Whose land? Resisting the Tories’ anti-traveller policy plans

One of the Tories’ less frequently talked about policy plans is to increase police powers to tackle ‘illegal’ encampments and to criminalise trespassing. Hanna Gál writes on why these must be resisted.

A field, with a caravan camp in the distance on the left side, in front of hills
Photo: James Johnstone on Flickr

The landslide victory of the Tories has enabled them to form a majority government and will let them further entrench systemic state racism. This danger was clear from during the campaign, but received considerably less attention than their Brexit plans. Their manifesto contains extensive passages on increasing police powers, surveillance and incarceration, often ‘preventatively’ applied to specific groups racialised to connect them with ‘terrorism’ or ‘knife crime’.

Another key component of these aggressive criminalisation plans, however, received little attention bar some social media posts and a couple of articles. At the end of the three-page manifesto section about ‘Making our country safer’, we find the following passage:

‘We will tackle unauthorised traveller camps. We will give the police new powers to arrest and seize the property and vehicles of trespassers who set up unauthorised encampments, in order to protect our communities. We will make intentional trespass a criminal offence, and we will also give councils greater powers within the planning system.’

Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) communities have been at the sharp end of police harassment and state repression for several decades in all European countries where they live. Even now that the genocide that decimated Roma and Sinti populations during the holocaust (known as Porajmos) has finally been recognised, the ethnic cleansing of GRT peoples continues under the guise of ‘integration’ programmes.

The issue with ‘integration’ is two-fold.

Firstly, numerous parties and governments have found it handy in campaign periods to provide an acceptable veneer legitimising racist bigotry. Anti-traveller bigotry is endemic in Britain, and rarely questioned, yet it is easy to sell integration as reasonable or even progressive as a way of facilitating peaceful coexistence in the western liberal context of ‘multicultural diversity’.

Secondly, discrimination against GRT communities is driven by the need to enforce compliance with private property relations in land, even more than it is by bigotry. The existence of the capitalist nation-state is predicated on these relations and land as a commodity, so those who ‘refuse’ to live ‘normally’ – purchasing or pay ing for the use of land – are violently forced to comply. Local councils have worked with the police to remove traveller encampments for decades. The Tories’ proposals to widely extend criminalisation would make this significantly easier, while traveller communities would find themselves effectively legislated out of existence.

If the Tories implement their plans, GRT communities would be the most affected, but not the only ones. Making ‘intentional’ trespassing a criminal offence would have a wide impact in a country where most land is privately owned. In rural areas, many roads and footpaths lead through private land, whose boundaries are often not marked by signage or fences. Police powers to seize possessions and property of those setting up camps illegally, further endangers homeless people setting up tents, which, just like traveller camps, are seen as a nuisance and ‘aesthetic problem’ by many councils and citizens alike. The seizing of tents and possessions is not unprecedented. It is already common practice by police forces across Europe against ‘illegal’ refugees not residing in official refugee camps.

Understanding that ‘integration’ is no more than a cynical lie is crucial for solidarity with traveller and other marginalised communities and resistance to these policies. Integration policies don’t enable these communities to remain in existence. Compliance with whatever criteria applied at any given time can enable the imaginary goalposts of ‘compatibility’ with settled communities to be moved further and further by the state.

Legislative marginalisation and increased police powers protect private property and the rich while maintaining marginalised populations excluded from legal rights through border and immigration regimes or ‘dissolved’ as a people as with non-migrant ethnic minorities such as First Nation peoples in the United States, Canada and Australia or Roma in the UK and other European countries.

A form of state violence against GRT communities which is perhaps even less talked about than the forced removal of encampments is the forced adoption or institutionalisation of Roma children into the social care system. As Luke Smith wrote in his article for Tribune published before the election:

By taking our children and giving them to ‘normal’ families, the future of our community are denied any discussion about their heritage and are integrated against their will. 

Recently, a non-nomadic Romani Gypsy family on a site local to me had a niece forcibly adopted, despite around 15 family members – all of which had no criminal record – putting themselves forward to take the child as their own. The authorities showed a clear systemic bias in overlooking her relatives in favour of a family who, I understand, thought that the slur ‘pikey’ was ‘just what they are’.’

Forced adoption is a measure against Roma people in various countries in Europe. It is often used punitively for perceived non-compliance with ‘normal’ lifestyles, such as the lack of a fixed dwelling, or in Eastern European countries such as Hungary or Bulgaria where most Roma people are settled in houses but in extreme poverty, the lack of a bathroom with running water or electricity.

There are several ways in which we can resist these plans becoming reality. The government is currently running a consultation on the laws targeting illegal encampments. It can be filled in here and recommended responses from traveller community groups are here. The wider movement should make efforts to include and prioritise people without address, property or official status, whose existence is already an ongoing battle against the state and capital. This will require both challenging racism against GRT communities and practical solidarity such as physically resisting the growing threat of removals and evictions. It is vital we start the resistance against the Tories now – many don’t have five years to wait.

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