For the last ten years, “Travellers” from Ireland have been facing a legal battle over their cultural lifestyle in southeast England. On Aug. 31, up to 400 Travellers in Essex, home to Britain’s largest Traveller community, are slated to be cleared from land that the local authorities say is not zoned for their type of dwellings.
Irish Travellers are an ethnic group, similar to Roma and Gypsies, that tend to live in groups in caravans and camps, on authorized or sometimes unauthorized land. They generally face widespread prejudice in the U.K.
According to Basildon Council, zoning laws restrict use of the land to activities like agriculture, allotments, and horse rearing. The Traveller-style homes—caravans and small chalets—are not included. Failure to follow the zoning regulations is a criminal offense.
Roughly half of the Travellers, known as the Dale Farm community, live on land that they own and are entitled to build on, on a site called Oak Lane. The rest, those facing imminent eviction, do not have permission. Basildon Council says a total of about 240 people will be removed, though Amnesty International and representatives of those facing eviction put the number at closer to 400.
In an eleventh hour attempt to prevent next week’s bulldozing, a Traveller envoy went to Geneva to appeal to the United Nations Human Rights Council, and Amnesty International issued an appeal on Aug. 22 warning authorities to “ensure that their actions do not break international law.”
“The mood is defiant,” said John Fulton, a supporter of the residents of Dale Farm, in a telephone interview. “A lot of people are very clear that they’re not going to leave their homes. And they will stay.”
Fulton says that Dale Farm residents “have been living with the constant threat of their homes being destroyed for the last five years,” some of which he calls an attempt to “rid Essex of its Traveller population.”
From Basildon Council’s point of view, the Travellers were given notice in 2001, and their continued occupation of land at Dale Farm is illegal. The number of illegal pitches has grown since 2001 and the Council says it will enforce eviction notices.
It is not discrimination, according to Basildon Council leader Tony Ball, because it is applying the law to Travellers, the same as anyone else.
“It is important the law is applied equally and fairly to all people,” said Ball in a statement.
“If we do not take action in this case, we would have little moral right as a planning authority to take action against future unauthorized developments. That would set a very dangerous precedent,” said Ball.
Since 2001, there have been repeated attempts at negotiations, with the government offering to provide permanent housing for some of the group.
When the government offered some older Traveller women “bricks and mortar” housing, or “bedsits,” as Fulton described them, the women turned them down because this type of housing is foreign to them.
The Traveller lifestyle is one in which “large families have access to one another,” Fulton said.
There is also tension from the local community over how to handle Dale Farm. As one reader commented on the website of local Essex newspaper the Echo, “Travellers clearly do not want to travel anywhere. … But when offered housing, they turn it down, presumably because they want to stay together in their big ‘gang.’” He added that the local government has no obligation to house so many people.
Comments from an anonymous reader of the same paper in a different article applauded the Council for taking action.
“Well done to the authorities for taking a stance,” the reader wrote, adding, “Travellers must realize fast that they can no longer do whatever they want around Europe.”
The eviction operation costs $13.2 million, a bill footed by the government and, by extension, the taxpayers.
Both Ball and Fulton said that negotiation was still a valid option.
“The clearance operation has always been a reluctant last resort for Basildon Council, and there is still time to avoid it,” said Ball.