Council of Europe: “Travellers are treated worse than refugees in Ireland”

01 July 2019

By Bernard Rorke

More than two years after Irish state recognition of Travellers as an ethnic minority, a new report reveals that racism against them continues largely unabated, hate speech goes unpunished, and wilful inaction has left hundreds of Traveller families living in abject squalor. Volodymyr Kulyk, one of the authors of the latest report from the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI), called on the government to focus on combating prejudice and fostering tolerance; to punish local authorities that fail to deliver adequate Traveller accommodation; and declared that “Travellers are treated worse than refugees in Ireland.”

Local authorities culpable for ‘totally avoidable’ squalor and deprivation

The report was sharply critical of the “totally avoidable situations” that leave many Travellers living in squalor and deprivation. ECRI expressed regret that nothing has changed since the last report concerning the abject failure of local authorities to provide adequate and culturally-appropriate accommodation, and was “shocked” that 4.1 million Euro of available funding was returned unspent. The report found that prejudice and opposition from local residents translates into a lack of political will on the part of the local authorities; nine local authorities had not spent one cent on accommodation, and ECRI expressed regret that nothing had changed since their last visit:

“ECRI’s delegation witnessed the consequences of this situation during a visit to a Traveller site (Saint Mary’s) in north Dublin. It was alarmed at the deplorable conditions in which Travellers were living. The site notably had only one water connection point and one toilet facility for fourteen families, including more than 40 young children, and no waste collection services; the living environment was insalubrious and hazardous.”

ECRI suggested imposing dissuasive sanctions on local authorities for failure to spend allocated funding, or removing the responsibility for Traveller accommodation from local authorities. Two weeks later on 21 June, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) called on each of the country’s 31 local authorities to state whether or not they are complying with human rights obligations to accommodate Travellers, and given them 10 weeks to comply. IHREC chief commissioner Emily Logan warned that any council which failed to reply could face further ‘compliance actions’, and said some Travellers were being forced to live in “shameful conditions unfit for human habitation”, despite 21 years of legislation mandating every local authority to provide adequate, culturally appropriate accommodation to Travellers.

The 2019 #TravellerHomesNow monitoring report published on May 28 found that hundreds of Travellers in Galway continue to live in overcrowded, damp and mouldy accommodation with overflowing sewerage, insecure electricity, rat and fly infestations and no facilities for children. The report condemned the “lack of urgency to remedy or redress the substandard conditions” as unacceptable and amount to multiple violations of their human rights: “Some families are living in the same dire conditions for decades and have expressed feelings of hopelessness.”

The human cost of exclusion: young Travellers, mental distress and suicide

Desperation and feelings of hopelessness take a terrible toll on the mental health of the Traveller community. According to a new UN report, inequality is a key obstacle to mental health globally: “Many risk factors for poor mental health are closely associated with discrimination and inequalities in the conditions of daily life. Many risk factors are also linked to the corrosive impact of seeing life as something unfair.”

The extent of mental distress in Ireland is evident by the fact that the suicide rate among Travellers is six-times higher than that of wider society, with over 65 per cent of Traveller suicides occurring among those aged under 30. Dr Sindy Joyce, Traveller activist and member of the Council of State recently tweeted

“There is a deafening silence across this country on Mincéirí suicide. The intolerable pain of these young people, who saw death as their only option is being ignored. We are in a crisis, an epidemic that has been ignored for decades. Our trauma cannot continue to be dismissed.”

This sense of crisis is shared by the National Traveller Mental Health Network, launched in March 2019. Vice-chair Mags Casey said “the issues that affect all Travellers - such as racism and exclusion, matters relating to identity, sexuality, addiction, as well as employment, education and accommodation - have a profound impact on the community's mental health.” Layered on top of that are factors such as stigma around mental health challenges within the community and lack of culturally appropriate and properly resourced services. Recommendations made over a decade ago for culturally inclusive mental health service provision have been ignored, and the situation has continued to escalate without any clear government plan to address this tragic crisis. 

In addition to remedying the gaps in service provision, the government must also pay heed to the latest UN recommendation that one sure way to improve the mental health of individuals is to create supportive environments in all societal settings; and when it comes to the most vulnerable and most excluded citizens such as Irish Travellers, the government must properly address issues such as inequality, poverty and discrimination.

Beyond recognition

Both the ECRI report and the 4th Opinion from the Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities welcomed the State recognition of Travellers as a distinct ethnic minority on 1 March 2017, as demonstrating “an important evolution in the way Irish Travellers are taken into account by the Irish authorities and perceived in Irish society as a whole.” However, by 2019 ECRI sounds somewhat disenchanted, noting that despite the significant symbolic effect, “the declaration has no legal effect”, and suggests that the government’s failure to renew its National Action Plan against Racism in over a decade, has “left an important vacuum contributing to a ‘normalisation’ of racism”.  

Long ago Nancy Fraser argued that a politics of recognition that ignores gross disparities in material well-being dissolves into empty gestures that mock rather than redress serious harms. Ethnic recognition without legal effect, against a background of abject poverty, social exclusion and structural discrimination, in a country where hundreds of families live in ‘totally avoidable’ squalor, amounts to a grotesque neo-liberal mockery. 

Two years after recognition, Travellers are still 38 times more likely to report discrimination with regard to access to shops, public houses and restaurants, than other “white Irish” persons. So, even in terms of cultural or symbolic change, recognition has not delivered. The combination of material deprivation and the corrosive effect of racism and disrespect takes a terrible toll on the Traveller community. The high incidence of young suicides can be seen in heart-breaking RIP messages of condolence on Facebook pages for another Traveller life suddenly cut short. Justice today requires both redistribution and recognition; challenging injustice on both fronts must become an urgent priority, for justice delayed costs lives, and #TravellerLivesMatter.

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