This is National Hate Crime Awareness Week, and historically Scotland has a lot to be proud of, having led the way in some areas of hate crime legislation. Its commitment to protecting minorities has been called into question, however, as members of one community report having found themselves without protection. Although they were recognised as a distinct ethnic group by a tribunal in 2008, Gypsy Travellers say that they have been repeatedly let down by police and prosecution services which fail to recognise this, leaving some of them living in fear.
Hate crime legislation does not create new types of crime, but instead means that an additional element can be added to the charge when somebody is prosecuted for an act which would have been criminal anyway. This recognises the fact that hate crimes don’t just harm victims directly but also send a message of intimidation to other people like them. In addition to investigating potential hate crimes, police keep a record of hate incidents reported to them. This does not have the effect of criminalising individuals but helps them to notice if particular communities are being targeted more than usual – information which can be useful when doing preventative work aimed at discouraging crime.
Members of the Gypsy Traveller community report that, although they have received support from some individual officers, the police are often slow to investigate reports of crime against them, and it is even harder to achieve a prosecution.
“I feel like no-one cares”
On 7 March 2023, Perth woman Jacqueline Mccallum was visiting her local bakery to buy food for her family when she was allegedly threatened by a man who referred to her as a ‘mink’, a term of abuse commonly used against Gypsy Travellers. At the time of the incident, which is believed to have been caught on CCTV, she was on the phone to a friend, Roseanna McPhee, who overheard what happened and has confirmed her description of events. The friend helped her make a complaint to the police and the man was charged with racially aggravated harassment. The Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service subsequently dropped the case, however, stating that “the facts which can be proved do not disclose a crime known to the law of Scotland.”
“I feel nervous. I can’t sleep. I see that man’s face,” said Mccallum, who was on her own when the incident occurred and says she now hesitates to go out because she doesn’t feel safe. Suffering from anxiety, she expressed her concern about the dangers of letting people think they can get away with such behaviour.
“I feel that no Traveller or Gypsy girl or woman is safe in public because of what happened to me. I have thought ‘What’s the point in being on this earth when I and my family are called horrible names and can get treated like this and no one cares?’ I feel so sad and alone.”
Part of a pattern
McPhee says that Mccallum’s experience chimes with her own experience as a member of the Gypsy Traveller community.
She recalled an incident in which she was harassed by a woman who “gave directions to my chalet in the woods and said that there was no CCTV and told people to burn it.” Despite the use of the same bigoted language, she says that Police Scotland “refused three times to charge her because ‘mink’ was not a racially aggravated slur and I was not a member of a ‘race’.”
She noted that two people have previously been taken to court in Perthshire over an incident in which they referred to people as ‘tinks’, but that responses from the authorities are inconsistent and have worsened significantly in recent years.
“When someone calls you a ‘dirty tink’ or ‘mink’, that is extremely personal and is deeply wounding because it always triggers all of those other times over the years when you have been called those names,” she said.
“It is a very isolating experience because you know that neither police, courts or any of the regulatory bodies will do anything about it.
“There is no support for invisible minorities in Scotland facing racism and consequences of racism such as discrimination in employment, healthcare and housing, which is all too often attributed to ‘poverty’ in order to disguise the root cause.”
There are approximately 15,000 to 20,000 Gypsy Travellers in Scotland. In 2013 the Scottish Human Rights Commission described discrimination against them as “the last bastion of respectable racism.”
Between 2019 and 2021 the Scottish Government carried out research aimed at identifying problems faced by the community and putting in place a series of actions designed to help them, but Gypsy Travellers themselves say that they have yet to see any material benefit from this.
For hate crime legislation to be effective, members of vulnerable minority groups need to know that it will be properly applied, and need to be confident that the Scottish Government, police, and prosecutors are fully committed to providing the protections that enable them to feel safe in their day to day lives.
Please note that the term ‘Gypsy Traveller’ has been approved of by the specific people involved in this article.