I can’t pretend to have followed the saga of Dale Farm up close and personal. Sometimes, things are too painful and you know it wasn’t ever going to have a happy ending. Not for the little people in this everyday tale of prejudice and malice. But like many, I’ve been cheering the residents on silently from the sidelines, willing and hoping that for once, a new history could be written. One where Roma and gypsy travellers aren’t persecuted.
Roma peoples are everyone’s easy target. If it was anyone else who had developed Dale farm illegally, retrospective planning consent could have been applied for and, albeit subject to some conditions, granted. We should be applauding people for reclaiming brownfield land and developing it as homes not condemning them. And if it had been the local moneybags builder, I’m sure the local council would have done just that.
Nobody wants them as neighbours. Everyone treats them as if they have no rights, only responsibilities to behave and live their lives the way we think they should. Even here in Scotland. We may be proud of being a mongrel nation, of weaving many multi-cultural threads into our national tapestry, but there is little weft for Roma.
Fifteen years ago, I got to know my local traveller population when myself and a fellow councillor championed their needs. Their historic site close to the main trunk road and the shore was seen as prime development land and they were a prominent eyesore, barely tolerated. The then local council and major building firm (the one that built all of Scotland’s shabby, modern football stadia) cooked up a land swap in private and the travellers’ site was removed to a dank and miserable, and frankly dangerous, patch on the side of a local quarry. Admittedly, amenities such as running water, electricity, and a communal wash and laundry block were provided but the site had big tipper trucks rumbling in and out all day, the noise and the dust was unbearable and the site was over a mile from the nearest village. Out of sight and out of mind.
They got a racist in as the local site manager, who made the families’ lives hell. The children were refused access to local health facilities, the local school treated them with contempt. People I had known all my life surprised me with the brutality and casualness of their racism and discrimination.
At a national level too, Scotland has little to be proud of in its treatment of our gypsy traveller population. Denied the status of other ethnic minorities, funding was withdrawn for their national association, seats at tables denied, a national strategy promised and never materialised. Life expectancy is low, health problems rife, educational attainment poor. And now previously resourced provision at local authority level is being dismantled, with local authorities harassing them beyond their boundaries. This excellent article highlights the lack of temporary sites and recent treatment by politicians and officials alike. It’s little to be proud of.
Though in one sense, we are only following a longstanding European tradition, that has its roots in ancient peoples – the fear of difference. For centuries, Roma and gypsy travellers have been everyone’s bogeymen, even in supposedly egalitarian and forward thinking countries. I recall being horrified when a Sami woman told me how in Sweden, young Sami women who went into hospital for other treatments routinely emerged, sterilised, without their knowledge or their consent.
A recent trip to the European Parliament in Strasbourg found me in my element, listening in at a joint committee discussion with the European Commissioner for Human Rights, the same one who has sent his support to the community at Dale Farm. Many questions were posed and answers given but one topic dominated: the treatment of Roma and traveller peoples. Of how right wing governments like Sarkozy’s in France were displacing communities in order to appease restless native populations. And of how many were being forcibly repatriated to their supposed home countries like Roumania, only to find that they were not welcome there. Roma refugee camps are now in evidence at the borders of Eastern European countries. Some of the opposition to Hungary and Roumania acceding to the freedom of movement Schengen agreement was voiced in terms of allowing undesirables like Roma to move freely across Europe without having to satisfy border controls. Racism and overt displays of discrimination and prejudice are tolerated against Roma and traveller people in a way that would cause outrage if they were targeted at other communities.
We refuse them the right to roam and also the right to settle. We expect them to conform then complain when they do. We sniff at their centuries-old extended family tradition, yet daily allow governments to preach parenting at us. We suspect them of crimes and immorality at every turn, oblivious to the hypocrisy inherent in our sly practices towards traveller communities. We eye them only as a burden to be tolerated barely, blithely ignoring the enrichment their cultural heritage has provided for our lives and traditions.
I will not listen nor watch to the voracious, distasteful voyeurism of the UK media reporting gleefully on each step of the Dale farm denouement today, reinforcing racism with every breathless report and pronouncement.
For I know how it ends. With families terrorised, a community displaced, a way of life pilloried. And a majority population that has bullied and blustered its way to smug self-satisfaction at having made its life a little more homogenous and a little less threatened by difference. And inside I shall weep at how reminiscent it all is of 1930s Germany.