Life goes on. The world turns – civilisation evolves and adapts. For the travelling community, nomadism – that intrinsic need to roam – is as much a choice as it is a survival technique.
From traditional Yurt communities, to Bedouin tribes and the Eastern European Roma, the gadjo (non traveller) represent a confusing mix of authority and conflict.
Settlement acts passed from the early 1960’s in former Communist states which intended for travelling families to establish themselves and work in the oppressive Land regimes forbade the use of identification as a Roma or Gypsy and forced integration into a society which, for many at that point in time, they neither had a natural affiliation to or comprehension of. Even British legislation prevented ‘vagabondism’ in most forms – causing the outlawing of occluding public by-ways and roads. Yet none of these techniques worked to incorporate a transient and mobile nationhood of people into host populations. Constantly persecuted, frequently misunderstood and a mystery to both the non traveller and themselves, the history of these people is a fluid and inflammatory story of optimistic struggle and straggling survival. One to which no one is immune, nor alien to.
Current popular interest in the lifestyle of traveller families has highlighted the differences between the old notion of extended support networks – which many Roma enjoy – and the insular autonomy of host nations which prevent, to an extent, the ability to disengage and re-engage at will into everyday life. The majority of Roma have settled due to financial stability which a permanent residence encourages; those that choose to continue a mobile livelihood face prosecution and persecution. This is undeniable. Media fear mongering – the idea of the gypsy as sly, dishonest, dirty – still permeates in news reports which ostensibly serve to both integrate and isolate the traveller community.
No solutions are advanced, the traveller community ‘travels’ and therefore it is perfectly reasonable to expect them to move on when the local community feels that this time has come. No other migrant community has such an uncertain future. Two days, three weeks, four months in one place at the most. When land is acquired, not only do they have to navigate a planning process which is confusing even to gadjo but they face the added suspicion as to how this would impact on local population. But does it really matter, in the long term? Surely a settled community – even one which flouts planning laws, is better than one who is hounded and hindered.
And this can be violent in its extremes. France and Italy have progressively legislated against traveller input into their respective societies. In Romania and Balkans areas violent attacks on settled traveller camps have increased according to the ERRC. Very few of these attacks are prosecuted, out of court settlements are meagre and do not reflect the severity of these. For instance, retributive justice, whether real or imagined, often take the form of burnings. Whole communities set alight. Maimed and broken. Women, children and men – those who have been neighbours – are targeted as embodiments of criminality and treated as such.
Trawling the archives of the ERRC and social sciences departments throw up truly sickening accounts, each followed by interviews by both victims and offenders. Offenders here is loosely used, frequently they miss the justice system. And similar justifications occur throughout these: we don’t want them here. They bring nothing to society. They dress provocatively. They don’t want to work. They have no respect. They deserve everything they get – taking our jobs, our benefits. It is a tale as old as time. One to which no minority community has been exempt. A basic lack of understanding of culture clashing, simplistic, indeed, but sometimes a simple statement starts a debate rolling.
Traveller children are instilled in respect of older generations, often they live in close knit groups and they have a very real feeling of family. In many areas there is a complete innocence toward everyday living. Education is secondary – and this is understandable to an extent. If no one is willing to see the person, the potential to excel, why invest in a system which is geared toward ideals they do not hold. Education is a key to future, a key to employability, but if no one will employ a traveller above a menial position, why bother? Why bother sending a child to school to be ridiculed, put in special institutes (a common practice) because they do not conform to a pattern of life which is so skewed against them? Isn’t it better to have the children close, to teach them what has been tried and tested as useful?
Gender is also an issue in traveller communities. Women are often not valued as autonomous people, but as glue to the community. They are an amalgam of mother and nurturer – an old fashioned premise but one which is diffused between all the group. Traveller women are usually proud of this role – and if lack of ambition is to be reviled then they truly lack a feminist impulse. But this is a contentious statement. Feminists everywhere will argue for and against, and here is not the place to pull this apart.
In times of recession scapegoats are easily found. Be they Jewish, Islamic, poor or rich…Aushwitz was home to over half a million Traveller families; marked by a ‘Z’ on entry. Hardly any were liberated. Mengeles systematically medically tested traveller people seeing them as subhuman, denying them an identity and a history. Denying them culture, as the Nazi regime sought to do with most disenfranchised groups, minority ethnicities.
Yet it is only within the last 30 years that the loss of life has been acknowledged by governments. They are a sideline in history, and for most travellers’ this collective amnesia has worked to preserve them. A people with no past or future can glide through life, but they cannot enjoy it fully. They cannot step proudly and say who they are. The controversy that has surrounded recent documentaries, the sensationalistic reporting denotes a change, a change in perspective in the gadjo community – could this be a recognition of the freedom that Roma enjoy – but with an ignorance towards the cost that this represents? Now is the time to see the bigger picture.