Avoiding bad puns…
Have been meaning to write something about the persecution of the Roma in Europe for some time now. I’d like to say I could have come up with a title that wasn’t a horrific, tired-out pun on Roma and roam. But the fact is, our treatment of travellers in Europe is no better now than it ever has been, barring the period when half a million of them perished to the Nazi final solution. In Italy, they have become the subject of mass-fingerprinting and vigilante attacks, in the Czech Republic, there are problems with trying to develop an education system that works for them, and in general, they continue to be the racial group towards whom racism is rarely, if ever, condemned. Two articles from the BBC highlighted some of these issues for me.
The issue of how we handle travellers in our midst is a hugely difficult one. Are we forcing poverty on them if we help them stay on the roads? Conversely, are we destroying their culture if we teach them to aspire? Of course, all this would be meaningless in the UK if it weren’t for the fact that the Thatcher government made all their niche trades illegal. Gone are the days of the itinerant scrap collector. One could invoke Galtung’s Triangle (that violence comes in three connected types) and say that they are the victims of physical (usually mob), systemic (through legal attacks) and cultural (being the bogeymen for everything) violence.
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting numerous Roma and Gypsie folks. With only one exception, the general impression has always been of hopelessness, of doom and gloom and near total depression. A friend of mine from Uni had close Irish Gypsy roots, and whilst she tended to be less down-beat in herself, she had some worrying tales of mass-collective-depression in Eastern Europe where she had worked with Roma groups on a voluntary project.
The problem seems to be finding a route between improving their lives to a point of being bearable without so imposing a ‘whiteness’, a westernness, that would utterly destroy them. They are a separate community, and one to be cherished, but not at the expense of mass morbidity and being turned into an outlaw caste as so often happens. We need travellers in our society for many different reasons, and Gypsies, Roma and Sinti have played a huge role in stirring the mixing pot of European culture of the last few centuries. Of course, this is part of why they are so villified: creativity and the transporting of new cultural ideas is a recipe for trouble in a world dominated by those who rely on fear of outside cultures. And with fear of Islamophobia a major policy driver in modern Europe, the last thing we need is a mobile population trying to remind us of this.
Of course, in many countries, travelling families are already off the road. While technology technically means we can do more on the road; 3G internet, laptops and truck-mounted wind turbines = ability to run small IT service businesses whilst on the road, or at least, that would be the theory if Travelling (capital T) wasn’t banned in many European countries, and of course, if they weren’t being forced so hard into poverty by all the other policies going on around them.
But the need for some to travel is definitely still present: Global Nomadic Youth Culture (a misnomer given half the population is over 30, despite the low life expectancy) continues to draw more and more people in, even if it has somewhat slowed since the 60’s. If an alternative to diesel were found for powering their vehicles, gypsies would be very low carbon users as well.
I don’t think the solution is to drive huge amounts of money into removing the cultural identities of traveller people groups. Sure, there probably is a fear of success destroying their communities (for success has destroyed community for the rest of us already, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not). If we could simply work on conflict resolution projects and on repealing the laws that prevent gypsies from earning an honest living, we could deal with many of the problems. Some kind of network-based education (i.e. one where people can transfer between the nodes) that works around a travelling lifestyle and which focuses on literacy, numeracy and communicating ideas for wellbeing might be the best we can offer.
Above all, we must try to re-educate ourselves as a collective mass, against the zenophobia and hatred that only 60 years ago almost saw the Roma being purged from our continent, and which theatens to rise again. Simply forgetting them won’t make them go away, but the effects of right-wing policies and vigilante behaviour, likely to rise if we do forget, could have exactly that result.