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The Experiences of Migratory Communities through their own Words

Monday 29 January, 2024

by Tawreak Gamble-Eddington (New York & Hertford 2022)

State-sponsored repression of minority communities, though arguably less prevalent in democracies, remains a global crisis but only some communities’ stories have been properly told. Tawreak Gamble-Eddington (New York & Hertford, 2022) is familiar with the tangible repercussions of minority communities who fall under the eye of the state and become its target. Here he reflects on his research in the UK and Ireland on state-sponsored assimilation and recognition of Migratory Communites like the Gypsy, Roma, and Travellers (GRT).

My study centers on how/why the Irish and British states attempted to assimilate Migratory Communities (MCs) during the mid to late 20th-century. Additionally, I looked at how/why the state’s policies have changed to recognition. Assimilation entails the adoption of the dominant culture by a minority culture to the extent that it’s indistinguishable. Although there are many facets of MCs' culture, this work takes migration as their defining characteristic because, in the state’s eyes, migration was their defining feature and “led” to poor welfare and cultural incompatibility. As such, the erosion of the migratory nature (the minority) of these communities in favor of a sedentary lifestyle (the majority) signifies assimilation. Additionally, migration was a fundamental aspect of MCs identity as it was their means to find work and took on cultural connotations, with specific circuits or locations being associated with specific family/communal events.

The state has endeavored to expand its knowledge about its subjects to create a “map” that facilitates better regulation and control. Chief amongst its methods is the assimilation of “undesirable” elements. According to Scott, “Gypsies, vagrants, homeless people…have always been a thorn in the side of states. Efforts to permanently settle these mobile peoples (sedentarization) seemed to be a perennial state project…” (1). As the state made the illegible legible through social engineering, MCs have been a target of the state in a period marked by using social policy (Scott 1998: 54). This study centers around how the liberal state attempts to make MCs legible through assimilation, as seen in a House of Oireachtas (HOO) discussion where Captain Giles said: “We ought to concentrate on building houses for some of these people [Travellers] and give them a certain time to avail of them. If they do not co-operate then, perhaps, the only thing left is to burn their vans (HOO 1995: N.p).”

As an illegible group, MCs needed to be guided towards a “better” (sedentary) life, whether peacefully or not. The migration stands in contrast from what we know to be “normal;” it’s a social anachronism that erodes the functioning of “modern life.”

This is true even today, with the 2019 Roma and Travellers Survey showing that discrimination against MCs is commonplace and systemic (EU 2019: 3-5). Despite facing systemic deprivation, prominent MCs like the GRT have recently garnered state-sponsored recognition (Conneely 2022: N.p). This study was concerned with two questions: “Why state-sponsored assimilation” and—following state-sponsored assimilation—“Why state-sponsored recognition.” These questions give us an understanding of how/why the state went from assimilation to recognition but also allow us to use various types of data like interviews to learn more about the personal and communal experiences I would otherwise not be able to ascertain from things like archives.

From October 2023 until March 2024, using funds from the Murray Speight and Norman Chester Fund, I traveled to various cities in the UK and Ireland to conduct research as part of my dissertation for the MPhil in Politics (Comparative Government). The cities visited included London, York, Leeds, Cardiff, Dublin, Limerick, and Cork. These interviews provided crucial insights into the “unseen” aspects of Migratory communites lived experiences, individually, communally, and familially, with the state that I would otherwise not be able to discern from my archival work. These interviews, however, were difficult to organise and obtain given the widespread levels of reclusiveness and illiteracy in these communities. Therefore, this project reached out to prominent Migratory community members/organizations to build trust and engage with individuals able to discuss this research in each of the cities outlined above, as well as others remotely. In total 9 individual interviews (on the lower end of the ideal 8-16 interviews outlined in our proposal) were conducted to bolster other data gathered and disprove alternative hypotheses.

I analysed data from all of the interviews and put them alongside various parts of my process tracing research, where applicable, to strengthen and enlighten my argument. I demonstrated that my argument was a plausible and likely explanation for the two policy outcomes under examination, state-sponsored assimilation and state-sponsored recognition. The interviews furnished various parts of the process tracing as evidence, especially the sections on the role of Migratory communities in pressuring the state for recognition and discussions about the forcing of Migratory communities to settle through fear of social workers called “cruelty men.” In the words of one interviewee: “We refer to them [state inspectors] as the cruelty man and there was a large attempt to assimilate [from the 60s onwards] by taking Traveller children and putting them into the care of non-Travellers so that they would become more like the wider community [sedentary]…” In this way, interviews were an essential part of this project because they added lived experiences of these communities to the discourse rather than just looking at what state actors said.

Most notably, however, the interviews called into question the outcome of “state-sponsored recognition” and what it meant for migratory communities. While some had a positive view of what recognition does and could mean for MCs, the majority of interviewees used the same word to describe state-sponsored recognition: tokenistic. In the words of one interviewee: “In 2017 the Irish government recognized Traveller as an ethnicity, which was a good tokenistic gesture but nothing has really come out of that in terms of concrete measures to make Travellers' lives better. There has been no state apology for instance. There has been no set up of a national Traveller accommodation agency, which is something that has been advocated for years and years...” Aside from a lack of creating new institutions/policies to help address problems related to MCs, multiple interviewees mentioned that a lot of local authorities (especially in Ireland) are allocated money for things like Traveller specific services but rarely draw down on the money, leaving it unused and intentionally ignoring Travellers poor living conditions despite having money readily available to address the issue. Put simply, the state now recognizes MCs and acknowledges that being migratory is a part of their identity but has often failed to take substantive action to address many of the institutional legacies outlined in this work; nomadic life is not “criminalized” per se but it is actively discouraged/unsupported by the state and even those MCs that are settled tend to receive inadequate support.

As such, several interviewees shed light on how the state in Ireland and the UK have targeted specific aspects of MCs traditional way of life, rather than them specifically, even in the modern day. Most notable was the passage of the Police, Crime, Sentencing, and Courts Bill: “It was basically, we're going to make trespass, a criminal offense. So if you're leading a migratory lifestyle and there aren't any transit sites, places where you can legitimately pull up or negotiated stopping, you are committing a criminal offense…they would arrest you and confiscate your trailer, your home…” Similarly, other interviewees noted various things like strict regulations/quotas being placed on scrap metal gathering in London that infringed on MCs customary means of employment and way of life.

Interviews strengthened my thesis argument but also called into question what I took for granted, the policy outcome of state-sponsored recognition. This type of understanding of the current condition of migratory communities and their continued struggles with the state in the UK and Ireland would not have been possible without being able to directly communicate with these groups and conduct interviews. Although the process of interview outreach was difficult, involving a seemingly endless number of cold emails, phone calls, and ethics forms, the experience of interviewing for this project was beyond worthwhile not only academically but personally. These interviews recentered what my research was or could be; it is not simply a means for me to tell the world about someone elses experiences but to give them the microphone to tell me and others about theirs. It is a chance to help amplify those voices, narratives, and stories that are most relevant and most affected by the topic I am studying.

I am beyond grateful to have received the Murray Speight grant which supported my travel throughout the UK and Ireland to interview and engage with migratory communities and researchers as part of my MPhil dissertation.

****Note to readers on terminology: The largest MC is the Romani, numbering 10-12 million across Europe, and recognized as having roots in India; Romani migrated to Europe approximately 1,000 years ago and not all within this politicized identity/category identify with being called “Romani” but it is widely used to encapsulate those with the aforementioned background (NHS 2016: N.p). Within the Romani, are the Romany/Gypsies who immigrated to the UK and Ireland in the 1500s. Additionally, there are the Roma, a group with similar roots to Romany, who settled in Eastern Europe first and later migrated to the UK and Ireland largely after the fall of Communism. Each group is ethnically unique/distinct and terminology is highly debated. Separately, there are also MCs believed to be indigenous to Europe and who fall under the category of Travellers but belong to distinct ethnic communities like the Irish Travellers (Pavee), Scottish Travellers/Gypsies, and Welsh Travellers. All these terms are contested (Armagh Roma Travellers 2023: N.p).

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