Britain’s Conservatives Pledge to Target Roma
As Britain votes, traveling minorities fear a racist crackdown.
One of the most polarizing issues of the United Kingdom’s 2019 general election has been the pervasiveness of racism in the country’s major parties. A recent report found Islamophobia to be endemic in the Conservative Party, whilst the Labour Party has faced repeated allegations of anti-Semitism.
But one long-standing and ugly form of bigotry has been completely overlooked, despite being literally written into the Conservative manifesto: anti-ziganism. Prejudice against those labeled as Gypsies, Roma, and Travellers is one of the most widespread forms of racism in the U.K., and one stoked over the last decades not only by the Conservative Party but also by its main media supporters.
Following an announcement in November by Home Secretary Priti Patel, the manifesto sets out plans to give police more powers to “arrest and seize the property and vehicles of trespassers who set up unauthorised encampments, in order to protect our communities.” This might look like a legal measure, but, read in context, it is part of a long history of criminalization of Travellers.
Gypsies and Travellers are two of the most prominent mobile groups in the U.K.; in Europe other terms, such as Roma and Sinti, are more commonly used. In the United States, “gypsy” is considered offensive, but in the U.K. the term has been claimed by the community.
Traveling communities need space for their vehicles, which are a key part of their cultural identity. In the U.K., that’s often caused clashes due to a lack of sites where encampments can be set up, sometimes forcing the estimated 63,000 people who identify as Gypsies and Travellers to resort to car parks or sports fields. Mobility also often leaves Gypsies and Travellers disenfranchised, as a permanent address is necessary to register to vote.
One Gypsy mother, who wished to remain anonymous due to the possibility of violent retaliation, told Foreign Policy last week how she now fears for her family’s livelihood: “I will become a criminal everywhere I go.”
“I would be a criminal staying on a friend’s farmyard, even if I was invited to visit. At motorway services. In a layby. Popping into the supermarket,” she said. “There is no minimum time frame mentioned. From the minute I apply the handbrake, and before I stop the engine, I will be illegal.”
The proposed laws would allow police to seize the homes of Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller people by force and to destroy their property without compensation.
“My home is beautiful,” she said. “It was the very best I could do, with my entire savings. Every single thing of value, financial or emotional, is here. My child’s first shoes. My wallet and phone. My clothes. My photos. My favorite coffee mug. It is all here.”
The proposal also says Travellers can be banned from the local authority area for up to a year, cutting off access to support for homelessness—which often requires someone to have been a resident in the area for a length of time—leaving many in fear of having to live on the streets.
“I am petrified,” she continued. “I don’t understand. I met every condition asked of me, I am respectable, clean, quiet, legal, moral, and a good member of the local community.
“I don’t know what to do. I don’t sleep at night. I have become sick. I fear for my children, and I have spent night after night discussing where we might run away to, and where we might be eligible for asylum or sanctuary.”
In Europe, the Roma community is widespread—and so is a history of prejudice and hatred. Roma first arrived in Europe from India in the Middle Ages and came to Britain in the 16th century. Prejudice against the people began almost as soon as they arrived—in part because their nomadic lifestyle made them anathema to states that sought to categorize and control their populations. The first major anti-Romani legislation in Europe was passed in 15th-century Italy, where living in the town of Milan became punishable by death.
In Britain, a 1530 law banned Romani people from entering the country and forced those already living there to leave within 16 days. Fifteen years later, a meeting of the Holy Roman Empire declared “whoever kills a gypsy, will be guilty of no murder,” leading to a killing spree so severe the empire was forced to issue a caveat that citizens were not allowed to drown women and children. Roma people were kept as slaves in Romania for centuries and were not legally emancipated until 1855.
The worst killings remain within living memory. In 1935, Adolf Hitler passed a decree declaring Roma to be “enemies of the race-based state,” like the Jews. Estimates of the number of people killed during the Romani genocide, also referred to as the Porajmos (The Devouring), range from 500,000 to 1.5 million, accounting for roughly 15 percent of Europe’s Roma population. From 1935 to 1976, the Swedish government undertook a campaign of forced sterilization that particularly targeted Roma.
Despite this, Romani communities have contributed greatly to European culture—including clothes and music. Even the traditional Spanish flamenco dance has its roots in the culture of Spanish Roma, and Romani words such as “chav” and “posh” are part of the everyday language of the English. One annual horse fair in the English village of Appleby sees Roma travel from across Europe to attend the event, which dates back to 1775.
Across Europe, Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities still face violent persecution. Attacks have become particularly commonplace in France, Hungary, Italy, and Ukraine, and anti-ziganism remains a living and accepted form of hate in the U.K. In 2011, over 1,000 Travellers were violently removed from one of their largest community sites by police and bailiffs following a decadelong controversial planning dispute. Eight years later, their destroyed property has been left on the land, which is used as an illegal waste site. Across the nation, Gypsies and Travellers are subject to racial abuse, kids are commonly bullied out of school, and arson attacks are alarmingly common—targeting both caravan sites and graves. One man, who said he was inspired by the American mass shooter Dylann Roof and sent leaflets around the U.K. promoting “Punish a Muslim Day,” had previously sent letters calling for the extermination of gypsies.
In the English imagination, Gypsies have traditionally been associated with Eastern Europe, and general prejudices against Eastern Europeans are often mixed in with anti-ziganism. (This often comes as a shock to Romanians, many of whom harbor their own strong bigotries against Roma.) In 2013, the European Union eased restrictions in Romania and Bulgaria on access to the U.K. labor market. British press and politicians whipped up a frenzy over the alleged hordes of Roma flocking over to steal jobs and benefits, and bringing a large-scale crime wave with them.
But when the media waited at London’s airports on the first day of the scheme, they found little more than half-empty planes and a handful of very surprised migrants. Nevertheless, the fearmongering was a huge success for the former leader of the UK Independence Party, Nigel Farage, whose far-right language has increasingly been adopted by a Conservative Party worried that it might lose votes to the right.
Although anti-Traveller racism is pervasive across British society, it seems to be a particular problem for Conservative politicians. In 2018, Mike Bird, a Conservative Party council chief in the West Midlands, branded Travellers “parasites” who cause “misery and mayhem” on a live radio show, while in 2014 another was suspended from the party after suggesting that Travellers refusing eviction should be “executed.” Other Conservative politicians have warned that Travellers would “stick a knife in you as soon as look at you” or defecate on the streets, while another, who was responsible for overseeing policies on local Traveller sites, emailed colleagues with a mocked-up road sign that read “F* off gypos.”
Members of Parliament have been just as vicious. Former Conservative MP Gary Streeter referred to Travellers as “intruders,” comparing the groups to Genghis Khan. Earlier this year, Tory MP Paul Beresford called the communities a “disease.”
In 2017, a Conservative Party councilor was suspended for tweeting, “thanks Ireland. You can keep your f’king gypsies! Hard border coming folks!” after the British Eurovision song failed to get a vote of support from the country.
The most consistent source of anti-ziganism, however, is the Daily Mail, one of the most popular papers in Britain and a stalwart supporter of the Conservative Party. Anti-Traveller stories are the Mail’s bread and butter, often relying on the community members’ lack of access to legal services to get away with potentially libelous stories—though not always successfully. A sampling of stories from this year alone accuse Travellers of holding villages ransom, stealing Christmas trees, turning the annual Appleby gathering into “war,” and abusing human rights law.
Proposals targeted at Travellers have been part of Conservative rhetoric for years, but the measures proposed in the 2019 manifesto are the most extreme yet. Friends, Families and Travellers, a national charity, said in a statement on Twitter, “It is clear that the proposals would have a devastating impact on Gypsy and Traveller communities, who have been part of British life since before the 16th century, yet face some of the greatest inequalities of any group in England and Wales.
“The Home Secretary’s assertions that unauthorised encampments ‘cause misery to those who live nearby, with reports of damage to property, noise, abuse and littering’ focus on the behaviour of a minority, yet tar all Gypsies and Travellers with the same brush. This is dangerous and discriminatory rhetoric. If property damage, noise, abuse and littering truly are the Home Office’s concerns, we know that there already exists reams of criminal law to prevent and punish this.”
Anti-ziganists often point to police concerns to justify their prejudices. But after a 2018 consultation on campsites by the government was released, Friends, Families and Travellers contacted all police forces, all police and crime commissioners, and three police bodies in England. They found that 75 percent of police responses to the consultation indicated that current police powers to evict encampments were sufficient and/or proportionate, 84 percent did not support the criminalization of unauthorized encampments, and 65 percent cited a lack of site provision as the main issue.
The Conservative measures may not be fully implemented—but even their inclusion in the manifesto has left many terrified. As the woman Foreign Policy interviewed said, “It’s a long-standing Tory tradition to throw rocks at Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities at election time. But this is something totally different. This is a legal pogrom.”
Kitty Wenham-Ross is an English journalist. Twitter: @kittywenham