Scottish Gypsy Travellers at the Scottish Students’ Conference 2013

Last week Amnesty student reps from across Scotland gathered in Glasgow University for this year's Amnesty Scottish Student Conference. In the evening, the Glasgow University Group held their annual Secret Policeman’s Ball and raised a record £2248.85!

We discussed the work of Amnesty in Scotland, particularly around the Gypsy Traveller community, and the issues Scottish Gypsy Travellers are facing today.

Jess, A Scottish Gypsy Traveller, in her own words

“When you know the history of a person, you are three quarters of the way to understanding them.”

Jess Smith is a storyteller, author, and Scottish Gypsy Traveller. She was kicked unconscious and spat on as a child and experienced much of the tragic discrimination her community faces.

At the Student Conference, Jess explained that she knows 'unobserved travellers' who are very successful, but feel they would lose their reputations if they were to reveal their background. But Jess is optimistic and adamant that ill treatment and shame will only end once the real history and tradition of Gypsy Travellers is known to the outside world and celebrated among Gypsy Travellers themselves.

Jess shared poems, sang songs, told stories and read history. She hopes that, with a better understanding of the past, we will question where our prejudices come from. She urged the students to forge connections with their Gypsy Traveller peers and encouraged us with fresh enthusiasm to continue campaigning.

Scottish Gypsy Travellers: the Amnesty perspective

Catriona Clunas is the volunteer Campaigns Assistant responsible for the 2013 Amnesty Scotland Gypsy Traveller campaign. Our two reports on the campaign out this year expose a distinct media bias against Scottish Gypsy Travellers and reveal the indifferent and often ineffectual attitude towards the community in a number of local authorities. Catriona presented these findings before opening the floor to the students.

We all seemed to agree the root of many problems can be traced to a mutual lack of understanding and trust between the Gypsy Traveller and settled communities. With this in mind, one student group shared their experience of inviting members of the local community to a forum where Gypsy Travellers talked about their way of life and attempted to dispel some of the most common myths around their culture.

Some student groups told of their success with film screenings and panel discussions; another group organised a photo campaign which encouraged local people to take pictures of themselves holding a placard in support of Gypsy Travellers.

I thought it was interesting to discover a major concern for student groups working on this issue was the attitude of local communities who felt the students had no long-term vested interest in the work they were doing as they would be moving on in four years.

Student populations could be said to be more transitory than Gypsy Travellers, but they are not, on the whole, exposed to disproportionate media and CCTV scrutiny, nor denied access to public facilities despite paying council tax. So, what now?

What next? Recommendations from the day

  • Students emphasised that we all should take care to engage a broad audience in discussion rather than just presenting an Amnesty line. That way we don’t simply preach to the usual human-rights-y choir or alienate people who feel like we’re telling them what to do.
  • Homogenisation and stereotypes can be challenged by arranging platforms for different Gypsy Travellers to share their experiences with members of the settled community. Respectful interaction can help break down barriers of distrust.
  • This issue is very local, so engaging with local media and local authorities is key.
  • If locals are suspicious of students who are only in the area for four years, students can, in addition to their other efforts, help local Amnesty groups working on the issue.


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