Travelers and the lure of an easy stereotype…

gypsy man

The news here has been full of lurid stories about Gypsies abducting little blond girls. Firstly a child found in Greece, later another in Dublin.

In neither case did we know the full facts but this has not stopped the worlds media from giving these two stories huge attention. In the Greek case they are now stalking a potential biological mother in Bulgaria, who seems to have given away her child as she was not able to support her. It already begins to look as though this story is about poverty, not about Gypsies. Within poor communities, children have always been passed around as a survival strategy so it should not be even slightly surprising.

Next we discovered that the blond kids removed by police from a Roma family in Dublin were returned to their parents after DNA tests. They were removed because they had blond hair.

So why all the hysterical attention, we have to ask?

The idea of an abducted child (even though we do not yet know whether either of these kids have actually been abducted) is an incredibly emotive issue- one that plugs in to our deepest fears as parents. This, I think, is the point. Our deepest fears. 

The swarthy outcasts who are always on the prowl- stealing the lead from our churches, the washing from our lines and our children from their beds. Hiding it all behind a quick wit and a muttered curse.

A few weeks ago there was one of those typical facebook stories handed round, suggesting that Gypsies had been seen in a particular locality watching and waiting for people to go to work so they could break into houses. Everyone was told to on their guard. There was then a line of concerned comments and bits of vitriol. True or not (and lets face it, probably not) we instinctively react to these stories as to a threat that ‘the bogeyman is coming to get you’ when we were children.

no gypsies sign

Here is my conviction; watch for the easy stereotype– particularly when aimed at a marginalised group.

It will almost certainly do damage.

Let us remember that hundreds of thousands of Roma people died in the Nazi death camps.

Let us remember too that traveling folk over the past 30-40 years in the UK have found that their lifestyles have almost been entirely forced right out onto the margins- both in terms of physical location, but also by the way society views them. This became a worry for me- I have met very few Gypsy folk- just a few contacts in my years as a social worker.

We hear stories of violence, bare knuckle fighting, weird weddings with girls dressed up like Disney dolls. We hear no stories of kindness, family, love, people who literally go the extra mile. How can we appreciate the value of the other unless we seek first to understand?

Unless we actually MEET people and share real lives?

This book might be a good place to start;

no place to call home

This is what the author has to say about her book;

My book starts with the story of the site clearance of Dale Farm, but it also goes much further afield, as well as back in history. It goes into the heat of the battle at Dale Farm – but I also examine the bitter conflict at Meriden, in the Midlands, where a small number of Romani Gypsy families also moved onto a field without planning permission, and then became embroiled in a very public dispute with some local residents.

I also travelled to Glasgow Govanhill to talk both to members of the settled community, and relatively newly arrived Roma, about life in the area and how the communities are learning to integrate, as well as travelling to both the Stow and the Appleby horse fairs to visit Gypsies and Travellers in trading and holiday mode. I went to Darlington in the North- East to visit the much respected sherar rom, elder Billy Welch, who organises Appleby Fair and has big dreams about getting out the Gypsy and Traveller vote, and to the North-West to talk to the devastated family of Johnny Delaney, a teenager from an Irish Traveller background who was kicked to death for being ‘a Gypsy’ ten years ago. I travelled down to Bristol to talk to veteran New Traveller Tony Thomson about life on the road in the 1980s, and being caught up the vicious policies of the Conservative government at that time. I also journeyed into East Anglia, where New Travellers, Irish Travellers and English Gypsies have made homes, and north of London, to Luton, to meet some of the destitute Romanian Roma who have created a vibrant community in the heart of England with the help of an inspirational Church of England priest named Martin Burrell. I was also invited to a convention in North Yorkshire by the Gypsy evangelical church, Light and Life, which is growing at an exponential rate and whose influence on nomadic cultures in the UK cannot be underestimated.

I could have travelled more – to Rathkeale, where English–Irish Travellers go for weddings, funerals and to have the graves of their ‘dear dead’ blessed once a year, or to Central and Eastern Europe, where most of the world’s Roma population (and the smaller population of Sinti and other nomadic groups) live. But I chose to concentrate on the experience of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers living in the UK – to go deep, rather than wide. But it was striking that many of those I interviewed would phone me from abroad, or from hundreds of miles away from their actual home, completely comfortable having travelled milto find work – as long as they were with family – or were earning money to keep their family.

The other way that we can encounter the other is through their art- their stories, songs, poems, paintings. I loved this little clip, from a Roma Cultural Festival in Portugal. Here we see real people full of life and pride in who they are, where they have traveled from…

Dale Farm a year on- a case study in social exclusion…


12 months ago, the above site was big news in Britain. Dale Farm, neat Basildon had been the site of decades of legal battles over the use of land owned by Travelling people from  a Romany background. It formed a tight well organised community of families from an ethnic group of people whose traditional way of life has been increasingly squeezed within UK society.

The local Basildon council spent £7.2 million evicting families from the empty half of the site above. They say they did it to uphold planning laws, and in response to wider community concerns about criminality, noise and unhygienic conditions.

Today a Parliamentary report has been made public investigating the effects of the traumatic eviction. This from the Guardian;

Scores of Travellers removed from the Dale Farm site near Basildon in Essex 12 months ago have suffered mental or physical illness after being forced to live in “squalor” following the controversial eviction, according to a report by MPs.

It said: “The delegation found that many of the residents are highly vulnerable and have serious conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, dementia, osteoporosis, Crohn’s disease, bowel cancer, Down’s syndrome etc.

“Members of the Red Cross again stated their continued concerns regarding the physical and mental health of the Travellers, lack of sanitation and the possible health threats posed by the evicted site.”

Issues like this divide opinion. For some, the Travellers had it coming to them. Their lifestyle is unsustainable, morally bankrupt and an insult to hard working people. The conditions that they find themselves are due to choices they have made. Such opinions would usually be accompanied by stories of some encounter with a travelling group squatting in filth on a roadside verge, or doing some poor tarmac work on the driveway of a pensioner.

There is another story here however- a cautionary tale of what happens to marginalised groups in the face of prejudice, stigma and scape goating.  This kind of poverty is brutal, and we should not be surprised that it also brutalises.

Neither should we be surprised that such marginalisation and social exclusions results in poor mental and physical health.

Dale Farm is a stain on who we are and I hope may yet be the point when things turn for the better for travelling folk in the country. Perhaps the point at which we start to seek to understand the other rather than condemn them for not being like us.

I posted this previously, as a reminder of the rich traditions of the Romany people in these islands;


Dale Farm..

I watched Panorama tonight- telling the story of the mass eviction of a community of Travelling families from the site at Dale Farm.

If you are unaware of the background to this story, it involved the establishment of a settlement on privately owned land- leading to around 800 travelling people setting up permanent living arrangements- caravans, mobile homes. However, the site was established without planning permission, in the shadow of a sleepy affluent English village. Ten years of negotiations, court battles and exchanges of vitriol and hate followed.

On the one side, the outraged locals, who pointed to high crime rates, threats of violence and unruly behaviour. These folk have the rule of law on their side- and the local County Council. On the other side are travelling folk, whose leadership (if the Panorama film is to believed) is provided by a number of matriarchs. The Travellers are supported by an assortment of activists, from all ages and works of life.

It ended predictably- riot shields, rocks hurled at police, diggers smashing barricades. The Travellers lost their homes and were forced back out onto the road.

Stories like this polarise us too. Power wielded against the marginalised in the name of the rule of law will always feel (to me) WRONG.  But neither can we blame those whose job it was to enforce the will of the court- who had to face their own trial of violence.

The issues for me are much longer standing. We have well over a thousand years history of regarding Tinkers/Gypsies/Romanies/Travellers as dangerous thieving, untrustworthy and less than human. There is absolutely no doubt that this has resulted in prejudice and even direct persecution.

That is not to say that there is no criminality within the Travelling community- but they follow a way of life that has been criminalised.

One of the most striking aspects of the Dale Farm situation is that Travellers have so few alternatives to illegal sites. There used to be law on the statute which obligated each and every local authority to provide designated travelling sites. These sites (where they remain) are not without their problems- but do at least offer safe  places for families to settle for a while, and receive health and education. However, this law was repealed in 2004- by the then Conservative government, responding to another middle England tabloid backlash against New Age Travellers.

Many councils closed their sites.

The end result is that at any time, there are estimated to be around 3500 caravans with no legal place to stop. The options they face are to abandon their way of life and move into social housing (which many have done) or continue with a life that constantly skirts the edge of legality.

As a matter of interest to those of you from a particular Christian background that there has been a charismatic revival sweeping through the Travelling community over the last few years. There is more about this in this book.

As revealed in the Panorama programme, these communities are not without their problems- but nevertheless are communities characterised by very strong social norms, and sense of identity.

Something to celebrate perhaps, rather than to try to squash?