‘A relentless chipping away’
From fuel poverty to a lack of stopping places, lower life expectancy to restrictive legislation, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities in the UK face multiple threats and require urgent support, writes Chris McDonagh of the charity Friends, Families and Travellers.
Fuel poverty remains a big issue across the UK. Due to the skyrocketing price of gas and electricity over the past year, many families have been forced to choose between ‘heating or eating’.
As a recent report from Friends, Families and Travellers revealed, it is the same in travelling communities, especially those living on sites or roadside, with some families paying up to £589 per month on gas bottles alone.
Imagine being a family on a site or the side of the road. The winter cold is seeping in through cracks in the window, forcing families to huddle together in the same bed to keep warm. You then hear on the news that the government is helping people with their exorbitant bills with special grants aimed at easing the burden of families and helping to keep homes warm.
Thankful that you can finally keep your family warm, you apply for the grant only to be told you aren’t eligible because you’re not connected to a mains gas or electricity supplier.
Families are often forced to bulk-buy gas bottles in order to ration their gas supply, with some even switching off the heating during less cold nights and making do with a few extra layers of blankets on their beds. This is why Friends, Families and Travellers is still fighting to get the grant extended to these families, so they don’t miss out on the help they desperately need.
But the struggle of trying to live a way of life that your parents, grandparents and family consider a central pillar of your identity doesn’t end with the colder months.
‘A significant national shortage of places for nomadic Gypsies and Travellers to stop’
Across the UK, there is a significant shortage of places for nomadic Gypsies and Travellers to stop legally and safely. Last year, the Police Act 2022 came into force, which means people who live on roadside camps may now face the prospect of time in prison, a £2500 fine or their home being taken from them. This will affect families, children and the elderly, leaving people statutorily homeless for the crime of having no place else to go.
Can we truly expect families to constantly be on the road without the need to rest and take a break, be it on a piece of disused land or in a public lay-by? The truth is that families and people living nomadically would often much rather be in safe stopping places, be it sites or somewhere to rest up before moving on. The lack of stopping places is something that needs to be addressed in order to help those who are otherwise often left with little to no choice but to pull up on a green space or in a car park.
This recent change in the law is open to interpretation and likely to impact upon everyone who is, or wishes to, live nomadically – by culture, choice or necessity. This means Travellers and people who have traditionally lived on roadside camps, or even those who fancy a UK-wide campervan or caravanning holiday, are always at risk of losing their vehicles, livelihoods and even homes.
‘There is a silent epidemic unravelling’
Unsurprisingly, the situation facing Romany, Irish Traveller and nomadic communities due to this legislation has had a negative knock-on effect on their mental wellbeing. The prospect of losing homes, livelihoods and cultural ways of living creates a massive new worry with which to contend.
Sadly, there is a silent epidemic unravelling. Disturbingly high numbers of Irish Traveller and nomadic people are currently dying by suicide. There have been reports from within communities of children, adults and the elderly taking their own lives, with little to no media or public attention or governmental action. In fact, research by Friends, Families and Travellers found that just two out of 79 local suicide prevention plans sought to address suicide inequalities in Gypsy and Traveller communities.
The exact reasons behind this can never be clear, but the impact widespread hatred, racism, discrimination and rejection in everyday life can have is no secret. Like many people across society, suicide and mental health struggles are often seen as taboo within the Traveller and Romany communities, with many affected suffering in silence.
The life expectancy of an Irish Traveller or Romany person can be 10 years or more lower than the general public, with just 3 per cent of Irish Traveller and Romany Gypsy people reaching their 80s. To put this into perspective, a 30-35-year-old Traveller person can be considered ‘middle aged’.
Data on deaths by suicide in Gypsy and Traveller communities is not collected in England, Scotland and Wales, which means the authorities can be wilfully ignorant and slow to react.
By contrast, Gypsy and Traveller civil society is ready to act and help the government implement policies to tackle the issues and dire statistics. A willingness to act isn’t only necessary, it should be mandatory.
The relentless chipping away of Romany and Irish Traveller life chances is real and causing damage. The Council of Europe’s recent report sees what needs to be done. Why can’t we?
Chris McDonagh is a campaigns officer at Friends, Families and Travellers – which works to end racism and discrimination against Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people and protect the right to pursue a nomadic way of life – and a member of the Irish Traveller community.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Runnymede Trust.
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Photo © Families, Friends and Travellers
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