This post comes from Anna Morvern, an immigration lawyer at Law Centre (NI) who writes here in a personal capacity. Anna has worked with and for immigration detainees for a number of years, as Legal Officer at Bail for Immigration Detainees and as an activist with various groups, including the Refugee Action Group in Northern Ireland.
The unfolding events at Dale Farm in England are of interest to people far beyond the local Essex community, because they expose a very modern power-play between those for freedom of movement and freedom of settlement and those against.
Dale Farm is a former scrap yard which a community of Irish Travellers and English Gypsies bought and made their home. Only some of the dwellings had planning permission, and the local Basildon Council now plans to evict the some 400 people, whose 52 plots did not have planning permission. This exercise is going to cost the council around £18 million, equating to approximately £350,000 per evicted family. The eviction is due to take place later this month, all legal challenges by the Travellers to date having failed.
The Dale Farm situation will resonate with anyone who has been involved with anti-deportation campaigns, such as those supported by the National Coalition of Anti-Deportation Campaigns. The very same dynamics and arguments are at play:
- Basildon Council is ready to spend £18 million on this eviction, whilst the UK government currently spends vast sums of money on the machinery of immigration control and forcible removals of migrants. The costs include running a constellation of immigration detention centres and providing a number of escorts per detainee on removal flights: locally, costs include the Belfast immigration office at Drumkeen House, running the detention facility at Larne House and transferring immigrants to UK removal centres such as Dungavel and Yarl’s Wood;
- Basildon Council is employing a private bailiffs company, Constance & Co, to come in with bulldozers and carry out the eviction. So the UK Border Agency – and governments all over Europe – employ private security firms to lock up detainees and manhandle them onto deportation flights;
- Basildon Primary Care Trust has warned that trauma to Traveller children during the eviction is inevitable, just as medical reports have recognised the trauma caused to immigrant children by their inhuman detention and removal;
- Dale Farm Travellers say: “Despite Dale Farm being a former scrapyard, the Tory council continues to use the greenbelt argument to justify their decision to destroy Dale Farm.” Likewise, “green”-seeming, and potentially highly misanthropic, arguments are quite often used to vilify immigrants, to advance claims that they are causing destruction of a local or national environment by contributing to over-population.
“No One Is Illegal”, the UK Campaign for Freedom of Movement, who take their name from a statement by Auschwitz survivor and writer, Elie Wiesel, have spoken out in solidarity with the Dale Farm, where they “support the movement of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people and their right to settle, permanently or temporarily.” This support is rooted in their ethical and political stance against immigration controls of all kinds and their advocacy for a world without borders.
The Dale Farm scenario bodes very ill for us all unless the power dynamics change; it could be considered a ‘wake-up’ call for us all to think about our priorities in terms of controls on human movement and settlement versus our common humanity.
A country where the law is used to protect land over people’s well-being, homes and community, or a jurisdiction where huge resources are spent in pushing people out and driving them away rather than helping to accommodate and home them, is one which resonates with foreboding. It’s a political situation which surely points towards the concentration camps, via “the ghetto” and horrific hostilities to minorities, such as those experienced by gypsies in Italy very recently.
I learnt much about the history of Travellers’ culture and way-of-life by reading the fascinating autobiography by Gypsy Maggie Smith-Bendall, whose story showed me vividly how tolerance has decreased over the last years, in this era where equality and respect for diversity are supposedly paramount. Why should that be, I ask myself? I think it is because the tensions between controls and borders and freedom of movement and freedom of settlement are reaching a peak in Europe.
Politically, I think it’s therefore crucial that each of us make up our mind and take a stand for or against freedom of movement and settlement. I think things could go either way, but I live in hope that our valuing of our fellow human beings will soon triumph over the machinery of borders and systematic exclusions.