Travellers and state racism: New strategies

travellers1I was privileged to speak at the Irish Traveller Movement 2012 AGM. Travellers have campaigned for recognition as an ethnic group for years and the state’s refusal in 2003 to recognise them as such after years of government attempts to settle and assimilate Travellers was a major setback, because it deprives them of a coherent platform from which to conduct an antiracism campaign.

My argument is that although there is plenty of individual racism against Travellers, from local councils to local residents who do not want Travellers to be accommodated near them, the chief offender is the state. In attempting to settle Travellers, in not providing sufficient halting sites, in prohibiting camping on public or private grounds, in not supporting Travellers in seeking second and third level education, and in denying Traveller ethnicity, the Irish state racialises Travellers as a group apart.

Indeed Travellers – who do not differ from the Irish in skin colour or religion – have been racialised by the Irish who themselves were racialised by the British and in the diaspora. Regrettably, many Travellers have internalised their inferiority, and the result, as outlined by Traveller counsellor Thomas McCann, is rampant mental health, drugs and suicide problems.

el-araqibUsing the examples of Bedouin citizens of Israel, I outlined some ideas about renewing Travellers’ struggle against discrimination. Over the years, the Israeli government aimed to transform the Bedouins from shepherds into an urban proletariat. The result is that about half of the 200,000 Bedouins live in seven government-built urban townships and the other half in 45 ‘unrecognised’ villages which the Israeli government keeps demolishing. These ‘unrecognised’ villages, not marked on any map, are ineligible for municipal services such as electricity, water, refuse collection and roads.

Over the years the state dealt harshly with Bedouins by moving them from place to place, confiscating their flocks, destroying their homes and even spraying their crops with poison. Not unlike the 2002 Trespass Law in relation to Irish Travellers, Israel is about to pass the ‘Law for Bedouin Settlement in the Negev’.  The law rejects Bedouin claims to ownership of most of their property, and will confiscate 80 per cent of the 240,000 acres owned by Bedouins, and legalise the destruction of the homes of some 20,000 families, who will be transferred to undeveloped plots in ‘authorised’ locations.

Bedouin resistance strategies include increased visibility and solidarity with international and Israeli Jewish and Palestinian organisations. Bedouin issues are constantly reported in the media and supporters campaign for their legal rights and assist them in re-building their demolished villages. The state used enormous force to destroy the ‘unrecognised’ village of El Araqib, demolished 40 times, but force will not benefit the state, as no Bedouin will agree to build his house on land that another Bedouin claims.

Another important resistance strategy is education. By 2007, 250 Bedouin women attended university. Despite financial difficulties, many Bedouin families support their daughters’ education and graduates give public lectures to their villages on education, physical and mental health.  In Ben Gurion University there is a Centre for Bedouin Studies and Development, and the Bedouins participating in the struggle include lawyers, teachers, doctors and academics.

While I fully support Traveller claims to the status of an ethnic group, I asked my audience whether ethnicity is an essential part of Traveller identity or rather a strategy of organising against racism. I suggested moving beyond this struggle, to creating and fostering solidarity networks, keeping their issues visible, and resisting discrimination through the courts. Another important strategy is education, a crucial ‘route to resistance’. Finally, Travellers should move beyond the partnership model, which Robbie McVeigh defines as ‘Traveller organisations headed by settled people’, towards solidarity, which should create a new model of Traveller self empowerment.