Court Injunctions against Traveller camps are 'forced settlement'

28 September 2018

The use of High Court injunctions by councils to ban Gypsy and Traveller camps is an attack on rights and a form of cultural assimilation that goes back centuries ... say  Brigitta Balogh and Colin Clark.

Brigtta and Prof Colin Clarke

Long read

It has recently been reported that Nuneaton and Bedworth, a local government district with borough status, in northern Warwickshire, England, is attempting to ‘ban’ Gypsies and Travellers from their local area.

The use of a High Court injunction from Nuneaton and Bedworth Council is being argued on the grounds of “protecting vulnerable public land”. Such an action would mean that Traveller encampments on roadsides and other traditional stopping places in that particular geography would shift from the realms of trespass and civil law into potential proceedings for committal to prison.

This worrying development is happening at a time when Local Authority site and pitch provision in England and Wales is being scaled down by Councils that are being hit by austerity-driven budget cuts. As sites and pitches decrease in number, where are families meant to stay?

The use of injunctions is, in effect, a blanket ban that can be used to exclude named individuals, or ‘persons unknown’ (a catch-all expression that can legally include anyone within a certain distance and area of the notice) from setting up temporary camps on different pieces of land, such as parks, commons and other open spaces, as well as industrial land. The stopping places of days gone by are disappearing fast.

It is important to note that human rights legislation – the Human Rights Act, 1988 - requires the Government to facilitate and accommodate traditional ways of life. This includes the nomadic traditions and heritage and ways of life of Roma, Gypsies and Travellers in the United Kingdom. In particular, Article 8 ensures that ‘everyone has the right to respect for private and family life, his home and correspondence’ and Article 14 states that ‘the enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in this convention shall be secured without discrimination on any ground, such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status’. It is clear that the proposed High Court injunctions directly impact on the rights enshrined in these Articles and this needs to be forcefully argued.

In observing the terms of the High Court injunction, it appears that they could serve as a legal tool and mechanism for Councils to effectively force Gypsies and Travellers to settle and give up a nomadic way of life – often a mode of living that is directly and explicitly tied to forms of work and family life. Such actions by the authorities would seek to repeat what has happened in years gone by all over Europe. This situation requires our immediate attention and demonstration.

Of note, Marc Willers QC, who has long advocated for the legal rights of the Roma, Gypsy and Traveller communities of Britain, has commented that in order to prevent the High Court injunction clients are required to challenge them. So, it is imperative that members of the communities affected by these injunctions contact informed legal teams, such as the Community Law Partnership in Birmingham, to set in motion challenges to the proposed injunctions. This earlier article in Travellers Times, authored by Chris Johnson and Marc Willers QC, will be of some assistance.

It is also important to acknowledge that policies of forced settlement are nothing new and have occurred for years across the United Kingdom and, indeed, in mainland Europe. Such actions are a clear form of Anti-Gypsyism and it needs to be recognised as such; they are also potentially in breach of longstanding human rights protections and legislation.

Anti-Gypsyism has a long history that relates back to times when Gypsies first appeared in Europe. With nomadic traditions, different languages and faiths, the general public, Government and Churches were quick to impose restrictions on mobility and other civil liberties. Stereotypes relating to theft, child abduction and witchcraft – as well as acting as spies for the Turkish Empire – only assisted in justifying illegal actions taken against the communities.

Legislation was quickly established, from at least the 15th Century onwards, and anti-nomadic laws against the communities followed. We saw sedentarist, anti-Gypsy legislation passed in Spain in 1492, Germany in 1496, England in 1531, France in 1561, Italy in 1572 and Poland in 1578, in order to stop families and communities from travelling across their borders and nation state boundaries. In other countries, such as Moldova and Hungary, Roma were enslaved and held captive. Some well-known communities such as the Boyash Gypsies, the community that Brigitta Balogh is from, were forced to settle in the 14th Century in Transylvania by indigenous Hungarians. In such cases use of the Romani language was banned and they now speak an ancient Romanian dialect rather than Romanes.

In later years, rulings by Charles IV as well as Maria Theresa and Joseph II also tried to force Gypsies to settle and leave their nomadic traditions behind. It is clear that sedentarist, gadzhe, assimilation was the ‘end goal’ rather than anything like a form of integration where cultural traditions, faiths and languages were respected and maintained.

Given this long history of injustice, unfair accusations and stereotypes which have spread across Europe, it is not surprising that in the 21st Century we are still trying to challenge, deconstruct and dispel 500 years of generalisations, hearsay and mythology. This is not an easy task, even with human rights protections.

What can we do today? One thing we can do is to actively speak out and challenge the implementation of laws and policies that are not in our favour and which work against the communities. Such persecution, which is racially and culturally motivated and biased, should not be allowed in any society that claims to be tolerant, multicultural and democratic.

It is true that successive Government policies in the United Kingdom have tended to put Gypsies, Roma and Traveller people in one ‘box’, under one category for their own legislative, statistical comfort. This is not something that has always been welcomed by communities who acknowledge differences and diversity. However, in respecting the differences we also need to acknowledge that there are similarities.

These anti-Gypsy laws make no distinction between English Romanies and Irish Minceirs, or Scottish Nachins and Boyash Roma. So, we would urge everyone to join this protest movement against the use of High Court injunctions hand-in-hand to bring about the changes that are required in the current situation. If we do not stand up now, it may be the end of a way of life we have known for Centuries and the disappearance of the ‘atchin tans’ – stopping places – once and for all. We cannot let the Government get away with this latest attempt to culturally assimilate whole communities and deny Traveller culture.