Australia, England & Wales, Global, Ireland, Scotland Communities and society

Could Indigenous policy relate to Roma and Traveller communities?

Photo by Tengis Galamez on Unsplash

Now the issues that Indigenous people face have begun to see the light of day in national and international policies, more questions are arising as to whether there are some lessons to be learned and policy implications to be explored in regards to the Roma and Traveller communities, who perhaps face some similar issues to Indigenous communities.

In recent decades the conversations surrounding the rights of the world’s Indigenous communities across both the social and political spheres have gained significant traction. For centuries Indigenous communities – who currently represent 6.2 per cent of the global population – have sought to remain self-governing while facing the constant pressure of central governments’ control, especially when it comes to their lands and culture. This stance to remain independent is a tiring, uphill battle, but it has resulted in policy changes on a national and international scale, as demonstrated by the UN Declaration on the rights of Indigenous people, World Bank Indigenous peoples’ policy and the UNESCO Policy on engaging with Indigenous peoples, just to name a few.

Fundamentally, a lack of respect for different ways of life has always been an underlying social issue for western culture. This has resulted in Indigenous peoples and communities facing violence and discrimination, which has negatively impacted their safety, health and ability to protect their lands. In February 2020, the EU held a roundtable consultation with representatives of Indigenous people from all over the continent and other international organisations, to discuss the prevention of discrimination and protection of rights for Indigenous people. The consultation addressed how the EU could ‘enhance its policies and programs to prevent and address discrimination based on the grounds of Indigenous status’. The Director at Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development, Ms Henriette Geiger, stated at the time, “We live on a planet increasingly under threat and voices for peaceful coexistence are silenced. […] We must leave no one behind, putting people and their rights at the centre of our action.” With that unifying philosophy in mind, surely a group whose voices are perhaps currently being left behind in policies and legislation are that of the Roma and Traveller communities.

One very recent example of this is the Police, Crime Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021 – which is currently with the Lords and expected to undergo a second reading on September 16. The Bill has been criticised for numerous reasons including introducing a policy that, according to gov.uk, will ‘Strengthen police powers to tackle unauthorised encampments, where trespassers cause distress and misery to local communities and businesses’. Many argue the Bill is discriminatory against Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities, and if approved, it will turn trespassing from a civil offence into a criminal one – which will fundamentally harm the nomadic way of life within these communities. This is just the latest in a series of policy changes (Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994) that work to ensure these nomadic cultures cannot continue to function in the modern, western world. As a result, this could be seen as mirroring the conflicts Indigenous communities face and required political action to address.

It is estimated by the Council of Europe in 2012 that the Roma population throughout Europe is between 8 to 15 million, however, they note that 80-85 per cent are ‘sedentary’ today, with those who continue to live an ‘itinerant lifestyle’ mainly based across France, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and the United Kingdom. It is no mystery that as a whole the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities have long been subjected to prejudice and inequalities, whilst being vilified for their lifestyles and culture that defy the western norms – the same reason why Indigenous communities have needed heightened protection. A 2020 study by the Friends, Families and Travellers organisation found 44% of UK adults ‘openly express negative attitudes towards the community’. Adding to this they also found some startling inequalities: Gypsy and Traveller people are estimated to have a life expectancy between 10 to 25 years shorter than the general population; the pupils from the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller ethnic groups also have the lowest average score in GCSEs; Gypsy and Travellers are more likely to experience housing deprivation than any other ethnic group. (We recognise that the term Gypsy is seen as pejorative by some communities, but other communities use and accept the term.)

Some academics have argued that Roma and Traveller communities could fit the UN definition for Indigenous communities. The Irish government recognised Irish Travellers as an Indigenous ethnic minority in 2017. Other Traveller communities do not identify as Indigenous, but policy frameworks and approaches developed with and for Indigenous communities could prove beneficial in terms of shaping services such as public health. See, for example, this article (link to a PDF) by Heaslip, Wilson and Jackson published in a 2019 edition of Public Health.

As the world comes to right wrongs and tackle discrimination against different communities that defy conventional expectations, there is certainly a conversation to be had surrounding the rights and policy protections Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities need to feel secure in their way of living too. The 2015 planning policy for Traveller sites suggested one resolution would be to introduce more land for the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities to use. The policy proposes that increasing the amount of authorised land use (the opposite idea currently proposed by the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Court Bill) will facilitate these communities in maintaining their way of life without resulting in legal intervention. On a local level, this could align with recent calls for more green spaces and help prevent excessive urban expansion – similar to how protection of Indigenous land results in more natural spaces. On a national level, there is discussion about how a network of available land for these communities could be formed. In turn, this would take pressure off local governments to utilise their budgets to provide these spaces and facilitate national coordination.

With a more organised and open approach, there may be room to address some of the other core issues that impact these communities, such as providing better healthcare (a human right) and offering security for those in designated land sites, to ensure safety and accountability. As always, on the ground, it falls on local councils to facilitate dialogue between the traveller and settler communities under their jurisdiction. In a time where great emphasis and evaluation is being placed on how we treat everyone, no matter their differences to ourselves, no groups can be overlooked. There is certainly an end goal to strive towards which prioritises community reconciliation without enforcing cultural eradication, and perhaps that can be found by taking a leaf out of the policies for Indigenous people.

Complex global issues require action at the local level more than ever. Sign up here to receive the new, free Global Local Recap by LGIU. This week’s edition focuses on Indigenous communities and local government. 

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