Hearing the voices of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community

Deputy Leader Amelia Womack reflects on the first event in the Always Learning series – a rich, in-depth discussion with three speakers from GRT communities.

Amelia Womack
Amelia Womack
Amelia Womack

During a by-election in Manchester in 2017, I was staying with veteran Green Party member Anne Power, and we were up late talking over a cup of tea. She was telling me about a conversation she’d had with someone about their experiences of oppression, and she said ‘what I realised during that conversation is that at the age of 85, I am still always learning.’ That phrase really stuck with me. 

In my final months as Green Party deputy leader, I wanted to do some work to bring the voices of marginalised groups to the forefront, and support members to keep learning. In the Green Party, we’re committed to fighting injustice, oppression and inequality – and so often, the first step is to educate people, or support people to educate themselves, about marginalised groups. 

Last week, I was thrilled to launch the first event in the new Always Learning series to coincide with Gypsy, Roma, Traveller (GRT) History month. With the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts act criminalising GRT people, there sadly has never been a more important time to ensure that we are hearing directly from those people whose lives and communities are being subject to increasing police harassment and public vilification. 

It was such an eye-opening event, and I was extremely grateful to three amazing speakers for joining us. First, we heard from Claire Rice. Claire is a Romany Gypsy, a GRT Human rights activist, Social Changemaker, Hate Crime ambassador, a BSc Psychology and MA Criminology with a deferred PhD. She is the Project Manager at GATE Herts, where she specialises in GRT community support and supporting GRT victims of domestic abuse.

Claire spoke about the vile racist and derogatory language used about the GRT community, and called for allies to speak out against this racism. She told us that hate crime and hate speech are common across social media – often linked to unauthorised developments and planning issues. Often, there are calls for violence, and for encampments to be treated violently. Now, the Policing Act, which criminalises trespass, will be another trigger for hate crime and will leave GRT communities vulnerable. 

The most common form of discrimination, Claire told us, is refusal of service. For example, a family with kids might go out to try and have a Sunday lunch, and will often be refused service. She cited the example of holiday park Pontins, which is being investigated by the UK’s Equality Watchdog after being found to keep a blacklist of ‘undesirable’ Irish surnames as part of a policy of refusing bookings by Gypsies and Travellers. Claire noted the horrific connotations of the term ‘undesirables,’ which has echoes of the Roma holocaust. It’s shocking that in 2022, we still have firms using terms like these. 

We also heard from Virgil Bitu. He told us about the history of the Roma community: from 500 years of enslavement to extermination at the hands of the Nazi regime and forced assimilation policies under communist regimes. Now, he told us, European governments and institutions are adopting so-called ‘social integration’ policies, implemented without the participation of Roma communities. When representatives of the community are consulted, this is usually just a tick-box exercise, failing to meaningfully engage with those affected.

For millennia, Virgil told us, the Roma community has been ignored and denied representation – and now, anti-Gypsy hate crime is the most tolerated. He cited the horrific example of Jimmy Carr’s deeply harmful “joke” about the thousands of Gypsies killed by the Nazis during the holocaust. 

Finally, we heard from Dr Marius Taba. Marius is a Romanian Roma who works for NHS Doncaster. Since February 2021, he has been a member of the Board of Trustees of Friends, Families and Travellers, a leading NGO working for GRT communities in the UK. He spoke to us about the need to look at the issue as an opportunity, rather than problematising the GRT community. The historical embedment of derogatory language towards GRT communities has damaged the relationships between these communities and the majority population, and has meant that the status quo is seeing these groups as a problem. There is a double-edged sword in the representation of GRT communities, he explained: either GRT men are seen as hyper-masculine and threatening, or GRT people are seen as always asking for things. It’s time instead to show that GRT people have something to offer to society. 

We had a rich, in-depth discussion about the issues, and I’m so grateful to the panellists for joining me. One thing that came through very clearly was the vital role that the Green Party can play in platforming GRT voices and standing vocally against the discrimination and racism faced by these communities. 

I certainly learned a great deal from the event, and I hope that all those attending did too. I can’t wait for the next event in the Always Learning series – watch this space for further details.