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Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities endure worsening racism and inequality: this must be a turning point

Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people campaigning ten years ago – little has changed. Edmond Terakopian/PA Archive.

Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities continue to experience open discrimination and prejudice, both in the UK and Europe. Just in the past few weeks Roma people have been attacked in France as a result of fake news spread about the community. Meanwhile in the UK, the Equality and Human Rights Commission intervened in a holiday park which held a “no Travellers” rule, and a caravan site allocated for use for Travellers was subject to an arson attack.

April 8, 2019 marks International Roma Day – a day created to celebrate Romani culture and raise awareness of the issues facing Roma people. The day was established in 1990, but since this time the challenges Roma face have remained and even increased, driven by the rise of the Far Right and austerity.

The reality of their situation has been driven home by a new report from the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee, which provides a damning critique of the progress made on addressing the inequalities faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. It also challenges the government to do more to improve communities’ outcomes in education and health care, tackle discrimination and hate crime, as well as violence against women and girls.

The committee report demands that the government develop a clear and effective plan to support Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, in line with the inequalities they face. The report also suggests a key role can be played by the Race Disparity Unit, which gathers information on the experiences of minority groups in the UK, by demanding that government departments must “explain or change” any disparities between Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities and the general population.

A history of neglect

The fact is, the discrimination and adverse life chances faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller populations in the UK and Europe have been a problem for decades. Reports from the Commission for Racial Equality (in 2006), the Equality and Human Rights Commission (in 2010) and the European Commission (in 2018) have rigorously documented the inequalities and discrimination faced by these communities.

Indeed, the most recent of these confirmed that countries with larger Roma populations experienced an increase in anti-Roma hate speech, segregated and poor accommodation, even as hundreds of thousands of Roma endured a lack of access to basic services including clean water and sanitation. With the steady arrival of Roma from central and eastern Europe to the UK, there’s a real risk of replicating the hostile anti-Roma environment seen in much of central and eastern Europe, which forces such communities to flee and polarises neighbourhoods.

The UK government’s record on Roma issues has been one of inaction and neglect. Plans, such as the coalitions 2012 strategy to tackle inequalities have been widely derided for having limited scope, little ambition and weak recommendations. The most recent inquiry failed to consider the shortage of pitches and site accommodation across the UK, which many groups representing Roma, Gypsy and Traveller communities would consider to be one of the most pressing concerns.

Yet the report represents a significant intervention against government inaction and hostile policy making. Few politicians – with notable exceptions such as Kate Green and Baronness Whitaker – speak out against the inequalities faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. Indeed, during the inquiry, Conservative MP Jackie Doyle-Price said: “Let’s be honest: we are all Members of Parliament and we all know there are no votes in championing this group of people”.

All eyes on Westminster. Shutterstock.

As with all reports prepared by parliamentary committees, the government has 40 days to respond. With the current atmosphere of anti-migrant sentiment in the UK, coupled with the continuing hostility to Gypsies and Travellers, it is difficult to predict the sort of response the report will receive. But maintaining the status quo cannot be an option.

Turning point

Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, on average, continue to die far younger than members of other communities and have poorer health than members of other communities. They also experience the death of a child far frequently than other communities. The needs and position of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities are so stark that considered steps must be taken.

So this should be an opportunity for the government and other public bodies to take more forceful and co-ordinated action. One way forward is for the government to use the Race Disparity Audit to address inequalities. Vocal leadership is also required from within government at all levels. For too long, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities have been used as a political football, with few people in positions of power speaking up for their needs.

Successive governments have tried doing nothing, pilot projects have been attempted and mainstreaming the needs of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities has been the recent approach. But all have failed over the long term or led to very little improvement. Government needs to lead and to foster leadership in others – there needs to be coordinated plans and actions. As in most areas, resources will also be an issue, but a desire and an ability to affect change is critical. In doing so, the UK will address some of the longstanding issues for Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people and make communities more equal and less hostile places.

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