When a community’s culture clashes with their legal rights, who should compromise?

Public space has never been such a contested issue. As the economy fails and governments flounder, stories of occupations, protests and riots have dominated the news. But for millions of Romani Gypsies and Irish Travellers around the world, occupying open space is a way of life. The forced eviction of the illegal UK Dale Farm site may have grabbed headlines in recent months, but the Traveller's dilemma is an ongoing global problem. When a community’s culture clashes with their legal rights, who should compromise?

Dale Farm looks like a bomb has hit it. As we pull up to the dirt road at the front of this site, which in recent months has become the frontline of conflict between Irish Travellers and Basildon Council, an uncomfortable tension hangs in the air. Today, TV vans line the road and newspaper reporters and freelance journalists stand around chatting to activists and residents. The conversation is light and jovial but beyond the bustle, darkness lurks.

Less than a month ago, around 400 residents of this once 1000-strong community were forcibly evicted for illegally living on green belt land – areas of countryside around UK cities ring-fenced to control urban sprawl. Although forty Romani Gypsy families were granted planning permission to live on Oak Lane, the land next to Dale Farm, between 1992 and 1996, the Irish Travellers who bought the neighbouring scrap yard in 2001, were not granted planning permission to live on it.

After more than ten years of legal battles, Basildon council were authorised by the high court to remove the Travellers on 19 October. At least 100 riot police entered the site, two people were tasered, homes were dug up and moved on or placed in storage (at a cost the Travellers must cover), and Basildon Council racked up an official bill of £18 million (although many estimate it’s more like £20 million by now).

The fruit of all that labour is this battlefield before us. There are huge trenches where homes used to be, and a grid of massive bund walls – made loosely with soil and scrap – make it impossible for residents of legal plots to access their properties. Rallying cries like ‘Resist’, ‘Home’, and ‘If not a scrap yard, then where?’ are scrawled across fences that still stand. A hand-painted signpost – that facetiously points to ‘Gaza’, ‘Tripoli’ and other infamous war zones – is marooned on a heap of rubble. The residents that have planning permission to remain here permanently must live among this detritus. Children are dodging puddles and rats. It’s a pretty apocalyptic scene.

But how did it come to this? Is this mess the fallout of a legal battle, or the inability for two societies to live side by side? Is tension, protest and forced eviction the only possible outcome when one community’s culture and values clash with how society defines our legal rights? And who, if anyone, should compromise? This much is sure; there are no solutions in this mud.

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Romani Gypsies and Irish Travellers are two separate ethnic minorities. “But we’ve been thrown together by qualities that, from a distance, look the same,” says Romani rights activist, professor and historian Ian Hancock, now based at the University of Austin, Texas. As Director of Romani Studies, Hancock is responsible for the Romani Archives and Documentation Center – the largest repository of authentic Romani materials in the world. Like many minority group activists before him, he is undertaking the arduous task of rewriting the Romani canon and rescuing it from prejudice and myth.

“It’s not just for Romani people, it’s for everybody. My primary mission is to educate not only our own people, but the non-Romani world as well. Because the so-called ‘Gypsy image’ is much better known than the reality… We lost our own history centuries ago,” says Hancock, adding that illiteracy and persecution have been to blame. “So we’ve never been able to tell outsiders who we are or where we came from. That’s why we got called Egyptians [shortened to ‘Gypsy’]. We’re not from Egypt! But that was some exotic place across the Mediterranean and the name stuck.”

Romani Gypsies actually descend from India, and it’s likely they emigrated west in the eleventh century due to war and conflict. They have lived in Europe and the United States ever since, with an international population of about 12 million. “There are more Romanis in Europe than Swedes or Danes or Macedonians,” says Hancock. “We’re in every country, how European can you get? Yet our language, culture and bloodline is not European. It’s bizarre.”

The origins of Irish Travellers are equally complex. In her book Irish Travellers: Racism and the Politics of Culture, Professor Jane Helleiner suggests that no single event marks the emergence of a nomadic population in Ireland. “Travellers in Ireland have been constructed, and have constructed themselves, as an indigenous minority,” writes Helleiner. “The origin account that emerged in the fifties portrayed Irish Travellers as the descendants of peasants forced into landlessness and mobility by the evictions and famines suffered by the Irish during the centuries of British domination… But activists like Nan Joyce have pointed to earlier theories that trace Traveller origins to a much older, pre-colonial Ireland.”

Whatever their disparate roots, both Irish Travellers and Romani Gypsies were legally recognised as distinct ethnic groups in the UK by the amended Race Relations Act (2000). But ignorance still blurs their image in the public eye. “People define ‘Gypsy’ as anybody with a nomadic way of life,” says Hancock, “and that’s just pure ignorance. We’re not defined by horses and wagons and stealing chickens and babies. Some of us are professors, lawyers and film actors… Nomadism as a social structure has to do with following cattle, crops and work. But the movement of Romanis in history has been forced, and those that have been moved on have had to adapt to making a living on the road. So things like mending or telling fortunes were popular because you didn’t need heavy equipment.”

Although many Gypsies and Travellers work in similar ways today – repairing houses and roads instead of pots and pans, and trading cars instead of horses – the travelling image has been romanticised. “People think it’s some kind of genetic thing,” says Hancock, “that we have to wander. ‘It’s the Gypsy in my soul!’ But that’s all about control of identity. If you’re not educated, a stereotype can get out of hand, it takes on a life of its own.”

There are Gypsies and Travellers that do still travel from site to site, or fair to fair, but it’s often a route that has been in their family for centuries, and many Gypsies and Travellers are looking for a place to base themselves permanently. But it’s not going to be in bricks-and-mortar accommodation. “It’s like putting us in prison,” says David Sheridan, who has lived at Dale Farm with his wife Michelle and four children since 2002. “My sister is travelling at the moment and said we could stay in her chalet here, but we don’t want to! It’s too claustrophobic!”

People flow in and out of the Sheridans’ caravan all day. Their kids play safely outside. Michelle’s elderly, incapacitated mother lives next door and they are free from the abuse – “stones, bullets, names” – they face in the non-Traveller world. You can see why they don’t want to leave. “We’re not just family here,” says Michelle, “we’re carers and friends. It’s a community. One man used to live with his fourteen grandchildren, now he has no one.”

Most of the Travellers at Dale Farm stated they would have left peacefully if a suitable site was provided for them. Basildon council offered the Travellers houses, but the community didn’t view that as a resolution. Shanterlena Knowles of the Travellers’ Times – a UK magazine for Gypsies and Travellers – is adamant that Travellers have a right to live in caravans like they have done for centuries. “If the council expect Gypsies and Travellers just to go into houses, it’s not gonna happen,” she says, with frustration. “It’s a culture that needs to be cherished and valued and I don’t think it’s fair to say that they should all be moved into bricks and mortar, because Travellers find that kind of living unacceptable, and they can’t relate to it.”

Indeed, there is no law stopping people living in caravans if they own or rent the land where they are based and have planning permission. The problem is twofold: for one, many of the 300,000 Romani Gypsies and Irish Travellers living in the UK have low incomes and, through lack of education and illiteracy, find it difficult to secure loans to buy land; then, if and when land is secured legally, gaining planning permission becomes a battle of its own.

The Criminal Justice and Public Order Act (1994) may have repealed the duty imposed on Local Authorities to provide authorised sites for Gypsies and Travellers, but Communities and Local Government Minister Andrew Stunell insists they are committed to finding solutions. “The New Homes Bonus and £60 million of site grants will support councils to build and plan new official sites,” says Stunell. “We will also give law-abiding Travellers better protection against eviction and the same rights and responsibilities as residents on other mobile home sites.”

According to the EU Commission for Racial Equality, however, ninety per cent of planning applications made by Gypsies and Travellers are refused (compared with twenty per cent made by non-Gypsies and non-Travellers). Objectors say those stats are disingenuous, as they don’t compare like-for-like land; if Gypsies and Travellers are applying for land that is already green belt, with no developments allowed, a refusal should come as no surprise. But, as Timothy Jones, a planning and environment barrister at No5 Chambers, pointed out in The Guardian recently, there are cases where land is taken out of the green belt to allow for the development of housing. Oak Lane is an example of one such compromise. The issue with Dale Farm, says Basildon Council, is its size. “The applications for Dale Farm were turned down at planning committee due to various highways and access issues,” states their website. “A Traveller site of eighty-five plots goes against all national guidelines for size of sites, which suggests they should not be more than twelve or fifteen plots. There is not the infrastructure in the immediate area of Crays Hill for a site as big as Oak Lane and Dale Farm combined.”

When Gypsies and Travellers do achieve planning permission for a site, however, they are often met with violent opposition from local, settled residents. As the inhabitants of Dale Farm point out, many homeowners complain that a site nearby reduces the market value of their property. But, like all pockets of society, any anti-social behaviour on the Travellers’ part usually stems from a minority. “There’s criminal activity in every community,” says Joseph G. Jones of the Thames Valley Gypsy Council. “I know a lot of Irish Travellers and generally speaking they work hard, they’re close to their families and they have a lot of respect for each other… People just fear what they don’t understand.”

In a report called Guidance on Managing Anti-Social Behaviour Related to Gypsies and Travellers released by the Department of Communities and Local Government last year, poor waste management, untaxed vehicles, straying livestock, noise pollution and hate crimes (of which Gypsies and Travellers are perpetrators as well as victims) were some of the main issues flagged up. Ian Hancock believes a lack of integration may fuel some of these problems. But minority groups have historically self-segregated. “I’m very much in favour of integration,” says Hancock, referring specifically to the Romani population, “but I’m very opposed to assimilation. And I think it’s quite possible to be a loyal British subject and a Romani at the same time. Muslims can handle it; orthodox Jews can handle it. If you alienate a minority in a country, they’re not going to feel a part of it and that can lead to conflict… The Romani way of life is a thousand years old. It carries a culture and a language and that should be recognised and accommodated… When you’re marginalised and there’s hostility from outside, you kind of close ranks and rely on your own culture as a refuge.”

The media is also guilty of perpetuating stereotypes. Take TV series My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, which confuses Romanis and Irish Travellers from the get-go. It chose to sensationalise the fact that many Traveller women play a more traditional role – as homemakers and stay-at-home wives – but failed to provide much historical context, or any examples where social change is starting to unfold. “Women are getting a voice now,” says Hancock, again referring to the Romani population. “In my opinion, things like feminist movements come when the time is right for that specific community.” And thanks to the Internet, Gypsies and Travellers of all backgrounds are starting to represent themselves in new and authentic ways. “The Internet is a diaspora medium for a diaspora people,” says Hancock, who runs his own Romani social network. “Wherever you are in the world, you can talk to each other… It’s a huge boost for us.”

At twenty-one, Shanterlena Knowles is part of a new generation that are determined to have their voice heard. “We portray the true side of our culture,” she says, “whereas the press continually highlight the negatives… We also run a course called Travelling Voices, which is designed to equip Gypsies and Travellers with basic media skills so they can represent and protect themselves in the media. We’re finding that we’ve got a voice and we don’t have to take prejudice lying down.”

With this platform for expression, a new political consciousness is emerging. “I’m hopeful about the future,” says Hancock. “Countries like the US, Brazil, Argentina and Canada, which are made up of immigrants, understand the importance of multiculturalism. There isn’t that ethnic nationalism – this ‘pure race notion’ – that exists in Eastern Europe… We’ve got to get past the idea that Romani Gypsies or Irish Travellers follow a ‘lifestyle’. Travelling, or living in a static community of caravans and chalets, with other Gypsies or Travellers is an ethnic way of life. It’s not something you can switch on and off – ‘I’ll be a Gypsy this weekend’ – like a hippie.”

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Back at Dale Farm, the drama is still unfolding. The Sheridans and some other families will get a verdict on a planning application for a new site in Essex next week. If it falls through, they will have nowhere to live. Their kids will leave school and they’ll have to set off in search of a new site.

There’s no question that the council acted legally in the Dale Farm case, but their actions expose problematic holes in our not-so-sacred laws. Gypsies and Travellers have a way of life that is at odds with our legal system: so who should change? Society and its laws, or an ethnic minority?

The residents of Dale Farm are tired, but their sense of humour is razor sharp. Everyone jokes, chatters and instantly remembers your name. In fact, the values at the heart of this community – family, respect for elders and a hard work ethic – are a breath of fresh air in an urban society built around the individual. This community is made up of a million different stories. Perhaps it’s time more people started listening.