The issue of racism was a prominent motif throughout the last general election. Daily smears about anti-Semitism were levelled against the Labour Party by the establishment. On the other side, Labour correctly pointed out the rampant Islamophobia in the Tory Party, coupled with their hardline anti-immigrant rhetoric.
With the ‘hostile environment’, the Windrush scandal, and the government’s new proposals for migration controls, the issue of racism has dominated politics in the past period. But another form of bigotry has been tragically overlooked.
Antiziganism - prejudice against Travellers, whether they be Roma or Irish Traveller - is one of the most widespread and shamefully most accepted forms of racism in the UK. It has relentlessly been whipped up by the media in the past few decades: anti-Traveller stories are a common occurrence in the right-wing capitalist press.
Libelous articles bordering on hate speech are used to create hysteria. And Travellers can never defend themselves from these accusations, as they lack access to council and legal services. They are blocked from receiving government assistance, such as child benefit and universal credit, and even basic rights like the right to vote, as a permanent address is necessary for all these things. Thus they are forced into semi-legal, desperate circumstances.
There are currently an estimated 300,000 people in the UK who identify as Travellers, with around 63,000 people who have a permanently nomadic lifestyle. These communities are under constant threat of police raids and racist attacks.
Often the problems arise from a lack of legal means to encamp, as they need space for their vehicles, which are an integral part of their culture. However, with every passing year the number of legal sites is being reduced and more camping sites are blocked off to Travellers. They are forced to resort to illegal or semi-legal areas, usually sports fields, car parks or private land. These sites often lack basic utilities like waste removal or clean water.
The Tories have introduced anti-Traveller measures before. And Tory Party members, including councillors and MPs, have been caught making racist comments and threats numerous times. But the policies set out in the 2019 manifesto are the most extreme yet. It is not an exaggeration to claim that these laws pose an existential threat to Travellers and their entire way of life.
The Home Office has launched an ongoing consultation on granting the police new powers to arrest individuals who have set up on unauthorised caravan sites. The police would be permitted to seize their property and vehicles - and therefore in one fell swoop to take away the lifeblood of the entire community and all the property that they possess. In practice, this would criminalise and make homeless thousands of families.
This may be a mortal blow; the culmination of a long series of escalating attacks against Travelling people. It amounts to the total criminalisation of one of Britain’s oldest minorities.
The national charity Friends, Families and Travellers (FFT) have stated that:
“Travellers’ and Gypsies’ ancient way of life is under threat from inhumane proposals to criminalise unauthorised encampments…It is clear that these 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.”
Tory manifesto pledged to criminalize Gypsy, Roma & Traveller communities by seizing property.— Zarah Sultana MP (@zarahsultana) December 26, 2019
In Parliament & in communities, we'll defend ALL under attack by this hard right racist govt.
"No one of us can be free until everybody is free."- Maya Angelouhttps://t.co/nSMaW68qKB
Arch-reactionary and current Home Secretary Priti Patel has claimed that these measures are simply to prevent littering, damage to surrounding property, and anti-social behaviour.
But in 2018, FFT contacted all the police and crime commissioners and police bodies in England. They found that 75% thought current police powers to evict encampments were sufficient and/or proportionate; 84% did not support the criminalisation of unauthorised encampments; and 65% cited a lack of site provision as the main issue.
This just shows that the latest attack on these vulnerable communities has nothing to do with practical solutions to the problems that Gypsies and their neighbours mutually face. Rather, it is yet another appeal to the racist rabble that now dominates the Tory Party; another attempt to distract from the government’s programme of brutal austerity, which is tearing apart at the very fabric of society in Britain.