Europe’s Roma and Travellers – the Smell of Progress, and Hatred

Europe’s Roma and Travellers – the Smell of Progress, and Hatred

Written By Damian Le Bas

Last month, a French bus driver said his town should consider separate buses for Roma, because of the “unbearable smell”. Dominique Granier, driver of a bus route in the Mediterranean coastal city of Montpellier, called the smell a “true infection” and a “sanitation risk”. Both are absurd statements of course, but that didn’t stop them being taken seriously by Monsieur Granier’s bus company, TAM, who later outsourced the section of the route that is popular with the Roma to another bus firm.

While this incident stands out, it is far from isolated. Late last year, a group of women in the Sardinian town of Monserrato complained to the governors of their children’s school that two Romani cleaners, Vasvja Severovic and Sena Halilovic, were “smelly” and that their long dresses and strange clothes “scared the children”.

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Early 20th century postcard showing English Romani people with wagon and traditional tent, exact date and location unknown. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Meanwhile, across a thin stretch of salt water, a new generation of Romani and Traveller boxers from Britain and Ireland have fought their way to the top of their divisions. Ireland’s Andy Lee is the current WBO middleweight champion of the world, while Billy Joe Saunders and Tyson Fury will both be fighting for world titles very soon. Fury is tasked with defeating legendary Ukrainian heavyweight (and occasional chess player and humanitarian) Wladimir Klitschko. Saunders, perhaps ironically, is almost certain to fight Lee, in what will surely be the first “all-Gypsy” world title fight in history. And so far, none of these men has reported being told to get off the bus, because of their terrible smell.

All this talk of smelly, dark skinned people on buses, who cannot be trusted around the majority population’s children; with the odd concession that they’re not bad in a boxing ring, thrown into the mix. This is all very familiar to people who lived in Alabama in the 1960s, or indeed any of planet earth’s myriad places where racial tensions still run high. I am grateful to live in one of the world’s most tolerant countries, a haven for those fleeing persecution this past hundred years. A place where it was possible for Roma to survive and to flourish; where, after my school friends told me I stank of sh*t because I was Gypsy, I had the luxury of returning to my great-grandmother’s spotless bungalow and knowing the bullies were wrong; knowing it is not, never has been race that makes people smell, it is poverty, desperation: ills that know no race.

Yet Britain is also a place where businesses can advertise openly as “Gypsy eviction specialists”. In fact this has become an industry in its own right, with dozens of businesses advertising as experts in removing Gypsies, with some, like the delightfully titled, helpfully including photographs of the sort of Gypsies they will help you evict. And, unlike the southern U.S of the 60s, you can even see the unmasked face of the powerfully built and reassuringly very white kind of skinhead who, rest assured, is committed to getting the job done.

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Image source:

Advertisements for these companies often crop up next to positive news stories about Roma and Travellers. Recently, one of our readers wrote to us in some distress because a video about legal accommodation for Gypsies was accompanied by an advert for “same day Gypsy evictions”, as if to remind us that if times are changing for the better, they’re not changing too fast. Don’t forget, either, the press’s ability to conjure whole new types of “Gypsy crime”: if you’re a member of the public, and you happen to be a 20-year-old Romani mother, you could be to blame when a man you don’t know shoots his wife and himself in the head.

But they are changing. This month, the UK’s High Court made a landmark ruling that a group of ethnic Travellers and their associates had been illegally refused entry to a London pub- and not just any pub, but a pub owned by J. D. Wetherspoon Ltd, the largest pub chain in Britain. This was a case of direct racial discrimination, the Judge ruled, which would seem obvious given that the pub had hired extra security staff who had told the party they were instructed not to let Travellers in. Yet the reason this is a landmark case is because this happens every day to Romani and Traveller people in Britain, and yet almost never gets as far as the courtroom.

What was different about this case, then? The Travellers in question were accompanied by a lawyer, a Roman Catholic priest, and a senior police inspector, and all of them were also refused entry because they had come from a “Traveller conference”. Following this ruling, the law firm involved is hoping it will now be able to fight more cases where discrimination has happened, but those involved didn’t happen to be accompanied by non-Travellers whose testimony is more likely to be believed in court.

Which side is going to win this race between humanity and intolerance? The infrastructure of totalitarian Europe slowly rots. Debates carry on about whether to preserve the death camps or allow them to crumble. It grows easier for those who have no memory of such times to believe they are flirting with edgy, iconoclastic honesty- as opposed to straightforward Nazism- when they call desperate people “cockroaches” and “feral humans”, as their government dances around scrapping the Human Rights Act. The problem with trying to dehumanize humans, though, is that humans are humans, believe it or not. Even the term “to dehumanize” implies trying to rob someone of the human nature which, as the word concedes, they already possess. The term reveals itself as a lie, evil under a false pretense. And even most people who don’t like Gypsies must want truth to win, in the end.