Some years ago, in the North-Western part of London, I encountered a beggar. She was a white, clean and healthy looking woman in her 40’s. Not one I would take for a beggar. She told me her husband had died some months ago and that she had to leave her country, Ireland, as poverty had struck her family. She asked me to buy her and her children something to eat. And she needed shelter for the night. I was curious and asked what had happened to her work, but I hadn’t understood correctly. “We are travellers,” she explained.
Highly visible in most European capitals with beggar cups and accordions, the Roma people are well known to the European population. And the Irish Travellers have caught the attention of millions in the UK alone through the TV show “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding”.
The Roma people originally came from India and arrived in the Balkans region of Eastern Europe one thousand years ago. Irish Travellers also separated from their community around one thousand years ago.
Gypsies have been in Europe for centuries, way longer than many other ethnic minorities on the continent, yet the general attitudes towards these mysterious people are mixed and to a certain degree filled with prejudice, fear and even hate. Today many gypsies are impoverished and badly discriminated.
“Poor working class communities and other ethnic minorities or disadvantaged communities, have similar issues to Gypsies and Travellers,” Matthew Brindley in The Traveller Movement says.
“Although, I would say that the level of hostility and discrimination that seems to be publically acceptable from the media, politicians and local campaign groups is exceptionally high.“
In relation with their hit reality series “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding,” UK’s Channel 4 ran an advertising campaign in parallel to the series. Billboards all over the UK showed images of stereotypical Gypsies that included questionable images of children with the sentence “Bigger. Fatter. Gypsier” attached.
“Would you put up an image of a negative stereotype of a black person all over the country and write ‘Bigger. Fatter. Blacker?’” Brindley asks.
“I don’t think that would be publically acceptable and nor should it be, but unfortunately, I think with Gypsies, it’s still seen as acceptable with such terminologies and discrimination.”
The Sun ran a campaign “on behalf of their ten million readers”, a few years ago called “Stamp on the camps”, aiming to stop John Prescott allowing illegal Gypsy and Traveller camps across Britain.
“Could you imagine a campaign saying stamp on the mosques, or other symbolic structures for ethnic minority groups?” Brindley questions.
Discriminated by public authorities
It’s also been reported a number of discriminative actions from public authorities all over Europe.
“If you’re a young, black man you’re more likely to be stopped and searched by the police, and the same applies for Gypsies and Travellers,” Brindley explains.
In Italy a number discriminative and even violent actions from the police have been reported.
“ERRC is concerned that Romani children are often subjected to torture, inhuman, or degrading treatment by Italian law-enforcement officials,” the European Roma Rights Centre wrote in a report from 2003.
In one episode reported, a 14-year-old Roma called Adamo Gazi, was apparently beaten by two carabinieri (the military police in Italy). The 14 year old was picked up in Rome for carrying a plastic toy pistol. The boy claimed the carabinieri told him he looked “suspicious” and that they thought he was “probably off to a robbery”. When his father visited him in the detention centre, Adamo Gazi had his mouth covered in blood and a swollen eye. The boy was later released and at the hearing preceding his release, his father informed the court that he wanted to press charges for the beating. However, his caseworker from the Italian Committee for Refugees advised him not to go against local authorities and Mr Gazi withdrew his complaint.
Last year Greek police took a four-year-old, blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl named Maria during a raid on a Roma Camp in Farsala, Greece. The Greek authorities suspected the girl, who didn’t look at all like the couple she stayed with, to be stolen, presumably from tourists visiting the popular holiday destination. The case was covered by the media all over the world and made some hundreds of parents with missing children hope that their daughter had been found. The case took a surprising turn, however, when little Maria turned out to be a Romani after all, given away by her mother at the age of seven months to the Roma couple living in Farsala.
In Northern Europe, doubtful behaviour from the police has also been reported. The Norwegian Bureau for the Investigation of Police Affairs wrote in their annual report for 2012, that the Oslo Police District was reported by several foreign beggars. In a number of cases,the Police had driven individuals to other locations many kilometres away to be dropped off and left there.
“Claims are made in several complaints that Police Officers have acted in such a way that persons have felt humiliated. Due to the lack of proper logging by the police these claims have been difficult to pursue,” it’s written in the report.
The traditional gypsy lifestyle is no longer accepted
Being a nomadic people, Gypsies and Travellers traditionally lived a life “on the road,” travelling from place to place mainly earning their living on agriculture, trading between fairs, music and other old trades no longer practiced in the modern, western world.
Matthew Brindley in The Traveller Movement points out that things have changed dramatically since the Second World War.
“The reality is that it’s increasingly hard, and has been for the last 50-60 years, for Gypsies and Travellers to live culturally appropriate lives that they want to live.
“The agriculture has become mechanised, common land has been prioritised, and the nomadic habit of life is no longer acceptable and is no longer very functional economically.
“Although Gypsies and Travellers always, to a certain extent, have been discriminated against, pushed to the margin and been socially excluded, I think society has hardened to an even greater extent.
“It’s a culture under pressure in that respect,” he says.
Travellers have become localised
Another significant issue for travellers and gypsies in Europe is finding appropriate accommodation. In 1994, the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act successfully banned the nomadic way of life in the UK. Which means Gypsies and Travellers were forced onto given public or private caravan sites, or into houses.
“There are more and more restrictions on where you can live and how you can live,” Brindley explains and points out that in the UK planning regulations are continuing to tighten up and will continue to do so.
“Gypsies and Travellers have become more and more excluded and less and less able to live the life they want to live.“
Ironically, in 2014, a big part of the “settled” population seems to be travelling much more than most Gypsy communities. Young adults travel the world in gap years, businesses have become globalised letting professionals travel more than ever and with flight prices falling, almost anyone can afford a weekend abroad.
Today most ethnic Travellers are both born and raised in the same place. In fact around 50% of Gypsies and Travellers in the UK now live in houses. Around 32% live in private or public caravan sites and a small part camp up on unauthorised places that suit them.
“The majority of Gypsies and Travellers are living very close to where they were born,” Matthew Brindley says.
“If anything, Gypsies and Travellers are probably more localised than a certain group of the population who are often quite mobile.“
Ghettos are created
In many European countries, the ignorance of public authorities towards Gypsies and Travellers has resulted in Gypsies being separated from the local community and excluded from education and healthcare.
In Italy, a Roma camp was set-up by local authorities in Masseria del Pozzo. An area previously used by the Camorra (the mafia operating in the Campania region of Italy), to dump illegal and hazardous waste for several years. The region has recently experienced increasing deaths caused by cancer and other diseases, exceeding the Italian national average.
“Italy is the only country in Europe to boast a systematic, publicly organised and sponsored network of ghettos aimed at depriving Roma of full participation or even contact or interaction with Italian life,” the European Roma Rights Centre wrote in their report from 2003.
Photographer, Yvonne De Rosa made the video “Waste Side Story,” using her own photos from the camp after wandering around in what locals of the area call “the triangle of death” or “the Land of Fire,” and discovering the Roma camp.
“I made the video to present the Italian Roma-situation,” she says.
She also reveals the video has been shown in a recent conference in the European Parliament Commission concerning human rights.