Gypsies and Genocide

Cain and Abel in the Anthropocene

What happened in the United Kingdom a couple of months ago is an example of the rule that attacks on wider rights and freedoms frequently start with a minority. It also warns that when any human group is labeled as redundant, inferior, and removable, the crime that follows will be monstrous. On 4 November 2019, as the elections neared, Priti Patel, Secretary of State for the Home Department, presented a written statement on an “important issue”: “Strengthening Police Powers to Tackle Unauthorised Encampments”. The text is peppered with words like “criminalizing”, “distress and misery”, and “criminal offence”. They refer to Gypsies, a word Patel scrupulously avoids though it’s spread all over her project. It’s an old Tory election trick to blame others for “distress and misery” and Gypsies (the term embraced by the UK community), Roma, and Travellers (who are native to Ireland), or the GRT community, are a handy culprit. The wider issue is human rights. In the 2005 election campaign, the Tories scapegoated the GRT community—who allegedly use the Human Rights Act to bend planning laws—when they tried to scrap the Act. After the latest Tory win and with Brexit looming, this project and withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights is high on the agenda of Dominic Cummings, Chief Special Adviser to Boris Johnson, who is “coming for that next”.

Priti Patel’s project raises the question of genocide because it aims to abolish Gypsy and Traveller existence altogether, basically by criminalizing the presently civil law matter of using stopping places without permission. Taking their cue from her, thirty-four councils have taken out injunctions threatening Gypsies and Travellers with fines and imprisonment if they camp on public land within their boundaries. The culture, the identity of many of Britain’s still itinerant 63,000 Gypsies, Roma, and Travellers will be eradicated by the only alternative offered to them: council housing. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, two thirds of their ancient stopping sites were closed, and after the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act of 1994 local authorities were no longer obliged to provide sites. The aim now is to give councils greater powers to expel Gypsies, Roma and Travellers and confiscate their homes which represent, “Every single thing of value, financial or emotional”, as one woman told Foreign Policy. Two men captured the essence of the Tory project when they called it a “legal pogrom” and “ethnic cleansing”.

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Daniel Raventós is a lecturer in Economics at the University of Barcelona and author inter alia of Basic Income: The Material Conditions of Freedom (Pluto Press, 2007). He is on the editorial board of the international political review Sin Permiso.   Julie Wark is an advisory board member of the international political review Sin Permiso. Her last book is The Human Rights Manifesto (Zero Books, 2013).

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