Roma activists and Traveller Solidarity Network came together to tell Birmingham trade unionists how legislation and hostility was driving Gypsy, Irish Traveller and Roma communities into oblivion. Roma throughout Europe flee from regular attacks but at best can settle where they will experience less overt brutality and it is shameful that they cannot expect to be genuinely free from hostility and discrimination in all areas of their lives when they settle in the UK.
Similarly, Gypsy and Irish Travellers in the UK have been forced to live a more settled life as legislation effectively criminalises their lifestyle. With a massive reduction in authorised pitches (an estimated shortage of 20,000 pitches), which allow freedom to travel and stop legally, Gypsy and Irish Travellers are forced to settle in one place, only to face the hostility of the local community and evictions from their own land by local authorities. Jenny Clapham of the Traveller Solidarity Network informed the meeting that 90% of planning applications by Travellers are rejected compared to a 20% average rejection rate. Human rights legislation is one tool being used to establish the right to “culturally appropriate housing”, which means that when someone is officially homeless, bricks and mortar must not be the only option offered.
The high profile eviction from Dale Farm has farcically shifted many families just 200m down the road as they genuinely have nowhere to go. As Kathleen McCarthy, from Dale Farm, said in the film shown at the meeting, no one would choose to live in the conditions that those families find themselves in now. “We are just human beings”, she said, not animals and not criminals.
Czech Roma activist Ladislav Balaz, himself in danger in his home country because of his work defending the rights of Roma, echoed this same lament. “We are Roma, we are just human beings”, he said as he spoke of the simple needs of Roma when they arrive fleeing persecution. Czech Republic nationals face “special transitional rules” as an A8 member of the EU, so many Roma are informed that they have no right to remain and no right to housing or any benefit.
Ladislav spoke of the state of permanent fear and intimidation in which the Roma community are living in the Czech Republic, Hungary and elsewhere throughout Europe, including the high-profile mass evictions in Italy and France. We heard of the need for advice, support and solidarity with the Roma community across Europe. Practical help was required and outrage needed to be expressed by the non-Roma community, who had the power to expose what is happening and to stand with Roma to demand equality for all. Our demands, he said, are the same as yours, to demand decent housing, education, lack of discrimination in employment and health. The aim of Europe-Roma is to re-link the Roma communities throughout UK and Europe, to provide a place to turn for all Roma when faced with the harsh reality of choosing the safest place for their family to live.
A harrowing conclusion from the meeting might have been that it was not merely a way of life being destroyed but an attempt to end an existence of entire peoples, effectively forcing a policy of assimilation: live our way, in bricks and mortar, or not at all.
A way forward
To ensure the above does not become a reality actions were agreed. The importance of the Traveller, Roma and Gypsy (TRG) and settled communities working together and in collaboration with each other was noted as a new phenomenon arising out of Dale Farm and formalised in the establishment of the Traveller Solidarity Network.
A call was made to mark Roma Nation Day on Sunday 8 April 2012, in London, or by making contact with the nearest Roma community and seeking to join them to celebrate the day as an act of solidarity. Roma Nation Day events can be found at http://www.romanationday.org.
The meeting was sponsored by Birmingham Unite the Union and Birmingham National Union of Teachers. The Traveller Solidarity Network attended as part of a 25-leg tour, more of which can be found at http://www.travellersolidarity.org.
Ladislav Balaz, Chair, EUROPE-ROMA CZ-UK can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.