By Sadie Robinson
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2749

Why are Travellers, Roma and Gypsies oppressed?

This article is over 2 years, 10 months old
Issue 2749
Anti-racist protesters welcome Travellers in Harlow, Essex
Anti-racist protesters welcome Travellers in Harlow, Essex (Pic: Harlow SUTR)

The Tory police bill will make life harder for Travellers, Roma and Gypsies. It follows centuries of oppression that have left Travellers with a lower life expectancy, worse health, a higher risk of violence and barriers accessing services.

Roma arrived in Britain from France in the Middle Ages. They were called “Gypsy” as they were thought to be from Egypt. Those at the top quickly targeted them.

The 1530 Egyptians Act called Gypsies criminals and expelled them. A few years later, a law forced them to be branded and enslaved.

Next the death penalty was imposed.

Roma faced violence and expulsion across Europe too. Later the Nazis murdered up to half a million Gypsies during the 1930s and 1940s.

And oppression continues today.

In Britain, successive planning laws have cut the number of legitimate sites for Travellers to live on.

They’ve given cops a green light to harass people.


The discrimination that Roma and Irish Travellers suffer is officially recognised as they are distinct ethnic groups. But why does this oppression exist?

Oppression helps those at the top of society. Things like racism divide ordinary people, so we see each other as enemies instead of allies.

They also provide scapegoats so problems caused by the system can be blamed on others.

Specific aspects of Travellers’ lives mean our rulers see them as a threat.

Tories’ new clampdowns go beyond threat to protests
Tories’ new clampdowns go beyond threat to protests
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Travellers have traditionally moved between areas of common land.

But as capitalism developed, this became harder as private landlords grabbed commonly-owned land. Over time, land became concentrated in fewer hands, subject to more controls and regulations.

Ordinary people were shut out. Travellers were seen as a threat to the landlords who wanted less freedom to move, not more.

Moving around also helps Travellers to be defined as “foreigners” or “strangers”—both things our rulers encourage us to fear and mistrust.

Travellers, feeling unwelcome in society, can feel pushed to “keep to themselves”.

This means non-Travellers may have less contact with Travellers, and so be more open to negative stereotypes.

Travellers’ desire for flexibility over their work is another sticking point. It can be useful for bosses.

For instance, during the 1950s and 1960s, many Travellers picked fruit and moved depending on where work was.

It’s handy for bosses to have a mobile workforce that can move when not needed, not to have to pay pensions and so on.

But employers also want workers to accept poor conditions and bosses’ authority.

A report commissioned by the Irish government in the 1960s complained that Travellers were “of low economic value” due to their “way of life”.

And any sense that there are alternative ways of living poses a threat to the system.

Racist ideas have justified structural discrimination against Travellers.

These dismiss Travellers as lazy, dirty, criminals, beggars and otherwise dangerous nuisances.


Successive rulers have reinforced these ideas, which continue to this day. Travellers suffer what’s been called the “last acceptable racism”.

Even some who reject racist stereotypes about black or Asian people fall prey to them when it comes to Travellers.

These ideas help those at the top to blame Travellers and their “lifestyle choices” for the problems they suffer.

Today Travellers who travel are condemned for bringing crime and squalor to places.

If they don’t travel—understandably enough given the obstacles—they’re attacked for permanently “blighting” places and creating “no-go” areas.

Travellers are oppressed because it benefits those at the top of society.

Non-Travellers don’t gain from this. Instead, the oppression and false divisions it spawns weaken all working class people.

Socialists should stand with Travellers against racism, oppression and for a better society.

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