Gypsies and Travellers throughout the UK are being denied their human rights. Adequate housing – a basic human right and a precondition for other rights, such as education and health – is now an urgent concern. Despite a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that the UK has an obligation to "facilitate the Gypsy way of life", access to culturally acceptable accommodation is still out of reach for many.
A powerful illustration is the Traveller site at Dale Farm in Essex. Last October, 86 families, including more than 100 children, were evicted from the site where they had lived for many years, on land they own. But many of those who were removed, or who left before the much-publicised evictions began, have returned. They have either squeezed in to the much-reduced authorised part of the site or parked their trailers and caravans along the roads leading up to Dale Farm. As a result, many families including old people, babies or the sick are currently exposed to unacceptable health and safety hazards including poor sanitation.
Basildon Council has warned of further evictions. But instead of a fresh round of confrontations, surely it is time for negotiations. This could, I believe, be done with the help of an independent mediator. More effort could be made to find sustainable solutions acceptable to both local communities, travellers and non-travellers. I am calling on Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, to ensure that a settlement is found to the crisis, which would protect the Travellers' legal right to housing and respect their cultural diversity.
Failure to do so risks creating further human rights violations. In a climate of intensifying popular prejudice against Travellers, it is already becoming harder and harder for them to find adequate accommodation. The system which required local authorities to carry out assessments of accommodation needs and to develop strategies in response has been virtually dismantled. As a result, many local authorities are building fewer residential pitches than they would have done in the past. Difficulties in obtaining planning permission to develop land that Travellers actually own means they are often pushed towards unauthorised encampment. This is the case for approximately a quarter of the 60,000 to 70,000 Gypsies and Travellers living in caravans in the UK.
Involving local authorities is important. But central government has a duty to ensure that local acts do not lead to human rights violations. Dale Farm must not be left to set a negative example for other local authorities. Gypsies and Travellers deserve better than the neglectful official treatment they are currently receiving in the UK.
Thomas Hammarberg is the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights