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Travellers, the Romany and Roma in Kent: Who are they, their history, and modern social exclusion

Kent has one of the largest Traveller and Gypsy populations, particularly in Maidstone and Swale.

Historically they have contributed largely to the county’s agriculture, but who are these communities and what are their origins?

Kent has a large Gypsy and Traveller population Photo:Chris Radburn/PA
Kent has a large Gypsy and Traveller population Photo:Chris Radburn/PA

What are the differences between Gypsies and Travellers?

Often Travellers and Gypsies are used interchangeably to refer to people following a nomadic lifestyle – but there are differences.

Travellers is used for those who come from Europe, whereas Gypsies are those whose ancestors are of Indian origin.

According to Friends, Families and Travellers (FFT), an organisation that works to end racism and discrimination: “The term Gypsy comes from [the word] ‘Egyptian’ which is what the settled population perceived them to be because of their dark complexion.”

Romani Gypsies encompasses both the Romany and the Roma people.

Travellers are often those who originate from Ireland but can also be used for New Travellers and Show People.

Who are the Romany, Roma and Irish Travellers?

These three groups are all recognised ethnic groups within the UK.

The Romany are people that migrated from continental Europe during the Roma migration from India.

Director of the Gypsy Council, Joseph Jones
Director of the Gypsy Council, Joseph Jones

They have lived here since the 16th century and speak a language derived from Indian dialects, called Romani.

Director of the Gypsy Council, Joseph Jones says the first Romani-Gypsy was recorded in 1506 in Edinburgh.

The Roma are those from Central and Eastern Europe and arrived in Britain in the last half-century.

Their ancestors emigrated from Punjab and Rajasthan, India, approximately 1,000 years ago and travelled through Asia, Europe and America.

They too followed the nomadic lifestyle but were forced to settle under the communist regimes of Eastern Europe – they also speak Romani.

Irish Travellers known, as Pavees or Mincéirs, are a travelling group of people from Ireland who date back to the 12th century.

Some speak the Irish Traveller language, Shelta.

Who are New Travellers and Show People?

New Travellers and Show People do not descend from the Romany, Roma and Irish Travellers and are not considered an ethnic group.

A traditional Gypsy cob grazing in a field
A traditional Gypsy cob grazing in a field

Show People are a travelling group who own, operate and organise fairs, circuses and shows in the summer.

According to the Traveller Movement (TM), which aims to tackle discrimination and promote equality, they are a cultural minority and their identity is connected to their family businesses

TM added: “They generally have winter quarters where the family settles to repair the machinery that they operate and prepare for the next travelling season.”

New Travellers are people who choose to follow a nomadic lifestyle and live life on the road.

How are Gypsies and Travellers socially excluded?

Although there are differences among these groups, they all share common inequalities.

A national survey by the Centre on the Dynamics of Diversity and Friends Families and Travellers (FFT) found that these nomadic communities experience some of the highest levels of racially motivated abuse, social and economic deprivation, and poor access to health and employment.

Mr Jones said: “We want to go to work, we want our children to have an education.

Romani, Roma and Travellers follow a nomadic lifestyle
Romani, Roma and Travellers follow a nomadic lifestyle

“We’re no longer a mobile workforce with the farming industry but people just can’t seem to accept that we want to travel for economic reasons.

“If I knocked on someone’s door and said ‘I’m a local Gypsy, would you be interested in having your drive re-tarmacked - they’d run me off the road.”

And, these prejudices are evident in recent polls by YouGov and FFT.

According to the study, 38% of those surveyed said they would be uncomfortable with a Gypsy or Traveller moving next to them.

Data collected showed that 34% would be uncomfortable with a Gypsy or Traveller in their home and 22% would be uncomfortable employing one.

What is casual racism against Gypsies and Travellers?

As well as prejudices, vocal discrimination against these communities has become rife, with some members claiming they have been told it is “the last acceptable form of racism”.

This is in spite of Romany, Roma and Irish Travellers being protected under equalities legislation.

Discriminatory language against these groups can be common and some might not even realise that what they are saying are slurs.

Referring to Gypsies with a lowercase g can be perceived as offensive and derogatory.

Mr Jones added: “I’m 71 but when I was at school we were called the dirty g****** and you always had the mick taken out of you.”

Slurs are often still used today and are damaging to the community.

In light of their recent survey, the biggest one yet regarding Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community members, director of FFT Sarah Mann said: “The racism, hate, discrimination, and gross marginalisation across the board is actively damaging Romany, Traveller and Roma people’s life chances.

“The government needs to listen to Romany, Traveller and Roma people, and concrete steps must be taken so that everyone can live healthy lives with dignity, respect, and free from hate.”

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