by Ruth Barnett
Avivid description of the horrific treatment of Roma in Lithuania has just appeared in Defending History. This is yet another in a long line of reports of discrimination and injustice against Roma in Eastern European countries – a catalogue of unacceptable situations.
But you do not need to go to Lithuania to find all that is described in graphic detail with illustrations in this report of physical attacks on Roma dwellings and blatant racism. It is all happening here in the UK but at the edges of society and “invisible” to the mainstream population because they do not want to see it. Nimbyism takes precedence and the general popular wish is to remain comfortably ignorant and indifferent to the injustice that is causing so much unnecessary suffering for Roma and Travelers in Britain.
When Roma or Travelers do become noticeable the media present them in an insulting and largely negative way inviting unthinking readers that “they only have themselves to blame.” The media omits to report the positive contributions Roma make, in particular to music and creative arts and crafts, but also in professional careers. It seems to be more interesting and satisfying to play “the blame game.”
Of course, reporting anti-Roma racism far away in Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Hungary etc. is a form of denial of what we are allowing to happen under our noses here in the UK. We are encouraged to feel righteous, just and “squeaky clean” occupying the “high ground” looking down on Lithuania or another East European country while in reality we are blind and indifferent to the suffering we cause our own minorities by our failure to challenge the ignorance and racism in our own community.
However, “thinking people” are already seeing through this charade and supporting Roma and Travelers in organizing themselves to claim a voice and demand justice.
On November 20th the Travelers’ Movement held their annual conference on the 2014 theme of “Operation Traveler Vote.” In a very professional conference with high quality speakers the motive was that the way forward was for every Romany and Traveler to vote. The myth of registration restricted to permanent residence was exposed by Alex Robertson of the Electoral Commission. He provided the evidence that every adult Traveler of any kind is entitled to name a location to which her or his registration to vote is then linked. The confidence at this conference that 100% voting take-up could and would be achieved was palpable.
Six of the nine speakers proudly introduced their Traveler background and one of these was Sharon Hodgson MP for a constituency in the northeast of Britain. Her presentation was masterly and with insight and empathy. She shone as a possible future Labour Prime Minister.
Lord Avebury outlined the past history of provision and planning laws that had grossly let down the Roma and Traveler communities. In counterpart Owen Neal, representing the Communities and Local Government Department presented the proposed new planning document.
The audience, at question time, expressed outrage at Mr. Pickles’ proposal to deprive Travelers of the right to resume traveling once they had started to live in bricks-and-mortar housing. His right to define the identity of Travelers was questioned and his use of the term “Travelers” in the proposal document without a capital T was criticized as an unwarranted insult. Travelers repeatedly made the point that they are Travelers by their total culture, not by whether or not they travel. As the planning part of the document severely restricts possibilities for Travelers to travel, many felt it as a deliberate attempt to destroy their Traveler culture. This, if true, could be regarded as one of the elements defining attempted destruction of a culture.
Through the workshops it became evident that Roma and Travelers are coordinating to claim their rightful voice in many other fields such as in challenging not only planning law but media, equal opportunities, penal practice, policing and health and education policies.
This conference was in fact a wake-up call to government and the general population to realize that Roma and Traveler Gypsies are People like themselves that should be welcomed and valued as part of the community.