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Travellers – Time to counter deep-rooted hostility

Human Rights Comment
Strasbourg 04/02/2016
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Travellers – Time to counter deep-rooted hostility

In October 2015, 10 persons died in a fire which broke in a Travellers’ site near Dublin. Following this tragic event, neighbours prevented the authorities from providing alternative accommodation to the surviving members of the group on a nearby site by blocking roads leading to the new site. Sadly, this episode illustrates well how deep-rooted hostility against those identified as Travellers, Gypsies, Roma, Manouches, Sinti, Romani/Taters or Yenish, still affects the lives of these persons in many countries where they live, including Belgium, France, Ireland, Norway, the UK and Switzerland.  Due to strong assimilation policies of the past aimed at settling them down, these groups often no longer travel, or they do so only part of the year. However, they favour living in a trailer to “brick and mortar” housing and want to retain the possibility of travelling on a seasonal basis.  This way of life is seriously hampered and endangered by the lack of halting sites, increasingly frequent evictions, hostility and rejection of the majority population and widespread discrimination. This has been so for decades.  

Legacy of the past

The history of Travellers in Europe is marked by persecutions, expulsions and rights violations aimed at forced sedentarisation and at eradicating their culture and way of life. Measures targeting Travellers have included the removal of children from the custody of their parents, limitations to freedom of movement and confiscations of caravans. The effects of past policies are still felt today. In various countries, the authorities continue to implement policies that force Travellers to move to settled accommodation, often in poor conditions. They also fail to acknowledge the specific identity and culture of Travellers, including those who have adopted a sedentary way of life. Travellers’ contribution to the history and culture of European countries is overlooked.

Shortage of sites, evictions and discrimination

When doing research on Travellers in the UK on the Internet, one of the top links that appeared on my screen was an advertisement for “Immediate Gypsy-Traveller-Itinerant evictions” starting with these words: “No landlord or owner of land wants Gypsy, traveller or itinerant encampments on their land…” Unfortunately, this is not an isolated view. I am concerned about persisting hostility and the reluctance of local authorities to provide accommodation to Travellers. Disturbing instances of hate speech by local politicians are also often reported.

In all the countries where Travellers live, there is a dire lack of sites for temporary and long-term stay. In Ireland for example, about 800 Travellers are reportedly living on the roadside with no sewage facilities. In the UK, a 2012 study indicated that about 20% of the Travellers were living on unauthorised sites. In Brussels, there is currently no halting site. In France, where municipalities with more than 5 000 inhabitants are required by law to provide sites, only 69% of these municipalities currently comply with the law. When public sites are built, they are often located in isolated and/or environmentally hazardous areas and they fail to meet basic conditions for adequate housing, even though residents pay a rent for their stay. Travellers who own their own land are frequently prevented from living on it due to planning permission denials. This situation obliges many Travellers to stop on sites without authorisation or to live “by the roadside”. As trespassing is a criminal offence in several countries, they may therefore find themselves in breach of the law, which in turn reinforces stereotypes depicting them as criminals. It also triggers tensions with the neighbourhood. In this context, I found it disconcerting that in various countries, funding available for the setting up of sites is largely underused by local authorities.

In my recent report on Belgium, I point to the difficulties Travellers often face when requesting registration with local authorities. The lack of registration makes it difficult for them to obtain identity documents, register on voting lists and access essential services such as opening a bank account and subscribing car insurance. In France, a law of 1969 which requires Travellers to hold a special circulation permit and to regularly report to the police is currently being amended. It was long criticised on grounds that it limited French Travellers to a status of second-class citizens and hampered their enjoyment of basic human rights. In several countries, caravans are not recognised as housing, which prevents caravan dwellers from having access to housing benefits, planning permissions or from seeking a loan for housing improvement and deprives them of protection in case of eviction.

Worrying information I received from different countries indicates that Travellers are increasingly subjected to forced evictions without adequate alternative being provided to them. Some evictions are carried out during wintertime, others concern families which have resided for years on the same site.  It is worrying that international standards regarding the conduct of evictions are frequently violated. Both the European Court of Human Rights and the European Committee of Social Rights have found that evictions resulted in violations by several member states of both the European Convention on Human Rights and the European Social Charter, respectively. Many families are reported to be constantly on the move as a result of frequent evictions. The instability generated by this situation is particularly harmful to children. A report of 2014 prepared by the Flemish Parliamentary Ombudsman for Children’s Rights underlines that about 100 Traveller children in Flanders had no access to school due to repeated evictions. Moreover, evictions are costly. Local authorities should more carefully consider the benefits of investing in long-term, human rights compliant solutions rather than spending huge sums on evictions, which do not bring about lasting solutions.

Tense relations with the police are also a common feature of the life of Travellers everywhere. The police has historically been in charge of monitoring nomadic groups who were perceived by the authorities as suspicious by nature.  Nowadays, ethnic profiling of Travellers by the police continues to be frequently reported, as does police violence during evictions.

Against this background, existing data on Travellers’ well-being and access to rights, while shocking, are perhaps not surprising: in the UK, it is estimated that their life expectancy is at least 10% lower than the national average, while infant mortality is much higher. The suicide rate among Travellers in Ireland is reported to be six time the national average. Also in Ireland in 2010, 84% of the Travellers were unemployed. In all the countries concerned, Traveller children are often denied access to education and when they attend school, they experience very high dropout rates. Few of them reach secondary education.

What should we do?

Firstly, it is crucial to eliminate all discriminatory provisions regulating the life of persons living in caravans. In the 21st century, Travellers must no longer be prevented from enjoying all their rights on an equal footing with other citizens.

All instances of racist statements against Travellers should be firmly condemned by the authorities, and hate speech directed against them should be adequately prosecuted and sanctioned.

There is a need for more research and awareness-raising concerning the history of Travellers; it can help to dispel long-standing prejudices and, therefore, to stop the perpetuation of human rights violations against the members of these groups.

The specific culture, identity and way of life of Travellers should be fully acknowledged. The debate initiated by the Irish Parliament in 2015 with a view to granting Irish Travellers the status of ethnic minority is a promising example.  In general, Travellers should be provided with increased possibilities to preserve and promote their culture as part of European cultural heritage, as underlined by the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers in its Recommendation Rec(2004)14 on the movement and encampment of Travellers in Europe.

Resolute steps should be taken to increase the number and quality of sites available to Travellers, whether transient or long-term. Local authorities should be strongly incentivised, and if necessary compelled, to allow temporary stay of Travellers. States should ensure that such obligations are enforced. They should not relinquish their responsibility for providing adequate accommodation on local authorities.

Good practices exist, as highlighted by the Council of Europe. Mediation work between Travellers, local authorities and local communities is an effective way of finding concerted solutions to the shortage of sites. Such practices, involving active participation of the Travellers, should be supported and replicated.

The authorities should avoid evictions, and seek human rights compliant alternatives, as evictions are traumatic, disrupt children’s education and hinder social integration.

Initiatives aimed at improving access to education for Traveller children should be supported and disseminated, rather than prevented as is often the case.

Nils Muižnieks