“I am worried that not everyone knows what is coming,” says Amy, sitting in the truck she has turned into a cosy home for her and her two children. “If this bill is passed it will mean the end of our culture. The end of our way of life.”
Amy, who wanted to be known by her first name, lives with her two sons on a small Travellers’ site down a quiet country lane in the west of England, along the edges of an ancient forest.
Despite the wheels on everyone’s homes, there is a feeling of permanence here. Amy’s neighbours are busy gardening in the sunshine, tyres are filled with plants, wood is stacked in piles ready to be made into more planters. In every corner, life is blooming.
But for Amy, and many others, this way of life is under threat. Gypsies and Travellers are preparing to rally as the police, crime, sentencing and courts bill gets a step closer to being passed into law. If passed, section 4 of the bill, which has its third reading in the Commons this week, will make “residing or intending to reside on land without the permission of the owner or occupier” a new criminal offence.
Amy started a podcast entitled “I choose the road” in an attempt to sound the alarm. “I started to think about how I could get the news out there to other Travellers about what was happening. People might not know their homes could be taken away and they could even go to prison.”
Amy and her neighbours aren’t on the land legally, but “the owners tolerate us for now. I don’t know what will happen once the bill passes, though”. None of the Travellers interviewed by the Guardian wanted to include their full name for fear of being traceable by the authorities.
Across the UK many Travellers live like this, finding fields where they will be quietly tolerated, in breach of planning and housing regulations. Others move much more frequently, having to find somewhere new every few days.
Amy took to the road in the 90’s, after getting involved in a Travellers’ road protest in Ireland as a teenager and living largely in vehicles ever since. “We are known as ‘New Travellers’. We don’t have ethnic heritage but I’ve done this for many years … [The name] allows us to claim our identity without stepping on other people’s.”
For Amy and her neighbour, Jess, living this way is a commitment to an alternative way of life, outside the structures of capitalism.
“It’s about a simpler life,” says Amy, “a life closer to nature where you can hear the rain on the roof, where you don’t need as much money so you can be with your children more. And it’s about community, because living on a Traveller site and raising children here is like living in an old-fashioned village.”
Jess is pottering around outside her van, which is surrounded by the detritus of a creative life. It’s filled with fabric and craft materials and hula-hoops lie all around it. The Traveller community has deep connections to the creative side of British festivals and she hopes to be back on the scene this summer. For now, she is ready to fight for her way of life against the police bill.
“I grew up on a council estate in Wales and I moved to town when I left home and thought ‘oh yes, this is just as bad as I thought it would be’, just depressing and lonely. I realise now what I was searching for was community,” says Jess, who did not want to give her surname.
If this bill passes, she says, “we will be the last generation. I will just keep moving … until they take my vehicle, I don’t have other options in my back pocket. I feel fucking petrified and also angry. People worry about Travellers turning up in their area, but where is the common land? You are taking away my animal freedom to be on this planet. It’s wiping out a culture.”
In the south of England, another Jess lives in converted horsebox and rides a large motorbike. Lately, she has been spending time on Facebook, sharing her story of decades on the road and encouraging others to tell their stories. “Travellers don’t like to draw attention to themselves, but I believe this is a time when it’s urgent to share our stories, our culture and history.”
Jess chose this way of life to be closer to nature. “I don’t even like to sit in the van … it’s just so I can be as close to nature as possible. The doors are always open, I’m always outside. There is a real push towards cultural homogeneity, through the media you are told – think this way, judge people like this. People don’t understand why I would choose this life, but for me it’s sanity. A simple lifestyle close to the earth that doesn’t tax resources and is sustainable on a small income. ”
Today she is parked up at the top of the South Downs, her truck doors wide open. Like Amy, she took to the road in the 90s, as protest camps and rave culture brought people on to the road.
“When I was younger I had a breakdown and pieced my health back together in Ireland and that is where I met people living on the road, including a world of horse-drawn vehicles. It was eye-opening, I thought, ‘oh my God I don’t have to go home, I can live camping’.
“I worked in agriculture, from farm to farm both here and in Europe. Being outside working was good for my mental health. I had choices and I chose it all.”
Jess can’t say where she has been parked recently because it’s barely legal. Many Travellers are on edge, worried constantly about being tracked down and fined by local authorities.
“During lockdown they left us alone’ says Jess. “But before that I was parking my truck all over Brighton or out in the South Downs. I recently got about three section 77s (a legal order to remove a vehicle) stuck on my windscreen. They say ‘you are believed to be residing in a vehicle on the side of the highway and you need to move in the shortest time practicable’.”
“As it stands right now, it is a civil offence – I can move my truck to another place and they mostly leave you alone. You stay a few nights somewhere, take fines in your stride, it’s a hazard of the lifestyle.”
The law will bring a major hardening, from civil to criminal offence. “If this law is enforced they could immediately arrest me, stick me in a police car, take me to the station and destroy my truck.”
Travellers aren’t welcome on the campsites that ordinary holidaymakers might visit. “There are legalities around living on a campsite, they are expensive and they don’t like our vehicles. The special sites set up by councils are full.”
Jess is a confident woman and feels she can speak up if others are too worried to. “Tell me why I shouldn’t live this way? I look after my parents – I work, I pay tax, why do I have to live in a bloody house?”
In Bristol, Luke saw Jess’s message and thought the time had come to speak up. He is part of a group of Travellers who move around the south-west, currently awaiting eviction from a site they broke into and looking at where they can hide next.
“What are we supposed to do? Squatting is gone, soon this will go – just all means of subsistence are being criminalised. You can’t just be.”
Luke is a full-time carer for young people with disabilities, but doesn’t want to live in an ordinary house. “Nomadism is for me. I like sitting round the campfire, I like digging holes, chopping wood. I need community – I was on my own for a very very long time and – when I got into squatting it was like getting into a warm bath, I don’t really want to give up that communal element.”
He is very concerned about the possible further powers that would allow police to seize vehicles on the spot. “If that happens, I’ll just go back to sleeping in a tent in the wood.”
Earlier this month the high court ruled that local authorities can no longer issue blanket injunctions against “persons unknown” to stop Gypsies and Travellers stopping on local land. In recent years the injunctions were widely used to prevent people stopping even if they were new to the area. Campaigners and lawyers plan to use human rights laws to push back against the bill.
For Luke the constant pressure to move on and stay out of sight is stressful. “The whole time we are keeping an eye on where we can go next. Then on the day we move it’s stressful wondering will it happen, how long will we have there.”
He says his life deserves respect. “There is attention on van lifers, young yuppies and that’s fine. But there are some of us who are not photogenic or erudite who have not got other choices. We are out here living in dilapidated caravans and helping each other out. I would like it to be a matter of record that we existed, some of us who clawed our way out of the filth to get here and even that is being taken away from us.”
A spokesperson for the home secretary said: “We don’t agree with the characterisation that the measures in the bill are ‘wiping out a culture’.
“In July 2019, in England and Wales, only 4.4% of caravans were on unauthorised encampments on land not owned by the occupants.”
Andrés Manuel López Obrador: Mexican president downplays tensions with US over Americas summit | International
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador sought on Tuesday to downplay the tensions that have risen with the United States over the upcoming Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. The leftist leader has said he would skip the summit and send a representative instead, if Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua were excluded from the meeting. But he argued on Tuesday that this position is not going to harm bilateral relations with the US. “One shouldn’t think that, if, in this case, we don’t agree on the summit, there is going to be any break [in relations]. That is not going to happen under any circumstance,” he said at his morning press conference.
A US delegation was set to arrive in Mexico on Wednesday to discuss the upcoming summit, which will be held from June 6 to 10. The delegation, led by Senator Christopher Dodd, seeks to ensure that López Obrador will participate in the regional meeting. Ahead of the visit, the US ambassador to Mexico, Ken Salazar, said on Monday that “it is very important that Mexico participates” in the summit. If López Obrador boycotts the event, Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard will attend in his place.
The White House has not yet made a decision about whether to invite Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, but Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian Nichols told EL PAÍS that the US government is currently leaning toward excluding “countries that disrespect democracy.”
López Obrador supported his position to skip the meeting by invoking the Mexican Constitution, which enshrines the principle of non-intervention in foreign policy. “We have to stick to the principles of our foreign policy, of non-intervention and self-determination of the people, and we believe that no one should be excluded and that the independence and sovereignty of the peoples must be asserted,” he said on Tuesday. However, by actively supporting Havana, the government has shaken up regional policy and created a separate bloc with countries such as Bolivia, Chile and Argentina, which also want all countries to be included in the summit.
While maintaining his position, the Mexican president was also at pains to highlight Mexico’s strong relationship with the US administration of President Joe Biden. “There is a very good relationship. And we are working in a coordinated manner in economic, trade, and of course migration and security matters,” he said. “Independently of how it is resolved, we are always going to have a relationship with the US that is based on respect and friendship, and even more so with the people of the United States. The US government has treated us with respect and we also have a lot of respect and admiration for the American people.”
Since Biden’s arrival at the White House in January 2021, the two leaders have been in frequent contact. While they have had disagreements on issues such as security, migration and energy policy, both want to address the bilateral agenda through negotiation, which marks a change from the threats and intimidation that characterized the Trump administration.
Learn lessons of Rwandan genocide and act now to stop Ethiopian war, UN urged | Global development
African civil society groups have accused the United Nations of inaction over atrocities in Ethiopia, warning in a letter that it had not learned the lessons of the 1994 Rwanda genocide and that the “situation risks repeating itself in Ethiopia today”.
Tens of thousands of people are thought to have been killed and millions more displaced since war broke out between Ethiopia’s federal government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the ruling party of the country’s northern region, in November 2020.
All of the parties in the war have been accused of crimes including arbitrary killings, mass rape and torture, while ethnic Tigrayans across the country have been subject to mass arrests amid a spike in hate speech, which has seen the prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, refer to the Tigrayan rebels as “weeds” and “cancer”.
In the letter to the UN secretary general, António Guterres, 12 African civil society groups including the Kampala-based Atrocities Watch Africa, the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa and Nigeria’s Centre for Democracy and Development called on him to “provide leadership in ending the ongoing war in Ethiopia”.
“Twenty-eight years ago, the security council similarly failed to recognise the warning signs of genocide in Rwanda or act to stop it,” the signatories said, adding: “We are concerned that the situation is repeating itself in Ethiopia today. We call on you to learn the lessons from Rwanda and act now.”
In November 2021, the UN security council issued a statement expressing concern over the fighting, but it has yet to take any concrete steps towards resolving the conflict.
Last month, a report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch accused forces from the Amhara region of waging a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Tigrayans “with the acquiescence and possible participation of Ethiopian federal forces”.
Dismas Nkunda, head of Atrocities Watch Africa, said: “With reports of ethnic cleansing coming out of western Tigray, there is real reason for concern that some of these crimes reach the level of genocide, and it’s essential that the United Nations grasp the seriousness of the current situation and respond accordingly.”
The UN human rights council has appointed a team to investigate abuses committed during the conflict, although the government has vowed not to cooperate.
Tigray has been largely cut off from the rest of Ethiopia since the fighting began, with transport and communications links cut. About 90% of the region’s 5.75 million population are in need of aid, and the region’s health bureau estimates that at least 1,900 children under the age of five died of starvation in the past year.
In March, the government unilaterally declared a “humanitarian truce” to allow supplies to reach the region, but only a handful of aid trucks have arrived since then.
The letter urges the UN security council to press for “immediate and unimpeded humanitarian access [to Tigray]” and “impose an arms embargo on all parties to the conflict”.
The signatories also call for deployment of an international peacekeeping force led by the African Union, which has its headquarters in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.
“Such action will be vital to assisting the Ethiopian men, women and children who have been suffering both direct hostilities, associated human rights violations and obstructed humanitarian aid,” they said.
‘Narco-tunnels’ become a factor in US-Mexico relations | International
More than 300 meters long, 10 meters deep and fully illuminated: so is the latest narco-tunnel that authorities have found in Tijuana, on the border between Mexico and the United States. The underground corridor was used to traffic drugs to San Diego, California, and has since been closed. The discovery was not an accident: US Ambassador Ken Salazar had warned last week of the presence of over 200 tunnels during a visit to the border city.
The tunnel was discovered last weekend after a joint operation by the Mexican Army, the Tijuana Police and the Attorney General’s Office. The entrance is located under a house in the Nueva Tijuana neighborhood, a few meters from the Otay border crossing where Salazar made those statements. The passageway, reinforced with metal beams, remains under police protection. Authorities have not identified which criminal group used it, nor have any arrests been made.
Mexican authorities emphasized that communication with their US counterparts had been “close” and that bilateral collaboration had been key to finding the tunnel. Less than 48 hours earlier, Salazar had made the same points. “Working with the Mexican government, we have a very good collaboration in trying to eradicate these tunnels, which should not be here, because this is where a lot of crime happens, a lot of suffering,” said the ambassador in statements collected by the weekly newspaper Zeta. “This must stop,” he added.
Salazar’s visit to Tijuana included a tour of a narco-tunnel discovered in 2009. The passageway, which also crosses the border wall, is known as Gálvez and is 270 meters long and 30 meters deep. The structure’s construction was attributed to the Arellano Félix cartel, a criminal organization created in the 1980s, which dominated the movement of drugs to the United States in that area for decades.
After the tour, Salazar, senior US anti-narcotics officials and Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard held a press conference announcing a $4.2 billion investment to reinforce the border. Ebrard exhorteed the authorities of both countries to “be more effective at the border against fentanyl, drugs and weapons that come and go on both sides.”
“[We intend] to ensure that this border is a place where people can walk from one place to another safely and where trade continues in a better way than now,” Salazar said. Last month, Texas governor Greg Abbott imposed tough security checks that virtually paralyzed cross-border trade. (More than 2,000 of the 3,000 kilometers between the two countries pass through Abbott’s state.)
After the White House’s urging to stop drug trafficking from Mexico, the government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador has urged the United States to do the same with the smuggling of firearms. More than 500,000 US weapons arrive in the Latin American country each year, according to Mexican authorities, who began working to prosecute the US arms industry last year.
Less than a week ago, another tunnel made headlines in Culiacán, the stronghold of the Sinaloa Cartel, the organization historically led by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. A young man who was sleeping on the sofa in his house fell after a hole opened in the ground. The hole in the floor was attributed to the existence of the underground passageway, found in 2011.
El Chapo had escaped in July 2015 from the Altiplano prison, a high-security prison in central Mexico, through a tunnel that took members of his criminal organization more than a year to build. In the videos broadcast from his cell, the criminal leader is seen disappearing from one moment to another after climbing into a hole in the floor. Guzmán traveled more than a kilometer underground on a motorcycle. The capo was captured in early 2016 and extradited to the United States a year later. Guzmán had previously managed to evade several capture operations through underground networks of passages. The first tunnel attributed to him dates from 1989.
The longest known narco-tunnel measured more than two kilometers, and its discovery was announced in January 2020. It had tracks, air conditioning, an elevator and electricity. The entrance was in Tijuana and the exit in San Diego. “The sophistication of this tunnel demonstrates the determination and monetary resources of the cartels,” the US border patrol said at the time. Despite the spectacular announcement, the news came with no information about arrests, as with the last tunnel discovered last weekend.
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