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Dale Farm, Essex parish prepares to take in evicted Traveller families

LONDON - 16 February 2009

Jo Siedlecka

A parish in Essex is preparing to accommodate dozens of Traveller women, children and babies in its church hall, after the local council was given permission to evict them from their camp. Families will be given just 45 minutes notice to leave, before the bailiffs arrive.

An Appeal Court ruling on 22 January opened the way for Basildon Council to demolish homes at Dale Farm, in a £1.9million operation. With more than 350 residents, Dale Farm is the largest Travellers site in Europe.

The families bought the derelict green belt land about ten years ago. They pay council taxes and have built semi-permanent homes there. The children are settled in local schools. But they did not have planning permission from Basildon Council. Each time they applied, their applications were refused.

The community has strong support from local churches. Last May, Catholic Bishop Thomas MacMahon of Brentwood and the Anglican Bishop of Chelmsford, Bishop John Gladwin, opened St Christopher's at Dale Farm, a cabin to be used as a chapel and community centre sponsored by Essex Racial Equality Council.

Bishop MacMahon said the threat of eviction now is causing much distress. He said: "it also bring focus to bear on the local council who have a responsibility to find a suitable number of sites for the travelling community."

Kathleen McCarthy, from Dale Farm Housing Association has submitted a joint homeless application on behalf of 300 related residents. But a similar application was rejected last year on the basis that they had intentionally rendered themselves homeless.

Social worker Sister Catherine Riley, said she was very concerned. " I hate to think what is going to happen when the eviction comes. They are very low in spirits at the moment. Most of the men are abroad looking for work so the women are frightened because they do not know when the bailiffs will come to destroy their homes."

Fr John Glynn, parish priest at the Catholic Church of Our Lady of Good Council in Wickford, said: "All we can do is wait now.

"Families need to have a place where children can go when the bulldozers move in. We offered our church hall and the Church of England has also offered space.

"We are only going to get a 45 minutes warning, so we will have people waiting round the clock to help. There are 86 families, that's around 350 people, including newborn triplets.

"These people are active members of our parish. It is difficult for them to live with this threat hanging over them. They are the last indigenous people in the country. If there is an eviction, I will be there with a banner saying: "ethnic cleansing in progress".

Cllr Malcolm Buckley, Leader of the Council has admitted that the eviction is likely to be a very traumatic operation" but pledged to ensure that it is carried out safely. However the Gypsy Council has documentary filmed evidence that the bailiffs, Constant & Co, contracted by Basildon for previous evictions, has often ignored safety regulations and acted with brutality towards women and children. Caravans have been burned and many personal belongings unnecessarily trashed.

Lawyers acting for the community have mounted an appeal to the House of Lords and are considering an application to the European Court of Human Rights. But this could take two years and families fear they will not be granted a further stay of execution.

Julie Morgan MP has endorsed an appeal by the community to the EU Civil Protection agency to avert what she calls "a humanitarian disaster".

© Independent Catholic News 2009



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