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  • Danielle Han

Why is it so hard to define a traveller?

#FailedJobEntry: My first explainer article, on Roma folks.

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28.9.22

How Wanda Maximoff, so-called chavs, and showmen share a common root


Not all who wander are stateless. The terms used to describe nomads—vagabonds, vagrants, wanderers—often imply aimlessness or rootlessness. Perhaps, though, peripatetic cultures can be understood more simply as countries without territories.


Who are the Romani?


One of the most recognisable nomadic groups today is the Romani. They have everything a typical country might—a flag, cuisine, notable people (such as Wanda Maximoff and supposedly Elvis Presley), and practices—but no concrete state borders. In an age where territorial recognition is especially appealing for statehood, its difficult to fathom a heritage that doesn’t link itself to a land.


Hailing from North India in the 8th and 10th century to trek westwards into Persia and then Europe, the Romani still maintain a peripatetic lifestyle. Having been dubbed eponymously as ‘gypsies’ by Europeans who mistook them as having come from Egypt, Romani (also known as Roma, Sinti, Sindhi, or Kale) communities still live across Europe today.


Who are travellers?


The UK characterises its Romani population by broadly terming them as travellers—a mosaic of ethno-cultural societies. Another notable group is the Irish Travellers, whose roots can be tracked back to the displacements caused by the Great Famine in 1845. The UK government groups Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller (GRT) as one identifiable category, defining them as a “range of ethnic groups or people with nomadic ways of life who are not from a specific ethnicity.”


GRT in the UK

Being that GRT communities share common conditions in how they live and are perceived, they are typically consolidated for the sake of legislative and social measures. The Romani are, however, a distinct ethnic group with identifiable cultural differences. They hold an exhausted history of persecution across Europe, and are the smallest minority group in the UK. GRT communities are typically socioeconomic castaways, and anti-Gypsy sentiment can reflect especially poorly on the Romani peoples. Former MP Andrew James MacKay defined travellers as “scum”, saying “people who do what these people have done do not deserve the same human rights as my decent constituents going about their ordinary lives.” This quote has often been used to verify the political and economic friction towards GRT peoples in the UK, an issue that pro-Romani groups seek to challenge.


Class contentions also play a hand in complicating the matter. Many Brits colloquially understand a ‘chav’ as a young and uncouth person, characteristic of a middle-to-low class individual. What many don’t know, however, is that ‘chav’ originally derives from the Romani word chauv, which translates to young child. The only affiliation connecting chavs, gypsies, and travellers to Romani people, then, are through historical associations alone.


In a nation that values occupational stability, peripatetic lifestyles and landowning taxpayers are bound to disagree. The UK has, in the past, attempted to accommodate GRT peoples by including them in censes counts: the 2011 census included a tick box for a Gypsy or Irish Traveller category, and the 2021 census specified a Gypsy or Irish Traveller category as well as a Roma one. Numbers collected from these censes made it evident that economic insecurity was made an issue by inactivity; the 2011 census showed 31.2% of people in the Gypsy and Irish traveller category had never worked or held long-term unemployment, the highest percentage of all ethnic groups. For this reason, GRT communities typically hold occupations appropriate for constant relocation—such as working in shows, weaving, or clothes-making.


UK and the GRT

For a country that prides itself on a modern cosmopolitan philosophy of openness, it’s not difficult to believe that the UK should host a significant nomadic presence. The next step could be, then, to reconcile its space with GRT people—a solution that would be both economically and socially beneficial.


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