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Because the Government has released its latest detailed survey of just how many gypsies and travellers are living in Britain. The problem is that a small but significant proportion of gypsy sites in Britain are completely illegal.

As of January 2009 there were 17,865 caravans dotted across the country which belong predominantly to either Romani Gypsies or Irish Traveller communities. Travellers have either created their own camps without planning permission or are essentially squatting on someone else's land.

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The name itself is a bastardisation of "Egyptian" but Romani Gypsies (as opposed to Irish Travellers) actually trace their language and DNA back to what is now Rajasthan in north India.

The most concerted Romani migration came with the Ottoman invasions which is partly why they have historically been so heavily stigmatised.

The second core nomadic group within Britain are Irish Travellers who trace their lineage and culture to Ireland but have been living in Britain for centuries.

Irish Travellers tend to speak their own language (usually Gamin or Cant) and have their own distinct cultural practices. Despite being distinct ethnic groups no census has ever bothered with a traveller category.

Both Romani and Irish Travellers are recognised in Britain as distinct ethnic groups. The former Commission for Racial Equality estimates that Britain's gypsy community is somewhere between 180,000 to 350,000.

Despite popular perceptions of leading a nomadic lifestyle, the vast majority of gypsies (an estimated 300,000) live in bricks and mortar housing. If you read certains sections of the press you'd probably believe that the entire country is swamped by dirty, festering gypsy encampments that blight the local populace. Of all the caravans in the UK owned by gypsies or travellers, the vast majority (14,185) are entirely legal developments that are either on land owned by the gypsies themselves or are rented privately off landlords.

There are currently only 3,680 caravans camped illegally, but 2,049 of those are what the government terms "tolerated", which means there is little dissent shown towards the encampments from the local communities.

That leaves just 1,631 caravans situated in places where major problems are being caused by their presence. Because handing land over to gypsies who prefer a life on the road or in caravans rather than in free council housing is not exactly a vote-winner.

The government would quickly be accused of giving travellers a free ride if they gave them land so the general approach has been to try and encourage them to buy their own.

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