by Dominic Watters
The Last Nomads, a short documentary I made with Daniel Gonzalez-Franco, looks at how the Traveller and Gypsy community’s traditional nomadic way of life is under threat from the UK government’s proposed Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill, which returns to the House of Commons on 28 February 2022.
The history of Roma Gypsies and Irish Travellers on the British Isles dates back at least 500 years. Throughout that period, their traditional nomadic lifestyle has existed in tension with settled society. Often on the receiving end of suspicion, fear and abuse, their way of life is pushed to the fringes of society.
While reports of Traveller and Gypsy groups causing social issues do occur, unlike with other ethnic groups it is deemed acceptable to paint the whole community with the same brush, rather than explore the nuances of how and why certain kinds of behaviour arise in a minority of the community.
The Last Nomads highlights the latest threat to their nomadic tradition from the Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill. If passed, Article 4 within the Bill, which criminalises trespass making it a criminal offence rather than a civil offence, could see Travellers and Gypsies face fines, imprisonment, and even having their homes seized for failing to leave an illegal site.
As there is already a massive shortage of legal stopping sites for Travellers and Gypsies in the UK, the Bill risks criminalising people simply for having nowhere else to go.
The film follows the activities of a Traveller and Gypsy campaign, Drive 2 Survive, as they prepare to protest against the bill at Parliament Square in London. We hear the personal stories of the Gypsy campaign organisers, Jake Bowers and Sherrie Smith, who tell us that the criminalisation of trespass, combined with the UK governments historic disregard for accommodating their nomadic tradition, amounts to cultural eradication.
Supported by a historical perspective given by the human rights lawyer Marc Willers QC, the film prompts us towards an understanding that, regardless of our feelings about the community, Gypsies and Travellers are distinct ethnic groups with historic cultures that need to be protected.
In the larger context, the film also prompts us to think about racialised attacks on mobile lifestyles more generally. For pastoralists, who face risks from conflict and violence; blocked migration routes and water points; loss of grazing land; the expansion of farming into grazing land; and a lack of services like schools and hospitals that are adapted to mobile lifestyles, there are parallels to be drawn with the plight of Gypsies and Travellers in the UK.
Are mobile lifestyles inevitably going to be eroded under social systems preoccupied with goals of economic growth through the logic of private land ownership and settled lifestyles? Or can nomadic and sedentary lives co-exist? This will only be possible if laws governing mobility take account of the needs of different groups and cultural traditions.
About the film: You can watch ‘The Last Nomads’ on YouTube free of charge. Made in 2021, the film has been shown at the London Portobello film festival, and was shortlisted at Ake Dikhea, Festival of Romani film.
About the author: Dominic Watters is a graduate of Imperial College London’s Science Media Production, who combines working in broadcast with his own video production work. For more information and contact details, see Labyrinth Productions.