By Kartik Raj, Amnesty International’s UK campaigner
On Saturday, an Amnesty colleague and I visited the Irish Traveller site at Dale Farm, down a bumpy farm road outside Basildon in Essex. Hundreds of residents and supporters marched peacefully through the village of Cray’s Hill calling on Basildon Council to stop its planned forced eviction of 86 families from their homes.
Many children from Dale Farm were out on the march, taking turns on a megaphone to chant “Save Dale Farm”. One freckled, red-headed little boy was carrying a placard that seemed larger than him!
Many women we spoke to when we visited the site in April and May compared their experiences living in car parks, on common ground, and in fields, for a few months at a time to that of their children and grandchildren, who have been able to attend one primary school continuously.
For many families, this is the first generation that has completed primary school and is literate. Two sisters, in their 60s and 70s, told us how proud they were of their grandchildren having learned to read and write at school, something neither one of them had the opportunity to do.
As the march approached Cray’s Hill primary school, the children stood at the gate asking where they would go to school in a week’s time.
Catherine, a 70 year-old woman with serious medical illnesses, told us that she had lived through another forced eviction that still weighed on her mind. The uncertainty and anxiety of an eviction on the horizon were all too obvious as she told us: “It’s an awful stress. You don’t know what will happen. You don’t sleep at night. You’re kind of giving up on yourself.”
Christina (not her real name) invited us into her caravan, and told us that one of her three sons regularly wakes up screaming in the middle of the night, afraid that the bailiffs are coming to evict them.
Talking to us while making tea, watching her toddler and covering her caravan upholstery, she said, “At the end of the day, this is our home. We have to live somewhere. Imagine you get home tonight and the government tells you you have to be gone by the morning.”
Many Dale Farm residents were visibly upset as volunteers read out the words of a threatening letter they had received a day before our last visit in May. The letter called them “trash”, “dirt” and “filth,” and ended with a two word threat: “Gypsies out”.
Many Travellers were anxious about the widespread prejudice and harassment they face, and whether they would be able to find somewhere safe to live and send their children to school.
Housing is a human right. It helps ensure that children can go to school, and that people can get the healthcare they need. If Traveller families have stable places to pitch their caravans and call home, the children can attend school, pregnant women and young children can get regular healthcare, the seriously ill can get proper medical attention, and families can provide each other with the support they rely on.
Basildon Council isn’t offering any Travellers other sites in the area and is offering only some residents “bricks and mortar” council housing. The eviction, set to begin on 19 September, would leave many residents with nowhere to go.
Laws in place since the 1990s mean that Travellers can’t stop lawfully on “the side of the road”, yet at the same time don’t require councils to provide them with sites. Christina put it starkly: “They won’t leave us to travel around. They won’t leave us to settle down. What are we to do?”
As the march made its way up the road approaching Dale Farm on Saturday afternoon, a young woman who lived there asked me, “Are you here with us?”
Her expression of disbelief suggested that she couldn’t get her head around the idea that there were hundreds of people standing with her in the belief that the human rights of Travellers should be respected.
Thousands of Amnesty’s supporters around the world have written to Basildon Council and the UK government calling for a stop to the eviction, and demanding that the authorities comply with international law. UN experts, UN committees, Council of Europe officials, MPs, Lords, religious leaders and others have made similar calls.
The world has expressed its concern about the human rights violation about to occur. It is now time for Basildon Council to listen.