Gypsies and Travellers in the UK are uniting to form a nationwide coalition to fight what they describe as rapidly escalating levels of racism and discrimination. The leaders of the nation's largest Gypsy and Traveller organisations will hold an unprecedented gathering later this month with the aim of bringing together the country's 300,000 Roma, Irish, Welsh and English Gypsies and Travellers in a national federation.
Two of the UK's largest Gypsy and Traveller associations – the Gypsy Council and the Southern England Romany Gypsy and Irish Traveller Network – are involved in the initiative.
Studies in recent years have shown that Gypsies and Travellers experience more racism than any other group in the UK, including asylum-seekers. The most recent Mori poll on the issue revealed that a third of UK residents admitted to being prejudiced against Gypsies and Travellers, while a European Commission report published last week demonstrated that millions of people of Roma origin are still subject to persistent discrimination.
"Travelling people are travelling people, no matter what their ethnicity – we are all marginalised and tarred with the same brush," said Richard Sheridan, president of the Gypsy Council.
"I don't think that the situation in the UK has changed much since the 1960s – those 'No blacks, no dogs, no Gypsies signs' are not very far away.
"Joining together will make us go further – if we have more people on board it will make it easier for us to stand up for our rights" said Mr Sheridan.
John Johnson, chair of the Southern England Romany Gypsy and Irish Traveller Network, added: "We want to be seen as a cohesive community."
According to the British Medical Association, the community has the lowest life expectancy and highest rate of child mortality in the UK. Nomadic Gypsies fare particularly badly when it comes to health care, as the absence of a permanent address makes registering with a GP far more difficult. Ofsted has also reported low levels of educational achievement and high rates of illiteracy among Traveller children, due to a disrupted education and bullying.
The British National Party has said in previous local election campaigns that it will evict Travellers, while the campaigning organisation Minority Rights Group International reports that there have been racist attacks on campsites in the UK, many of which are not reported to the police.
"In my experience, racism against Travellers has definitely got worse over the past 40 years. In some bits of Europe, this is due to the fall of Communism and rise of nationalism, but in the UK, it's probably linked with anti-immigration feelings," said Grattan Puxon, founder of the Gypsy Council and the author of a number of books on the Traveller community, most recently the 2007 novel Freeborn Traveller.
"There is a lot happening within the Gypsy community at the moment.
"Unification will allow for more effective lobbying" he said.