- Associated Press - Sunday, September 18, 2011

CRAYS HILL, England — Vivien Slattery has lived her whole life — all 16 days of it — in a tidy mobile home, one of dozens more like it on a crowded site beside green English fields. Her mother grew up here, surrounded by friends and extended family.

Soon, baby Vivien and more than 200 others will be evicted from the settlement east of London, the losers in a decade-long battle between local officials and their community of Irish Travelers that has drawn attention around the world and concern from the United Nations.

The local authority says it’s a simple planning issue: The 86 families lack permission to pitch homes on the land.

The Travelers — a traditionally nomadic group similar to, but ethnically distinct from, Gypsy, or Roma, people — call it ethnic cleansing.

“There’s no need of it. There’s no need for them to treat us the way they are treating us,” said 23-year-old Kathleen Slattery, feeding her infant daughter a bottle of milk.

“They just want us gone. They want us to vanish in thin air,” she said. “They’re not even taking a 2-week-old baby into consideration.”

The conflict over the settlement, known as Dale Farm, has raged since 2001, when Travelers bought and settled on a former scrapyard next to a legal Travelers’ site 30 miles east of London. The local authority waged a long legal battle to remove them, which it finally won at Britain’s High Court last month.

Evictions are scheduled to begin Monday.

The feud’s roots are much older, buried in centuries of mistrust between the nomads and the much larger settled community in Britain.

“There have always been conflicts between nomadic and settled communities,” said Jake Bowers, a Gypsy writer and editor of the publication Travelers’ Times. “I think it is made worse in this country. The British have a great deal of enthusiasm for their homes being their castles, and there is a perception that Gypsies bring down property prices.”

There are estimated to be between 15,000 and 30,000 Irish Travelers in Britain, where they are recognized as a distinct ethnic minority by the government. Their roots — and their broad brogue — lie in Ireland, but many have been in Britain for generations.

For centuries, Travelers roamed the country’s roads, finding work as itinerant laborers, scrap dealers and horse traders.

But over the past few decades, laws limiting unauthorized camping, economic changes and a desire to see their children educated led many to settle down — sometimes legally, on land provided by the government, and sometimes without permission.

They are rarely popular with the neighbors, who complain about crime and noise. Travelers are often characterized in the tabloid press as feckless scroungers.

Local authorities near Dale Farm say they are not anti-Travelers, merely trying to enforce the law barring development on a “greenfield” site.

The eviction campaign appears to have wide public support in the area. Local newspaper letter pages and Internet forums are largely hostile, with many commentators using terms like “pikey” and “tinker” to describe the group.

The site has few immediate neighbors, but Len Gridley, whose house backs onto Dale Farm, has said the Travelers have made his life “hell” for a decade. Last month, he was arrested after trying to set fire to a fence.

Traveler evictions are relatively common across Britain — but few are as large, or as high profile, as that at Dale Farm.

Academy Award-winning actress Vanessa Redgrave has come to the community’s support, and the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination urged authorities “to find a peaceful and appropriate solution” to the crisis.

Yves Cabannes, a U.N. adviser on forced evictions, said last week that Britain is violating international laws by ousting the Travelers.

Tucked into the Essex countryside east of London, Dale Farm is a straggling 6-acre village of shiny trailers, and some larger permanent-looking homes, set along narrow lanes.

Most of the residents have been here for years. They have electricity, running water and garbage collection. Their children attend the local school, which will lose dozens of pupils to the ouster.

With eviction looming, it is a busy place. Children play, climb trees and ride bikes — their parents are keeping them home in case the bailiffs arrive suddenly. Parents drink tea and smoke and worry about the future.

The local council has urged residents to leave peacefully before Monday, but is preparing to remove them against their will before towing away mobile homes, digging up asphalt and tearing down outbuildings. It estimates the cost of the operation at $13 million.

“After 10 years, when we have exhausted the judicial process and made every effort to negotiate, we have no option but to resort to direct action to clear the site,” council leader Tony Ball said in a statement.

Last week, workmen in hard hats — backed up by private security guards — were laying a temporary road through a nearby field, surrounded by a high gray metal fence. A handful of protesters implored them to put down tools, join the resistance and have a cup of tea.

The protesters are among about 50 activists — anarchists, anti-capitalists, anti-racists and human rights monitors — who have set up a supporters’ camp at the site. They have erected a lookout tower, assembled tires to make barricades and say they will resist, physically but nonviolently.

“We are not here for a fight,” said Jake Fulton, one of the activists. “We are here to prevent these evictions.”

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