Not too long ago I went to see my host’s land—a lush acre of green tucked down a secluded narrow lane. She pointed out the evergreens they had planted many years ago and remarked on the need to get the hedges trimmed, while I silently marveled at the fact that she cared at all.
Several years ago they were forced to leave their land—land they owned and tended with great care—all because neighbors 100 yards away did not want to look at them. The courts actually went so far as to call them a “visual injury.” Can you imagine? A visual injury? The phrase alone packs a visceral emotional wallop. Could looking at the eat-off-the-floor-kitchen of my host compare with the piles of litter in front of the corner store? Or with days of dripping English weather that can make everything appear grimy? Frankly, I find it disturbing that anyone, let alone a court of law, should be free to call a human being a visual injury. (Yet, some good has come of this blatant racism with the birth of a fiercely loyal and effective advocate!)
Of course, this language and the push to evict Gypsies and Travellers from their land is not a new initiative. It’s actually been around as long as they have been in this country (since the early 16th century). To quote the book I am reading, “…within a short period of time after their arrival, Gypsies became seen as lazy, dirty, parasitic deviants and subject to repressive legislation aimed at expelling, and ultimately, exterminating them.” The punishment for being a Gypsy then was banishment; it doesn’t take much to make the leap to today and understand evictions as just another form of this.
In the 1960s and 70s local authorities did build sites to accommodate Gypsies and Travellers, but even then they were built in terrible places—close to garbage dumps, near industrial sites, etc. They had to be hidden from view from the wider community. According to my host, fences had to be 10 feet high so they couldn’t be seen.
So, banishment, or eviction if you will, has been going on for years and years. Basically, Gypsies and Travellers are in the same situation now as they have always been: they still face evictions from their own land with no place left to go because there are not enough sites, let alone adequate sites. And, when they do purchase their own land they are denied planning permission 90% of the time which basically means they cannot stay on their land. On top of that, I am told that 80% of non-gypsies are granted planning permission—for similar land!
Local authorities are trying to correct this, but even when they have tried to build new sites, they are often met by fierce opposition from members of the wider community. In fact, in three villages authorities were met with so much resistance from local residents that they had to abandon the site planning. So, they are really between a rock and a hard place.
Sadly, it seems the evictions campaign has only become more aggressive over the years, which supports the former Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner’s observation that there is a “growing climate of intolerance” towards the Roma and Travellers. As mentioned above, there is some good to all of this in the formation of powerful organizations like UKAGW and other likeminded groups fighting to spare Gypsies and Travellers further injustices.
Posted By Lynne Engleman (United Kingdom)
Posted Jul 1st, 2014