Discrimination and abuse against Gypsies and Travellers remains widespread
Abuse against Gypsies and Travellers has accurately been described as the last acceptable form of racism, and as politicians we must take care with the language we use, writes Kate Green
As chair of the APPG on Gypsies Travellers and Roma, I’m often alerted to offensive and derogatory language used to describe these groups in public life and in the media.
Sadly, sometimes that can come from fellow politicians – local, regional and national, and from across the political spectrum. On occasion, I’ve heard parliamentary colleagues refer to the ‘problem’ of Travellers, implicitly pitting their interests against those of settled communities. Others have talked of Travellers as ‘an expensive menace’, or ‘like a disease’, used the language of ‘invasion’ and ‘plague’, or have sought to divide them into ‘genuine Travellers’ and imposters, using language reminiscent of the debate on asylum seekers.
If this type of discriminatory language were used about members of any other minority there would be outrage, and rightly so. Characterising a whole community in this way is not just offensive and wrong, it’s also contrary to the provisions of the Equality Act 2010, which defines Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers as ethnic groups, meaning they're legally protected against race discrimination.
But abuse against Gypsies and Travellers has accurately been described as the last acceptable form of racism, and this type of discrimination remains widespread. The Equality and Human Right’s Commission’s Barometer of Prejudice found that ‘more people expressed openly negative feelings towards some protected characteristics (44% towards Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, 22% towards Muslims, and 16% towards transgender people) than towards others (for example, 9% towards gay, lesbian or bisexual people, 4% towards people aged over 70, and 3% towards disabled people with a physical impairment).’
Comments such as those I’ve quoted only serve to heighten mistrust and division between Travellers and members of the settled community. They also detract from the many examples of good practice which do exist, from the negotiated stopping arrangements seen in Leeds to the decision of Hampshire County Council to update the wording of its website to reflect the constructive approach the council is taking towards working with Gypsy and Traveller communities.
Looking further afield, in Ireland, President Michael D Higgins recently appointed traveller rights activist Dr Sindy Joyce to the Council of State, sending a significant message about the importance of Traveller inclusion. Clearly, much positive work is taking place, but sadly this often doesn’t get the airtime it deserves.
The establishment of Gypsy Roma Traveller History Month provides an opportunity to celebrate the culture and history of these communities in June each year. In the meantime, Thursday 16 May marks the 75th anniversary of Romani Resistance Day which commemorates the uprisings by Roma and Sinti prisoners in Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp and is an important opportunity to recognise and counter all forms of persecution against Gypsy Traveller and Roma communities.
On this day, I urge my fellow politicians to take a moment to reflect on the language we use to avoid falling into the trap of perpetuating harmful racial stereotypes, and to consider how we can promote positive dialogue and relations between Travellers and settled communities. Respect, care and neighbourliness must work both ways.
Kate Green is Labour MP for Stretford and Urmston and chair of the APPG on Gypsies Travellers and Roma