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Gypsy Travellers: Human rights and social work’s role

It should shock us all that denial of identity, forced assimilation, racial harassment, daily discrimination, and a lack of understanding and respect for culture and difference, are all reported as regular experiences of Scotland’s Gypsy Travellers (Amnesty International, 2012a; BEMIS, 2011; Cemlyn and colleagues, 2009; Greenshields et al, 2009; MECOPP, 2014; Scottish Parliament, 2012). With accompanying marginalisation and poverty issues, referrals for various types of social services interventions are inevitable, whether for care and support in old age or with disability, support over child care issues, or criminal and youth justice.

What should underpin all forms of practice, whatever the setting, is a Human Rights approach. This approach – designed to improve human rights for all citizens (Scottish Government, 2015) – is recognised by the Scottish Government in terms of the Scottish National Action Plan (SNAP) launched on International Human Rights day in December 2013. Human rights are often misunderstood and seen as restrictive when they should be viewed as a useful framework for planning, action and partnership working. Fear can operate as a barrier within organisations: ‘of litigation or of not having enough resources to meet the rights of everyone, or of balancing the competing rights of different groups’ (Alliance NHS Scotland, 2014). Human rights are incorporated into international law and are an aspect of every government policy, and Scottish and UK legal enactment. ‘Equality Proofing’ includes testing against human rights legislation. A basic knowledge to frame approaches to the Gypsy Traveller community can result in a better experience for users as well as workers, better outcomes and of course reduced chance of litigation (this is illustrated in the United Nations film ‘Path to Dignity’ which shows the positive effect on human rights training on police officers in Australia).

The need for social workers to know about human rights approaches is stressed from the outset because it needs to be. Official Scottish Government findings over the past fifteen years, as well as other public sector agency reports and those from human rights organisations point to continued pejorative attitudes and failures. These can only be described as ‘institutional discrimination’, a term which became well known in the UK after the publication of the MacPherson report into the killing of London black teenager Stephen Lawrence (Government UK, 1999).These issues are well known to representative organisations of social workers, resulting in self-reflection and action by the Scottish Association of Social Workers (BASW, 2009; BASW, 2010) and UNISON (UNISON Scotland, 2011). This paper, drawn together by individuals from a social work background alongside Gypsy Traveller community members, is intended to help the process of understanding and leadership by the social work profession that might result in improvement.

The Scottish Parliament accepted in 2001 (Scottish Parliament, 2001) that the preferred generic term should be a capitalised ‘Scottish Gypsy Traveller(s)’. In Scotland, Roma migrants are those who have moved to this country from European Union accession countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary, Estonia, Romania, and Bulgaria). The term ‘Roma’ is used loosely here as some European Gypsy Traveller populations (such as many Spanish Gitani) do not consider themselves such. A large proportion of these populations were wiped out in the Nazi Holocaust and those who survived were often forced to give up their nomadic way of life during and after WW2 (Renee Cassin, 2015). While the lives of these migrants are often blighted by poverty and disadvantage (EHRC, 2013) their issues are different (although often similar in their ‘home’ countries) from those encountered by Scottish Gypsy Travellers and will not be covered in this paper. ‘Settled Community’ is the term used when discussing Gypsy Travellers for the majority non-Traveller population.