Gypsies & Travellers are all too familiar with racist protests like at Stradey Park Hotel
Jonathan Lee – Advocacy & Communications Director, European Roma Rights Centre.
Whilst much of Wales follows with trepidation (or for some, admiration) the ongoing events at Stradey Park Hotel, Gypsies & Travellers across the country will immediately recognise the arguments, tactics, and hate-mongering on display as the same as those normally deployed against us.
This should be a wake-up call to all in Wales who believe in an inclusive nation. This is how quickly irrational fear can turn a community to extreme actions.
For over a month, the small village of Ffwrnes on the outskirts of Llanelli has played host to what has been described as a local horror story as hundreds of protestors set up camp outside the Stradey Park Hotel.
The building has been taken over by the Home Office and will soon be home to some 200-300 people (made up of families) awaiting the outcome of their asylum applications in the United Kingdom. The protests, initially coordinated by the far-right group Voice of Wales, are now drawing the attention of the darlings of the British far-right including the likes of Katie Hopkins, Tommy Robinson, Richard Tice, and Anne Marie Waters.
Hope Not Hate have described what is going on as “far-right radicalisation in real time”. While the protests may have begun with legitimate community grievance over consultation, job losses, and concern over the welfare of families being housed in the hotel, they have now culminated in a blockade of the site entrance, racist placards, and wild conspiracy theories.
We often assume Wales to be a tolerant place, a Nation of Sanctuary. We imagine that our own injustices, both historical and at the hands of successive Westminster governments, provide some immunity to bigotry and racism.
In recent years the Welsh language, Welsh culture, Welsh sporting achievements, and a growing sense of civic nationalism have demonstrated the best of Wales to the world. The mob at the gates to Stradey Park Hotel shows us that this progressive, inclusive Wales can only exist at the price of constant vigilance.
For Gypsies & Travellers in Wales, the events at Stradey Park Hotel represent a direct continuation of the same small-town bigotry and harassment tactics which have been tried and tested on our communities for decades.
Community action groups are a trope of rural British life (anyone seen Hot Fuzz?) but beyond the neighbourhood watch associations and municipal green space societies, community action groups are routinely deployed to hound Gypsy & Traveller families using the same methods as those in Ffwrnes.
Like at Stradey, action groups usually couch their bigotry with phrases such as ‘concerned citizens’, ‘save our community’, or ‘locals against development’. In reality, such protest movements amount to
little more than harassment campaigns, frequently resulting in hate crimes.
In 2018, plans for a small Gypsy Traveller site in St. Asaph drew the fury of hundreds of ‘concerned residents’. They set up an action group Facebook page, started a petition which gathered over 1,000 signatures, and put “No to Gypsy Site” posters up across the area.
The Welsh organisation Travelling Ahead noted in an open letter that the same community had only a year hence hosted an event ‘Refugees: Reflections in Words and Music’ in partnership with Amnesty International to deliver a message that refugees would receive a positive welcome in St Asaph. Ironically, Denbighshire was one of only two Welsh authorities to report having no provision of traveller sites or presence of caravans in 2018.
Also in 2018, plans for a Gypsy Traveller site on the Hayeswood Road in Barry were dropped by the Vale of Glamorgan Council after more than 2000 people complained. The local action group said it would cause a drop in house prices and rise in crime levels. Conservative Leader Andrew RT Davies paid tribute to the “excellent community campaign they pursued – this is a victory for them and for common sense.”
In 2013, more than 250 residents of the village of Sully in the Vale of Glamorgan marched to
the civic office demanding plans for a proposed Gypsy Traveller Site be dropped. Many of
the placards simply bore the phrase “No to Travellers in Sully”.
It is difficult to imagine such a sign bearing the name of a different ethnic group in modern Britain. The size or alleged impact of a site has little bearing on the level of hostility it creates amongst ‘concerned residents.’ In July 2022, Flintshire Council received 95 objections from locals against the planning application for a site which would accommodate just a single family with two caravans.
These community protests create an environment in which violence flourishes, as has already been seen at Stradey Park Hotel. As recently as last year, a Romani Gypsy family were targeted in a village on the edge of Cardiff by hate crimes from locals. Signs reading “Pikey scum! Get out of our village, your [sic] not welcome” and “Dirty Gypsy scum, you will never be welcome! Leave!” were put on their gate.
Locals shouted racial slurs at their children in the street and dumped rubbish on the lane leading to their site. Villagers also broke the windows of their caravan, set their stable on fire, and dragged their horses through barbed wire fencing.
These are not the actions of ‘concerned residents.’ They are the crimes of racist hate groups. Hate crimes like these represent the extreme end of a scale, one which at the other end starts with petitions, sitting protests, and community action groups.
Misguided and nativist protesters at Stradey (often while claiming not to be racist) point to the housing crisis and the need to ‘look after our own’. Well, Romani people have been present in Wales since the 1500s, and Travellers probably for considerably longer.
We have spoken and preserved the language of this country, as well as creating our own language unique to Wales. We have competed in Eisteddfodau and won awards far and wide for playing Welsh music. Like you we have farmed Welsh soil, toiled in Welsh factories, and hewn Welsh coal from the ground. Like you we have also given our lives in service to the pits, the pastures, and the post-industrial decline of our communities.
And yet the same bigotry by ‘concerned residents’ which is now on display outside Stradey Park Hotel has been witnessed time and time again at the gates to Welsh Gypsy & Traveller sites.
It is clear that ‘looking after our own’ does not, and never has, extended to Gypsies & Travellers in Wales. Anyone thinking of joining the not-racist-protesters in Ffwrnes might consider that the ‘our own’ they are protecting, in fact means ‘not them’.
The protests, whatever the initial concerns might have been, now have nothing to do with jobs, migrant welfare, or public services and everything to do with a racist fear mongering, bigotry, and a nativist streak that runs through rural Welsh life.
If we want to build an inclusive, forward-looking Wales which is free of our own oppressions and welcoming of others, we cannot be complacent in the face of such actions – whether it is against asylum seekers or Gypsies & Travellers.
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