Gypsies, Travellers and the United Nations at the House of Lords

Fiona Harrington reports

Despite a packed and moving meeting at the House of Lords on May 14, the same House of Lords has refused to hear a legal appeal on behalf of residents at the Dale Farm gypsy site in Kent. The setback has come in the wake of a Press Council ruling which recently rejected the complaints made by the Friends, Families and Travellers group against the Daily Express, which included misrepresentation and prejudice.

With the refusal of the House of Lords hearing the next step is to go to the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, such a case will take time to prepare and it could take up to two years to get a ruling. A long term protection order against eviction must now be sought.
A report by the UN Advisory Group on Forced Evictions (AGFE) was released on Thursday 14 May at the House of Lords meeting, chaired by Lord Avebury, a Liberal Democrat Peer and a strong human rights advocate. Yves Cabannes, who chairs the AGFE, was unable to be present and the report of their fact-finding mission to Britain on the situation of Roma Gypies and Irish Travellers was given by Leticia Osorio, Candy Sheridan and Joseph Jones. Yves Cabannes had previously assured the Dale Farm community that "we have heard that you want to stay and we support you in that."

The report deals with the long-running case of the residents of Dale Farm who have been subjected to constant threats of eviction by Basildon Council as well as suffering from an appalling degree of prejudice from many local residents in Basildon and racist smears by local papers there. The report deals also however with the cases of other Gypsies and Travellers not resident in Dale Farm.

At a virtually packed out meeting we were first shown a powerful and at times harrowing DVD featuring the experiences of people at the Dale Farm site and other locations. People spoke of their experiences of moving from halt to halt constantly being moved on and having to live, literally on the side of the road in caravans and under tarpaulins in conditions no one should have to endure. One young women with pre-maturely born twins, just eight days old, told of how she could not even get on a GP's list as she did not have a permanent address. The tiny babies were lying on the ground, covered with blankets.

Other sites also had very bad conditions. People did the best they could to care for themselves and their families, but it was very hard. They just wanted, as one Irish woman Traveller put it, "to have somewhere proper to live and not be always shifted from place to place, we do our best but we can never please them. They want to keep us in the stone-age and don't want to provide anywhere for us". Her daughter, who is blind, longed to be able to have a guide dog so she could at least get out of the caravan on her own and not always have to be dependent on somebody else; however she could not have a guide-dog as she was 'of no fixed abode.' Neither could she get the help of the Royal National Institute of the Blind to learn Braille. The point was made that almost everybody there was a citizen of this country, they were born here, but were treated as aliens, almost as non-people.

An elderly man said he had travelled all over Britain and had the experience of being thrown off his campsite into the snow of a Scottish winter at five in the morning. He had similar experiences many times "living in constant fear of being moved on, always having to move from place to place, not being served in pubs" he said. These hardships and humiliations are commonplace in the lives of Gypsies and Travellers.

At the Dale Farm site on land owned by the residents themselves where 80 or 90 people live in neat chalets, with a school where their children can learn and a community centre, life is less precarious but still very insecure. Grattan Puxon of the Save Dale Farm Campaign, explained that even were Basildon Council to provide pitches, that would not be acceptable as it would mean the community would be broken up and relocated over four council sites. People want to stay as a community at Dale Farm and are simply asking for retrospective planning permission so they can remain there legally, rather than as is now the case, being in danger of eviction. There were light hearted moments here too, as children were shown playing and two laughing, lively young boys gave us their opinions - "we love it here, we love it here, give us planning permission!"

Lord Avebury, after welcoming the UN representatives, explained that the commission had also looked at the experience of Roma and Travellers in Italy and Eastern Europe. Membership of the EU had not improved their situation at all it seems. He said that all information was going to be fed back to the United Nations. He assured the Dale Farm residents that no evictions could be carried out as long as court hearings were taking place. The House of Lords is soon to rule on their case.

He then invited Leticia Osario to introduce members of the group and to explain the role of the UN group.  She introduced the group as part of the UN Habitat organisation, which is the body responsible for overseeing housing globally. Similar to the ILO's overseeing of labour, for instance.

Beginning the report she explained that they were here to map instances of eviction, they had visited eight sites and had witnessed evictions. Their objectives were to verify and gather evidence and to assess the needs of the people. To identify who were carrying out evictions and on what grounds, and also to see if there were any positive things happening.

Their conclusions were that there was very poor provision of sites, they had seen people living in appalling conditions with no rights despite being citizens of the UK.

In many cases planning permission was refused solely because of prejudice and racial discrimination. Most retrospective planning permission is rejected. Access to land is a difficulty and often the only affordable land is on green sites, but that then is another reason put forward by councils for refusing planning. Gypsies and Travellers are regularly excluded from planning meetings and are not consulted.

A range of recommendations was proposed. i) To ask the House of Lords to set up an 'observatory' to assess and map evictions and to measure progress and to document instances of racism and xenophobia ii) To demand a freeze on evictions. iii) To demand that the government avoid criminalising communities. iv) To formalise all de facto sites giving them formal legal recognition. v) A campaign to raise awareness in the wider population of the problems faced by Gypsies and Travellers.

The finalised report will be published in a month's time and its recommendations presented at Downing Street. Lord Avebury emphasised again that evictions could not at present be carried out since the House of Lords appeal was pending, and people should be confident that they could not legally be put off their land. He corrected the general impression that councils could provide sites, because since the repeal of the Caravan Sites Act of 1968 by the Conservative government, local authorities had a responsibity to allocate land but not to provide sites.

The floor was opened to questions and comments and participants were invited to introduce themselves and mention any groups and organisations they were members of.

Most people present came from Dale Farm, but among the others present there were people from the Indian, Jewish and Somali communities. They had come along to align themselves with and support a marginalised people, which was heartening to hear. A woman from Basildon said she wanted to represent the 'acceptable face of Basildon residents' as she put it. Not everyone there was against the Gypsies and Travellers living nearby.

There was discussion of the bad press suffered by the Dale Farm residents as there was a great deal of prejudice and unpleasantness in reports in the local paper. It was pointed out that the use of uncapitalised letters to spell 'travellers' and 'gypsies' was a ruse employed by papers to escape accusations of racism. That is to say that papers could defend themselves by simply saying that it was only people living the 'traveller' or 'gypsy' way of life that were the subject of their reports and not "real" Travellers and Gypsies! Capitals are legal forms which denote ethnic groups and should be employed as such.

There was discussion of some of the long term needs of people - education for their children, literacy programmes for adults, training in IT skills as well as medical and welfare provision and employment. There was a common theme of the necessity of security and the knowledge that they could not be turned out of their homes, everything else depended on that. Person after person emphasised that they did not want their community broken up. Their families and community spirit were very precious to them. Any accomodation must take account of people's wishes to be together. 'Common sense dictates' it was pointed out, that people wanted to have their own homes, so council allocated land would not be acceptable. In any case the cost of re-settling people on various council sites would be enormous, it made sense and was more cost effective to let people stay where they were.

As to progress that has been made, the increase in support and solidarity was seen as very positive.

After the discussion Grattan Puxon mentioned that a briefing for monitors session was also intended as part of the meeting. As part of that he introduced the idea of a 'human shield' operation should an eviction of Dale Farm be attempted. No eviction can occur in any case without a court injunction, any such attempt would be illegal. Trespass would be met by a human shield consisting of the hundreds of people who had signed up as monitors or to lend their support in any other way.

He pointed out that there were health and safety concerns in any eviction attempt if force were used. The Red Cross would need to be called on in such an event.

But whatever the case they were absolutely determined to stay. In closing the meeting thanks were extended to Joe Jones, secretary of the Gypsy Council, for gaining the involvement of the United Nations. Gratitude was also expressed for the assistance of the local churches in the Basildon area. They promised emergency accomodation should the worst happen. People were reminded that June was designated as 'Traveller, Gypsy and Roma Month.'

It would seem then that recent years have seen a rise in the level of support among the settled community, despite the huge amount of prejudice, overt and unashamed racism and ignorance of the experiences of Travellers and Gypsies that still exists. Dale Farm in particular has grabbed people's attention due to the efforts of the Gypsy Council and the Dale Farm residents themselves. There is a growth in confidence and self worth which bodes well for the future. One would like to be able to draw the conclusion that the days of being 'moved on' and constantly harassed were at last drawing to a close and that indeed may well be the case, however since this meeting, news has come through that the House of Lords has refused to hear the Dale Farm appeal. This is a shocking setback. Furthermore the Press Council also has recently rejected the complaints made by the Friends, Families and Travellers group against the Daily Express, which included misrepresentation and prejudice.

With the refusal of the House of Lords hearing the next step is to go to the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, such a case will take time to prepare and it could take up to two years to get a ruling. A long term protection order against eviction must now be sought.

So the struggle to save Dale Farm, the largest Gypsy and Traveller site in Britain must go on. If Dale Farm is bulldozed, which is the objective of the council, then the outlook for Travelling communities generally is not good. Dale Farm must not be allowed to go under, the vibrant community there will continue to fight on and it is beholden to everybody who upholds the values of human rights and respect for all, to support them and struggle along with them.

21 May 2009

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