Monday, August 2, 2010



Sarkozy, Dale Farm and the Persistent Vulnerability of Nomadic Minorities in Europe

By Darren O'Donovan

The events of the past week across Europe have underlined how Travellers, Gypsies and Roma remain ensnared in a cycle of social control and malign disengagement. Events in France and the United Kingdom illustrate the common grammar of Traveller/Roma exclusion within Ireland and other European states. They show the continuing power of majoritarian politics to make minorities visible on their own terms and to successfully drive a narrative of social control and surveillance.

Firstly, to the events of the past week in France, where President Nicolas Sarkozy has problematised the lifestyle of the entire French gens de voyage (Travellers) and Romany population, following the destruction of a police station and government property by 50 ‘travelling-people’ rioters in central France. The rioters were protesting the death of a 22 year, shot by police. To address the problems caused by the ‘some of the travelling people and Roma’, the French president summoned a meeting at the Elysée Palace. Using decree powers, the Interior Minister now plans to ‘evacuate’ 300 illegal settlements. The French Human Rights League has condemned the proposal for ‘ethnically targeted evictions of illegal settlements’, and notes that these communities are increasingly ‘scapegoats for the deficiencies of the state’. The conflation of the estimated 20,000 Eastern European Roma with the 400,000 generational French Travellers has facilitated the crisis rhetoric. The New York Times has also reported that the French government is investigating the use of Bulgarian and Romanian police to help their operations.

In demanding greater consideration of the broader context of these measures, it is vital to take into account the exceptionally strong findings recently made against France by the European Committee of Social Rights under the Revised European Social Charter. This collective complaint was brought by the European Roma Rights Centre in furtherance of its litigation strategy which has begun to successfully press States in a variety of venues, combining macro-appraisal of States housing frameworks with selective case law before the European Convention on Human Rights. This rights advocacy arc received its most prominent success in the landmark case of D.H. v Czech Republic where the European Court of Human Rights found structural educational exclusion of the local Roma population in the town of Ostrava.

In relation to France, the European Committee of Social Rights found that despite occasional positive results ‘there appears to have been a long period during which local authorities and the state have failed to take sufficient account of the specific needs of Travellers’. It underlined the obligation of states under Article 31 of the Charter to provide integrated and appropriate housing policies targeting Travellers. While France had instituted a requirement that appropriate sites be provided within the ‘Reception of Travellers Act 2000’, the implementation of this was too slow. In line with Irish experiences, a report of the Conseil General des Ponts et Chaussées had found that the implementation of the plans related exclusively or partially to the ‘reactions of neighbours’, ‘the strong reticence on the part of local elected officials’ and the ‘absence of real political will’. The inadequate implementation of this legislation was a violation of the Charter (the implementation rate of planned projects is said to be around 25%). Only half of the relevant communes are said to meet their obligations to provide appropriate accommodation. It was further found that not all the stopping places meet the required sanitary norms, established legislatively by France itself, which require access to drinking water and electricity, together with a management and security system. Where Travellers wished to settle permanently in caravans, both national government and local authorities had failed to mobilize resources to provide appropriate accommodation, particularly being sensitive to the needs of family units.

The Committee stressed that Travellers ‘have for many generations played a key role in French society and history’. It also noted that France had failed to take the necessary steps to improve the living conditions of Romani migrants from other States Parties. Eviction powers were described as overwide, as an echo of Ireland’s Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1998, the Internal Security Act 2003, allows the police to intervene within 48 hours, without any need for a ruling by the administrative court. The Committee underlined that evictions are to take place in accordance with the applicable rules of procedure and these should be sufficiently protective of the rights of the persons concerned. In the civil and political sphere, electoral regulations limit French Travellers right to vote resulting in them having ‘virtually no political influence’. The issue of housing flowed inevitably into poverty with the Committee finding a violation of Article 30 regarding the right to protection against poverty and social exclusion. This demanded ‘an overall and co-ordinated approach, which should consist of an analytical framework, a set of priorities and measures to prevent and remove obstacles to access to fundamental rights’. The Committee underlined that central to the forming policy solutions was for Travellers cultural difference to be taken into account.

These regressive developments in France, have been matched within the United Kingdom, where the largest Irish Traveller and Romany Gypsy encampment in the United Kingdom, Dale Farm in Essex, will shortly be the scene of a mass eviction. The main body of the site is owned by a member of the Travelling Community, some of whom have been on the site since the 1960s. Many have joined over time having been displaced following cycles of evictions. This expansion led to plots being built on land purchased by Travellers themselves, which had the designation as ‘Green Belt’ (though one might note that it was previously used as a scrap metal yard). With no obligation on local authorities to meet the accommodation needs of Travellers, a number of those subject to eviction orders will have no alternative sites, while others may have offers of mainstream housing. The severe nature of the situation led to a warning being sent to the relevant Minister, under an urgent action procedure, by the chair of the United Nations Commission on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which stressed the need for the provision of alternative site, extra planning permissions where possible. A primary concern is also the conduct of evictions, which should be impact assessed and carried out without undue force by the relevant private bailiffs. The next step for the council will be the issuing of a 28 day notice of the eviction being carried out. A United Nations linked observation team will be present, and the Human Rights Centre of the University of Essex has also been particularly prominent in promoting legal and advocacy engagement with the situation. The Dale Farm situation will be the most visible event of a summer which has already brought severe cuts to funding for Traveller sites, and the promise of the reintroduction of those provisions of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which criminalises trespass. The Conservative/Liberal coalition has also plans to remove more progressive Ministerial circulars which placed a stronger valuation on Travellers cultural identity in the planning process.

These developments underline the common grammar of Traveller/Roma exclusion throughout Europe. Majoritarian politics continue to extract wide-ranging regressive measures from individual events, overriding policy making structures established by statute and mandated by international law. This, of course, occurred in the Irish context during the drafting the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1998, which criminalises trespass, and allows Gardaí to direct the removal and confiscation of caravans without direct judicial consideration of relevant legal obligations, particularly the European Convention on Human Rights. Familiar also is the division of labour between local and national government, the national authorities commit to aims but do not appropriate implementation and accountability diffuses. Accountability does not simply refer to levels of provision, but to matters as simple as the visibility of statistics. In the Irish context, the clearest example has been the difficulties of simply extracting information regarding the use of extraordinary eviction powers against Travellers. The best description of such modern forms of exclusion is the Zygmunt Bauman’s term multifinal, meaning that government policy is separated out into an array of functions which can be combined into multiple meanings. National governments continue to present themselves as human rights compliant but encumbered by local hurdles, while local authorities cast themselves as well-meaning prisoners of undue demands. This goal displacement disperses accountability and allows anti-Travellerism to be presented as a reality that cannot be overcome.

Fundamental to all this remains the stereotyping of Travellers and Roma as cultures of poverty, whose central philosophy is that their existence is to be explained by deprivation and criminality. Our own debate surrounding Traveller ethnicity is of course fundamental to this, though it can often appear that ‘ethnicity’ offers little on the ground but legalism and conceptual navel gazing. Yet we must continue to underline that a key byproduct of all human rights law and advocacy must be the increased visibility of Traveller history and their lived reality to the majority population. This was underlined by European Court on Human Rights in its most recent case concerning Roma cultural identity in Spain, where it recognized:

‘…the importance of the beliefs that the applicant derives from belonging to the Roma community – a community which has its own values that are well established and deeply rooted in Spanish society.’

In the past few days, perhaps the bitterest taste has been left by the news reporting’s introductory tone, which seems to underline that significant quantities of viewers and readers simply do not know that a French Traveller population does exist and is in fact an estimated 400,000 strong.

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