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Gypsy, Roma, Traveller: living as an outcast

  • 6 February 2023
  • By Nicole Cherruault
  • This blog is in the form of an audio file by Nicole Cherruault, a journalist at The Times. Nicole holds an MA (Hons) from the University of Edinburgh in History and Politics and an MA in International Journalism from City, University of London.
  • A full transcript is also provided below.
  • This project came about after Nicole heard about HEPI’s 2022 report on the educational outcomes of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers (GRT). This prompted her to research and investigate the communities’ history of segregation from society and the impact this has on GRT individuals today. Nicole hopes the project, through the candid and intimate stories shared by her interviewees, will help shift the narrative around GRT culture and return agency to the communities. Nicole is determined to continue chasing the stories that matter; holding powers to account and instituting positive change.
  • The music in the audio file is by Orlando Roberton of Pixelphonics.

NB: This piece, including the transcript below, contains language which could cause offence to some people.

The inspector said, “there’s only one thing more dangerous than a pikey and that’s an educated pikey”. That is what they took from that meeting is that I’m a pikey.

That was Claire Bryce an English Romani Gypsy talking about her experience training her local police force on how to tackle hate crime towards the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities commonly referred to as GRT.

Since finishing her Master’s in Criminology at the University of Cambridge, she has worked at the GRT charity Gate Herts providing legal support to people from her community.

Despite Claire’s educational and professional achievements, she admits the prejudice she faced as a Romani Gypsy made her route to success difficult. 

When I was 40, I went back to university and I sat down with a renowned psychologist. And he was my tutor. And he said to me, “why have you come back?” So I said, “I’d like to help my community”, and he said, “Which is?” And I said, “Romany Gypsies,” to which he replied, “that’s not something I would advertise if I were you.”

According to the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) report, between 2020 and 2021, there were only 30 students from GRT backgrounds registered at the UK’s top-tier universities, out of a population of over half million GRT people. 

Dr Laura Brassington is a [former] Policy Adviser at the Higher Education Policy Institute, otherwise known at HEPI, and author of the report. 

She spoke to members of the communities to find out some of the key factors driving GRT people away from university. 

First and foremost was racially motivated bullying in schools. And we know from wider research that in terms of attitudes towards education, higher education, you know, we need to make sure that those places become welcoming of GRT cultures because that’s really one of the main issues is that exclusion and prejudicial treatment right from school levels really affects their views of what university means for them.

As Dr Brassington observes, the problems start at school. 

GRT pupils have the lowest rates of attendance and the highest rates of permanent exclusions compared with all other ethnic groups.

Chrissie Black is a Romani Gypsy from South East England. Her grandson, Bobbi, was pulled out of school by his family at the age of 6.

She describes one particular incident with his English teacher.

She said, you haven’t read that many times you’re a cheat and you’re lying to me. So she said, “Right,” and she ripped his chart in half and said “now go and put it in the bin”. So he had to go off and put it into the bin, getting very tearful. And she said, “Now sit on the naughty mat and tell the rest of the class how you’ve cheated and lied.”

For Chrissie, her grandson’s schooling was interrupted due to a string of, what she describes as “racially-motivated” incidents.

But, when it comes to university there are also other issues which contribute to the group’s lower educational attainments, such as the community’s traditional patriarchal norms which expect women to stay at home and men to go out and work.  

For Shannon Phillips, a 22 year old English Romani Gypsy, her biggest barrier to pursuing higher education was at home.

My father, he was very adamant that I wasn’t going and that I wasn’t allowed to like move away to a new city because he was scared that like, you’d lose all your Gypsy heritage and culture and that you just become like the outsider.

According to Dr Brassington though, GRT traditions should not detract from governmental and institutional efforts to make education as accessible as possible for the communities. 

This goes back to that issue of let’s make institutions more welcoming of these communities. Let’s ensure that members of these communities feel safe within the institutions and able to identify and know that the support will be there as and when they need it. The Government also needs to be providing opportunities on school censuses for identification.

Modern day prejudice and discrimination across Europe, comes after a long history of violence against GRT people.

Historians estimate that as many as 500,000 Roma were killed during the Holocaust in an act called the Porajmos or the Great Devouring. 

Under Communism, in Central and Eastern Europe countries such as Czechslovakia and Hungary,  they were subjected to forced assimilation via policies which limited nomadic movement and restricted Roma settlements. 

Even as a free market and democracy emerged in these countries they were still marginalised economically, often working in short-term positions with no job security. 

According to Bernard Rorke, an academic and advocacy officer at the European Roma Rights Centre, this legacy of expulsions, segregation and genocide has influenced existing narratives around GRT culture.

Many people just passively, habitually have anti Roma prejudice inside them but it’s not something they’re going to act on. It’ll come through in their expressions. You know if you choke in Hungarian, you’d say, “Oh, it went down the Gypsy way”, you know, like that kind of everyday racism and prejudice that needs to be unpicked.

Today, the Roma community is Europe’s largest ethnic minority, with up to 12 million Roma people living across the continent.

Yet according to the European Parliament, Roma still face limited access to health care, with 80 per cent of the population living below the poverty line. 

In London’s financial district, I met with Fil Sys, a Roma from the Czech Republic. He was adopted and brought to the UK as a young child and is one of the few Roma people to have gone to university and pursued a career in law. 

I was going into the legal industry and wanting to join like an equivalent of a Black lawyers network or something like that. I just found there wasn’t any one so we created the Gypsy Roma Travellers Lawyers Association and just went from there really.

For Fil, whilst the racism he has experienced has been more explicit in the Czech Republic, he believes the UK is still a culprit of harbouring hostile and discriminatory sentiment towards GRT communities – something he believes is causing GRT people to distrust governmental institutions.

One of our members directly said to us that “I’m very interested in joining but I’m kind of scared” because the law is something that in our communities is not popular. It’s something that I shouldn’t get involved in, you know, people don’t want to be policemen, they want to be lawyers because of the whole perception about it being done to us.

According to HEPI’s recent report, Gypsy and Irish Travellers are the UK’s ‘least liked’ group, with almost 50 per cent of people saying they felt negatively towards them.

But for Chrissie Black, a British Romani Gypsy, this prejudice from modern society is not just contributing to a culture of distrust in her community but is driving a mental health crisis too.

The racism is worse, 100% worse and that is why we’ve had five children commit suicide last month, five children, one is as young as nine.

In 2018, the British Government tried to address some of these issues by providing funding to GRT charities such as Gate Herts and the Travellers Movement, to help them support victims of hate crime and discrimination. 

But for GRT activists and campaigners,more needs to be done to tackle the root of the problem.

For them much of the prejudice faced by GRT communities comes from society’s lack of understanding of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller  culture.

Claire Bryce is a Romani Gypsy, from south-east England.  

If you really want me to sum it up we are romanticised or villainized, we are rarely actualized. So they either think that we’re gonna come and smash up their town and rob the cash machine out of Tesco’s wall or we’re going to set up a little store and tell their fortunes.

Calls for more education on GRT culture comes as hate crime is recorded as one of the key factors pushing GRT children out of school. 

According to campaigners, education on GRT traditions, history and literature will not just benefit the communities involved but will introduce a rich and diverse culture into the public consciousness too.  

But with centuries of anti-GRT sentiment entrenched in European history, concerns remain over how and when this will be implemented.


  1. Amanda says:

    I have Romani heritage. If we really want to know how many of us are at universities then universities need to have a place for us on study and employment forms, rather than having us select ‘other.’ On the other hand, I strongly regret sharing my background with a few classmates. Sadly, I had similar experiences studying at Edinburgh and my face still burns when I think about them.

  2. Elinor Goodman says:

    Really worthwhile piece. Keep up the good eork

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