill, and from the New Age travellers, a more modern urban rejectionist movement infused with hippy and punk culture. However despite these distinctions, those at Woodside, who wished to remain anonymous, were clear that all travellers, just like asylum seekers, were facing encroaches on their human rights. The Roma said that travelling was in their blood. To force them into a home was to deny them the right to be who they are, to deny them their human rights.

 

And it is this denial of human rights that Conservative leader Michael Howard is after. Howard began his assault on travellers when, as Home Secretary, he passed the 1994 Criminal Justice Act, preventing vehicles resting on the sides of highways, and removing the obligation of councils to provide caravan sites for travellers. The resulting closure of caravan sites left travellers with far fewer legal places to stay, and forced some into squatting on private land. Now Howard wants to take it one step further, with an attack on the Human Rights Act, in order to facilitate the eviction of travellers living on land that they own, but on which they have retrospectively applied for planning permission for their caravans. In an advert in the Independent on March 20th Howard claims: ď"If you want to build a new home you have to get planning permission first. But if you are a traveller, you can bend planning law - building where you like, thanks to the Human Rights Act."

 

Forcing travellers into houses is an abuse of their human rights. Since the passing of the Criminal Justice Act over 600 caravan sites have been closed. If councils and the government want to encourage travellers not to squat on private land, then it is their responsibility to provide more legal sites on which they can live. This is the only way to relieve the tensions that are mounting in sites such as Cottenham. The plight of asylum seekers is one that the left has commendably taken up. The left must now take up the plight of travellers, in a show of solidarity and a commitment to respect and uphold the human rights of all victimised minorities. We must dispel the illusions created by the right-wing press, support anti-eviction protests such as the forthcoming ones in Cambridgeshire, and make firm policy commitments towards reversing the damage done by Michael Howard and the Criminal Justice Act. Let us help clean up Britainís wasteland.

 

 

March 2005

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