Kent County Councillor, Karen Constantine, looks at the plight of traveller communities in Kent.
The newest and temporary traveller site in Kent was set up on the roughly tarmacked and windblown, long redundant, ferry car park on Ramsgate’s Port. An inhospitable and exposed location under a towering cliff.
Such was the hostility of some of the local settled community, the ‘county folk’, that rocks and other missiles were lobbed down narrowly missing vans and residents. Other ‘county folk’ chose drive by ‘buzzing’ in cars and on motorbikes, others settled with illegal filming of the site and residents. Local Facebook groups were a frenzy of smears, hateful speculation and racism. “I saw two children holding a small dog and swinging it around by its legs!” claimed one, with no evidence. Further down the coast some debris washed in on the tide and guess who got the blame? Others chimed in about a local crime wave and the dangers of finding human excrement. This response is the very definition of a hostile environment.
“The problem is that we aren’t black” said a Pavee traveller I spoke with. “No-one would treat us this way if we were, as they wouldn’t get away with it”. That appears true. It really does seem to be the case that racism, unconscious bias and industrial dehumanising / othering of ethic traveller groups is tolerated, even shamefully promoted, by those powers and public bodies that should be preventing and challenging it. The last bastion of equality to be dealt with and a prima facia example of institutional racism in action. A denial of basic human rights. Those organisations who visit the site to deliver statutory services only ever arrive in packs and almost always with the police as escorts. Hardly the precursor for healthy community relationships!
Few official visitors listen. Even less actually respond to the needs of the group. Only a tiny percentage take the time to begin to understand the cultural differences and needs; only then can requests of the traveller communities be met with a culturally appropriate response. The vast majority stay away. Or try to.
The new Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is making its progress through Parliament. Once passed it is set to make Gypsy, Traveller and Roma life even tougher, more degraded (and it is difficult to imagine what a harder, less valued life would actually look like). The lives, the culture, and the very existence of travellers of all types is destined to become even harder. Human rights and international conventions will barely apply. This is happening under our noses. It seems fair minded, political liberals are much more concerned about the erosion of human rights the further they are from home. But on your doorstep seems ok.
The site was organised when Thanet District Council was instructed by Kent Magistracy to provide a temporary site due to the extreme poor and declining health of several members of an extended family. Bear in mind the average life expectancy of a traveller man is just 55 years. Initially the council offered a small space sufficient for two families and a few caravans. The families felt this was a ploy to split the extended family of 60 up, and to use the existing draconian legislation to move the rest of the family group on. This initial offer was refused. The families had been told that water, toilets, an electricity supply, refuse collection and particularly showers, (always important, but especially so where two members of the community are immune suppressed) would be accessible. Electricity was urgently needed to treat the medical conditions of a pregnant woman, a baby and some of the children in the absence of generators. Stress, anxiety, depression and asthma have flared up for the family whilst being located on this industrial, dusty, ill kept site. And still it’s described as a paradise compared to being continually evicted and moved on.
After almost three months of non-stop battling by the travellers with their councillors, a coalition of Greens and Labour, there is now one working shower, no electricity supply, several portaloos, and a couple of water stand pipes. The council provided an extra waste bin after rubbish mounted up. Despite many requests to the resolutely uncommunicative Thanet Council Chief Executive, there’s no Equality Impact Assessment and she refuses to undertake a site visit. Even less has been done with regard to the public sector equality duty.
If ever a group of people needed stronger rights and protections under legislation and much more support from the public I haven’t met them.