Alex Kann, General Manager and Editor of Community Channel, whose upcoming Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Season of community stories dispel some myths and stereotypes.
Myth no. 1: All Gypsies live in caravans
While a well-known part of the cultural fabric of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller lifestyle, not all Gypsies live in caravans, and most of the 300,000 Roma and Travellers in the UK are settled rather than travelling. As Travellers’ Times contributor Jake Bowers told the BBC, about half of Britain’s GRT community live in permanent housing, while others live on authorised public caravan sites or private camp sites with permission for long term stays, all of which are subject to council tax and utility payments. A small minority live in unauthorised temporary camps, which do not receive council services. The nomadic lifestyles evolved for a variety of reasons, be it cultural traditions, work that changed with the seasons or local persecution.
Myth no. 2: All Gypsies have big fat weddings and wear provocative clothes
A big stereotype about the Gypsy way of life is that it’s flashy, revealing and attention grabbing. But just as Poles don’t have the full picture about Brits when they see a stag party in Warsaw, we don’t get a full picture about GRT cultures, by seeing it through a prism of entertainment programming. Take C4’s Big Fat Gypsy Wedding – while valuable in shining a light on elements of predominantly Traveller lifestyles in the UK, it does not tell us the full picture (especially about the Roma community). For example, Gypsy fashion for free-flowing clothes is guided by modesty, and strict cleanliness codes are common, developed through centuries of life on the road when hygiene was of utmost importance.
Myth no. 3: Gypsies, Roma and Travellers are workshy, lack education, and aspire to live on benefits
If you search for “Gypsy” or “Roma” on some websites, you’ll find story after story that perpetuates the myth that the GRT community is ridden with crime, tax avoidance and voluntary unemployment. Nothing could be further from the truth. Members of GRT communities are in fact statistically underrepresented in the mainstream prison population in the UK. Just like with any other community, you will find criminals, just as you will find teachers, nurses, police officers, artists and entrepreneurs. Access All Areas is an inspiring documentary about the journey several Gypsies made through mainstream education to Oxbridge, whilst at the same time retaining their identity. Other documentaries in the Community Channel’s GRT season celebrate some of the most successful Gypsy and Roma artists, from world-renowned flamenco dancer Mario Maya to Papusza, the influential 20th century Polish poet, to Eugene Hurtz, the charismatic frontman of New York-based band Gogol Bordello.
Myth no. 4: All gypsies are foreign
There is a lack of understanding about the distinction between (mainly Irish) Travellers, and Roma, each with a different ethnicity and migration history between them. GRT groups have been part of British society and culture for over 500 years, with the first authenticated records of Gypsy presence going back to 1505 in Scotland and 1514 in England. Many of the current Irish Travellers came over from Ireland in the 19th century and after Second World War to work on building and motorway projects. Welsh Gypsies are known as Kale and have been present in the UK since the 16th century, as have Scottish and English Roma, earliest records referring to them as “the Egyptians.” The Roma have a different ethnicity to Travellers, which has recently been traced linguistically and genetically to North India a thousand years ago (though there is still contention about this). The most recent wave of Roma immigration came from post-Communist Eastern Europe in the 1990s and after 2004, when some countries joined the European Union.
Myth no. 5: We will be inundated with welfare-seeking Roma immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria next year
The BBC recently conducted a survey in Romania and found that just 1 per cent of respondents said they will be looking for work in the UK in 2013 or 2014. While Roma from Eastern Europe have come to the UK since the 1990s so did other groups from the region, many of whom have since formed an integral part of our society, while others have decided to return. Artur Conka’s film Lunik IX looks at the decaying Roma housing block in Slovakia cut off from water, gas and electricity he grew up in. Thirteen years ago his family left to move to London. Since moving to London, English has become his first language, he has finished a bachelor’s degree in photography and is now building a career in photojournalism. Like many Roma who came to the UK before him, he is an asset to our society.
The Gypsy, Roma and Traveller Season is broadcast weeknights, 9-12pm on Community Channel until 14 June, available on Sky 539, Virgin Media 233, Freeview 87, BT Vision, BBC iPlayer and via www.communitychannel.org.