Nomadic Lives Series: Threats to Nomadic People in Focus
Author: Thomas Shacklock
April 18, 2023
Nomadic communities face discrimination, stigmatisation, and persecution worldwide, while the nomadic way of life is structurally and normatively marginalised in multiple contexts. The experiences of nomadic Gypsies, Roma and Travellers in Europe differ from those of Fulani, Tutsi, Maasai, and other traditionally nomadic pastoralists across Africa. Yet, from insecure countries like Nigeria to peaceful developed states like the United Kingdom, nomadic people face violence, hostile laws and policies, hate speech, and structural challenges. This article opens HRRC’s Nomadic Lives Series, which invites contributions exploring these human rights struggles from the perspectives of nomadic communities and with a view to challenging societal norms affecting the communities.
Nomadism is an ancient way of life. However, nomadic populations face hostilities globally. Though certain nomadic people have held powerful roles in various societies throughout history, anti-nomadic prejudices prevail today. Nomadism is structurally and normatively marginalised in societies that respect the superiority of property rights and nation-state boundaries. The nomadic way of life challenges norms that have historically conditioned rights entitlements on people settling in a territory with some certainty in many contexts. Despite some efforts to enshrine and protect the rights of nomadic communities in different societies, the precariousness of these rights has recently been highlighted in the United Kingdom (UK). In 2022, the UK parliament passed a new law, the Policing Act, posing a new threat to the traditionally nomadic Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) community.
The Policing Act includes measures criminalising trespass and “unauthorised encampments” along with other measures that have been widely considered draconian, including attacks on protest rights. The ruling Conservative party included these measures as manifesto pledges during the 2019 elections, albeit overlooked in national debates at the time. Hence, Parliament’s upper house, the House of Lords, could not reject these measures, since it is prevented from opposing government bills mentioned in manifestos. The law threatens nomadic GRT people as private landowners can interpret their movements as amounting to trespass, which had only ever been a civil matter. Furthermore, GRT vehicles can be classed as “unauthorised encampments,” which refers to people occupying land without permission. Moreover, the law represents an attack on the GRT community’s nomadic culture, identity, and enshrined rights.
The implications of the UK’s anti-nomadic law are specific to a European context. Yet, its socio-political undertones display similarities with legislation passed in an entirely different context. In Nigeria, a country experiencing extreme insecurity, certain states in the country’s Middle Belt and southern regions have passed anti-grazing laws targeting nomadic pastoralists (or herders). These laws have been passed in response to ongoing "farmer-herder" conflicts between mainly Muslim Fulani pastoralists and mainly Christian settled farmers. Across Africa, farmer-herder violence can be triggered by frustrations over various issues. For example, herders’ cattle may trample over farmers’ crops during transhumance (cattle migration). Such incidents are not intentionally malicious but reflect the structural challenges affecting many communities, notably environmental degradation. These challenges, combined with ethnic marginalisation, have driven Fulani militias to resort to particularly extreme violence in Nigeria.
Though the situations in Britain and Nigeria are overall incomparable, they both exemplify the underlying dynamics of anti-nomadism. Whether in peaceful contexts like Britain or contexts of extreme insecurity like Nigeria, anti-nomadic laws have been presented as solutions to some form of perceived or real conflict between settled (or “sedentary”) and nomadic communities. Even in countries like Nigeria, where farmers suffer from violence, the dynamics of such intercommunity tensions tend to normatively favour settled communities over nomadic people, who are often portrayed collectively as threats. The UK Conservatives’ proposals came in response to intolerance towards GRT people among settled communities, who often complain about the presence of Travellers. Former Home Secretary (interior minister) Priti Patel claimed the measures would “protect” communities. Politicians and media outlets frequently reinforce unevidenced associations of GRT people with criminality and disorder.
Demonisation with Consequences
Nigerian media outlets and Western Christian organisations report on Fulani-related violence in ways that reinforce stereotypes of the “nomad savage.” Nigeria’s violence has been explained through conspiracy theories about an “Islamisation” or “jihadisation” agenda. When the government of outgoing president Muhammadu Buhari, himself a Fulani, suggested establishing designated grazing spaces to prevent farmer-herder clashes, Middle Belt leaders rejected the idea as a "Fulanisation" policy. Pastoralists face similar suspicions across Africa. In Democratic Republic of Congo, traditionally pastoralist Tutsi groups have faced persecution and attacks on their nationality and have been implicated in a conspiracy theory accusing neighbouring Rwanda of “balkanising” the country. This theory is rooted in the colonial-era Hamitic Hypothesis that constructed pastoralists as “invaders” and contributed to the 1994 genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda.
Closer comparisons can be drawn between European and more peaceful African countries as well as various other contexts. Ghana has run campaigns labelled “Operation Cow Leg” expelling Fulani herders in reaction to farmer-herder tensions. Similarly, in 2010, France came under scrutiny for deporting large numbers of Roma from Romania and Bulgaria, grouping them with "illegal immigrants". In Britain, local-level evictions targeting GRT people can be violent. In Tanzania, Maasai pastoralists have faced local-level evictions from their homelands for conservation purposes. In Israel/Palestine, the experience of evictions among semi-nomadic Bedouins intersects with the broader dispossession of Palestinians. The belief that nomadic people do not belong to territories renders their expulsion by states an acceptable form of treatment, even without passing explicitly anti-nomadic laws. Such laws explicitly banished Gypsies and Roma from countries in early modern Europe, including England in 1530.
Persecution from the Past in the Present
British police have demonstrated an understanding of the dangers of criminalising unauthorised encampments. Most officers oppose their new powers and call for more official encampment sites instead. Nevertheless, though only a small percentage of encampments are usually unauthorised, site shortages could force many GRT people onto the wrong side of the law, threatening them with jail and having their vehicles seized or destroyed. Prosecution also risks causing family separations, which would be reminiscent of the “Tinker Experiment'' (1940-80), an assimilationist sedentarisation programme that targeted GRT people in Scotland and entailed family separations. Furthermore, the existential fears the Policing Act raises culturally evoke memories of various genocidal processes targeting Europe’s Roma throughout history. Such processes have ranged from forced sterilisation and sedentarisation in multiple countries to the extermination of the Roma in the Holocaust (Porrajmos).
Human Rights Research Center is welcoming contributions to discuss research and policies addressing the rights and experiences of nomadic people in different contexts for its Nomadic Lives Series. The needs, challenges, and threats facing different nomadic communities worldwide vary significantly. Yet, all contexts demonstrate the need to rethink norms and structures in approaches to tackling the marginalisation of nomadic people and attacks on their rights. States need to better accommodate nomadism structurally. Meanwhile, prejudices need to be tackled within settled communities to build acceptance of nomadic people and tackle perceptions of nomadism as territorial encroachment. The Nomadic Lives Series seeks to explore these issues from the perspective of nomadic communities and with the approach of challenging norms placed at the heart of the conversation.
Glossary of terms
Assimilation: The cultural absorption of a minority group into the main cultural body. [Source: Collins Online Dictionary]
Climate Change: Long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns. [Source: United Nations]
Conspiracy Theory: A belief that an event or situation is the result of a secret plan made by powerful people. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]
Conservation: The protection of plants and animals, natural areas, and interesting and important structures and buildings, especially from the damaging effects of human activity. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]
Deportation: To force someone to leave a country, especially someone who has no legal right to be there or who has broken the law. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]
Dispossession: The fact of having property, especially buildings or land, taken away from you, or the act of taking property away from a person or group. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]
Draconian: Draconian laws, government actions, etc. are extremely severe, or go further than what is right or necessary. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]
Encampment: A group of tents or other shelters in a particular place, especially when they are used by soldiers, refugees, or Gypsies. [Source: Collins Online Dictionary]
Encroach: To enter by gradual steps or by stealth into the possessions or rights of another. [Source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary online]
Enshrine: If something such as an idea or a right is enshrined in something such as a constitution or law, it is protected by it. [Source: Collins Online Dictionary]
Environmental Degradation: A process through which the natural environment is compromised in some way, reducing biological diversity and the general health of the environment. [Source: European Environment Information and Observation Network]
Eviction: The act or process of officially forcing someone to leave a house or piece of land. [Source: Collins Online Dictionary]
Expulsion: The act of forcing someone, or being forced, to leave a school, organisation, or country. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]
Farmer: A person who farms; person who operates a farm or cultivates land. [Source: Collins Online Dictionary]
Genocide: An internationally recognised crime where acts are committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. [Source: US Holocaust Memorial Museum]
Grazing: Land where farm animals feed on grass. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]
GRT Community: Gypsies, Roma and Travellers are often categorised together under the “Roma” definition in Europe and under the acronym “GRT” in Britain. [Source: Traveller Movement]
Gypsy: The term Gypsy comes from “Egyptian” which is what the settled population perceived them to be because of their dark complexion.* In reality, linguistic analysis of the Romani language proves that Romany Gypsies, like the European Roma, originally came from Northern India, probably around the 12th century. [Source: Traveller Movement]
Gypsies, Roma and Travellers: The umbrella term ‘Gypsies, Roma and Travellers’ includes many different and distinct groups. For example, Irish Travellers, Scottish Gypsy/Travellers and Romani people who are recognised ethnic groups. In addition, this can include New Travellers, Showpeople and Boaters who are often included under this umbrella term because they practise nomadism. [Source: Friends, Families and Travellers]
Herder: A person who takes care of a large group of animals of the same type. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]
Immigrant: A person who has come to live in a country from some other country. [Source: Collins Online Dictionary]
Malicious: Having or showing a desire to cause harm to someone. [Source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary online]
Marginalisation: The act of treating someone or something as if they are not important. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]
Middle Belt: A long belt region stretching across central Nigeria between the country’s northern and southern regions.
Militia: An organisation that operates like an army but whose members are not professional soldiers. [Source: Collins Online Dictionary]
Nomadic: Moving from one place to another rather than living in one place all of the time. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]
Norm: An accepted standard or a way of behaving or doing things that most people agree with. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]
Normative: Of or pertaining to a norm, esp. an assumed norm regarded as the standard of correctness in behaviour, speech, writing, etc. [Source: Collins Online Dictionary]
Porrajmos: Also know as Baro Porrajmos (Great Devouring), this is the term used to refer to the Roma genocide during the Holocaust. [Source: Open Society Foundation]
Pastoralist: A person who raises livestock, esp. a nomadic herder. [Source: Collins Online Dictionary]
Persecution: Cruel and unfair treatment of a person or group, especially because of their religious or political beliefs, or their race. [Source: Collins Online Dictionary]
Property rights: The rights of people and companies to own and use land, capital, etc. and to receive a profit from it. [Source: Cambridge Dictionary online]
Roma: The umbrella-term ‘Roma’ encompasses diverse groups, including Roma, Sinti, Kale, Romanichels, Boyash/Rudari, Ashkali, Egyptians, Yenish, Dom, Lom, Rom and Abdal, as well as Traveller populations (gens du voyage, Gypsies, Camminanti, etc.). [Source: European Commission]
Sedentary: Not migratory (settled). [Source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary online]
Transhumance: The seasonal migration of livestock to suitable grazing grounds. [Source: Collins Online Dictionary]
*NB: ‘Gypsy’ is sometimes seen as offensive or as a racial slur. However, there are several Romani groups in Europe who have claimed this word and use it with pride. [Source: Friends, Families and Travellers]