Human rights, discrimination and sanitation: A precarious reality for Travellers

10 May 2022

About the author:

Regan John is a Masters student at the University of Sussex, a published researcher in Romani studies & consultant, with a background in Sociology & Psychology. Regan John is of Romanichal ancestry.

Access to sanitation and water is a human right, one which should be given without exception or discrimination, for access to both is access to the right to life. With a global push to achieve sanitation and hygiene for all by 2030, and whole countries strategising national campaigns to end open defecation, it can be easy to forget that there are still people in high-income countries like the UK who have little to no access to sanitation.

One such grouping are the Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities, an often-forgotten minority in British society who face challenges of access on a regular basis. They comprise one of a number of groups globally battling to attain the basics of the Sustainable Development Goal 6.2 in the 21st century.

Modern Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) people in the UK live in a variety of situations, at one end of the spectrum settled in bricks and mortar and the other living roadside, with some travelling part time.

The official terminology, Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people, reflects a number of both ethnic and cultural nomadic communities. The groups have varying traditional practices, origins, and languages, the two most prominent groups are Irish Travellers and the groups comprising the Romani diaspora (see footnote for more information).

Within most Travelling communities there is a strong adherence to cleanliness as a central cultural standpoint, most notably in Romani diaspora, which forbids the use of sanitation facilities in caravans, especially near food preparation areas. This often creates a dependency on the use of facilities outside of the home, either through the use of onsite shower and toilet blocks, or through facilities at service stations or public leisure centres.

Without regular and reliable access to sheltered facilities external to the home, this can create a difficult situation which may require Traveller people to break traditional cultural practices of cleanliness or use more exposed unsafe practices. Permanent sites are lacking, especially those which provide these facilities, so finding regular and reliable places to stay long term has become increasingly difficult, often resulting in being moved on.

To this day, GRT people are some of the most discriminated groups in British society. As recently as January 2022, there is clear evidence that discriminatory attitudes are still highly prevalent in contemporary British society as unearthed by the University of Birmingham revealing an average of 44.6% of participants expressing discriminatory attitudes towards Gypsy and Traveller people, the highest percentage against any other minority group surveyed.

The historic and contemporary discrimination of GRT people has often resulted in forced expulsion, frequently through a combination of often violent and racist treatment from settled people. This has historically been accompanied by discriminatory legislation. The impact of this discrimination has had a detrimental effect on healthcare access, resulting in lower levels of mental and physical health, education access and the ability to receive the most basic amenities for all Travelling people – including sanitation.

Discrimination and sanitation

Access to sanitation is an issue for many Traveller communities. Even when Traveller people have access to land and have the means to build their own facilities, access can still be denied. In Newark, one such planning application was made by a Mr Smith who requested a permanent site with sanitation and electricity supplies.

Despite the evident need for more sites, Mr Smith’s application was denied. This refusal removed both the ability to live independent of public facilities, and to have access to regular and reliable sources of water and washing facilities, a factor which played a fundamental role in the reasoning behind Mr Smith’s application.

Additionally, the tenure of Mr Smith’s stay with his young family is limited to 3 months, after which his family is to be moved on. This is due to government approved ‘good practice’ regarding Traveller transit sites (see 1.14) which are not intended as permanent settlements, subsequently forcing Mr Smith and his family to move on from their registered schools, access to healthcare, sanitation, electricity, and water.

Mr Smith’s experience is common; there are not enough Traveller sites being provided to safely home the UK Traveller populations. In a sleepy village in Staffordshire, a proposal for just one Romany family site, enough to house a couple of caravans and a small day room, with sanitation facilities, clean water supplies and electricity access was made and heavily rejected by the local residents.

The most prominent issues raised by the settled community stated concerns over the ‘blot’ on the landscape and the volume of traffic. The judgement excluded any consideration or understanding for the welfare of the Romany family who needed the site.

COVID-19 added complexity to the situation. In some cases, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, access was even more restricted than usual. One such example of this saw one heavily pregnant keyworker Traveller woman unable to access clean water or toilet facilities for over 6 weeks. Her family, whilst living roadside, depended upon the availability of public facilities that were closed during the pandemic, due to fears of becoming sources of contamination.

When she contacted her local authorities to ask for help, she was advised to either leave town and move away from her vital work as a key worker, or declare herself homeless in order to receive access to basic amenities, the latter of which would mean leaving her children and pets behind

In other cases, COVID-19 brought some temporary respite for some Traveller communities, particularly in those living in Somerset, which saw the temporary provision of water and sanitation access for swathes of unauthorised sites. However, during the final stages of the COVID-19 response, such amenities were removed, and legal authority was reintroduced to remove unauthorised encampments.

Prominently demonstrating that local authorities have the capability to provide the water and sanitation, a human right so desperately denied to Traveller communities, also demonstrating their capacity to remove this right at will.

A situation worsened by policy

Moving forward, a new bill, the Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, has recently been introduced into the UK’s House of Commons and Lords, with aspects directed towards Traveller people. The current proposals build upon existing legislation of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, where previously unauthorised encampments could only be moved along if 5 vehicles or more were present, with clear directives for police officers to not intentionally make anyone homeless. These expulsions were only classed as a civic offence, with minor implications for Traveller people.

From 2022, with the introduction of the new bill, it will be a criminal offence to even have 1 vehicle camped without authorisation. The consequences for Traveller people will be much more severe: the confiscation of the vehicles (i.e., caravans), a £2500 fine issued or a potential prison sentence.

In the enforcement of this new legislation, GRT people will be forcibly moved on, away from access to sanitation and water facilities, their homes, transport and means of access water and shelter will be confiscated, by what is widely regarded a legislative infringement on human rights.

The full extent of the impact this is yet to be determined, but without major changes in policy and discriminatory attitudes, Travellers in the UK will continue to struggle to access toilets and washing facilities.


Footnote: Who are GRT people in the UK?

The UK government officially recognises the following groups: English Gypsies (Romanichal), Scottish Traveller Gypsies, Welsh Gypsies (Welsh Kale), Irish Travellers (Mincéir), European Roma, Bargees, Boaters, New Travellers and Show People.

One of the most recognisable and largest ethnic nomadic groups are the Romani people from which Romanichal, Welsh Kale, Scottish Gypsies and European Roma all descend and are collectively members of, sharing to some degree aspects of linguistic and cultural practices. They all can trace their origins to the hills of Northern India over 1,000 years ago where the first Romani started their journey for reasons up to academic debate. Ever since their journey began on the long road, the Romani people have faced intense discrimination, often resulting in enslavement, imprisonment, expulsion, and genocide, one of the most infamous instances of which is the Holocaust or, as it is called in the Romanes, ‘Porajmos’ roughly translated as ‘The Devouring’.

The other most prominent group, the Mincéir/an Lucht Siúil are an indigenous ethnic nomadic group native to Ireland who, like the Romani people, have been subjected to persecution and discrimination at an extensive level. Throughout their history there has often been institutional and sometimes violent barriers attempting to restrict their existence and enforce assimilation. The Mincéir people officially only received recognition as an ethnic group by the Irish Government in March 2017.