Travellers in Ireland continue to face discrimination and racism

By Niamh O'Sullivan

07/12/2021

Travellers in Ireland continue to face discrimination and racism both in their day to day lives and on a systemic level. Despite continuous hard work from communities and community organisations, the community only gained formal recognition as an ethnic group in 2017. And since then very little has changed in how the community as a whole is treated by the State.

The way Travellers are treated has been consistent for many decades. As the government has not provided a suitable number of appropriate halting sites, increasing the reliance on unauthorised and roadside halting sites, the culture of Travellers has essentially become criminalised, and the lack of provision for creating Traveller specific accommodation leans into assimilationist policies (Gilbert, 2006). The Traveller specific accommodation that has been constructed are usually at a distance from settled communities, and some Travellers who are housed through general housing schemes and put into a settled community can feel the need to hide their heritage and identity at the risk of exposing themselves to racism from their neighbours.

The private accommodation sector is also very inaccessible for members of the Traveller community due to many historical barriers that make it difficult- like access to education, which lessens job opportunities and therefore makes financial instability much more likely, due to discrimination and racist biases from landlords. Encouragement from statutory bodies for Travellers to utilise the Housing Assistance Payment (HAP) system despite the rampant racism and discrimination faced by them in the private housing sector combined with a lack of progress with Traveller accommodation programmes and public housing have made it very difficult for many members of the community to feasibly enter the private sector (Pavee Point, 2021).

 This leads to another serious problem the community is facing- homelessness. In Galway it is estimated that members of the Traveller community make up approximately 50% of the homeless figures (Pavee Point, 2021). At their recent event, ‘Build Homes, Build Health, Build Hope’, Galway Traveller Movement reported that 2 in 5 Traveller homes had more persons than rooms compared to just 6% of the general population. We know that the high level of homelessness in the Traveller community is a result of the consistently deteriorating site conditions, evictions (both in the private sector and in public housing authorities), decline of local authority building programme, underspending on Traveller specific accommodation and a complete lack of focus on patterns of family formation and size (Pavee Point, 2021). The system lacks any sort of ethnic identifier in order to be able to truly measure the level of homelessness and create an equitable solution for Travellers exiting homelessness and the aforementioned encouragement into the HAP scheme shows the reliance of the government on the private sector to solve a public issue (Pavee Point, 2021)

 Galway Traveller Movement is an NGO based in County Galway and has been facilitating the Traveller Homes Now campaign since 2017. To date, they have published three monitoring reports on the condition of the sites and group housing schemes for Travellers in Galway County. They have continued into their fourth year of monitoring in the aftermath of the publishing of both the 2019 Traveller Accommodation Expert Review by the Department of Housing which set out to investigate the utility of the 1998 Traveller Accommodation Act after 20 years of ‘implementation’ and the 2021 Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC) equality reviews of local authorities’ provision for Traveller housing. Both of these reports had serious concerns in their findings particularly in terms of the treatment of Travellers seeking accommodation and the lack of care in Local Authorities and Governance.

The goals of the Traveller Homes Now campaign are:

  1. Raising awareness of the rights violations and inequalities that the Traveller Community experience in relation to their accommodation needs.
  2. Demanding action on these inequalities through a set of demands developed collectively by the Traveller Community in Galway City and County.

The event opened with local testimonies from Traveller families currently living in Galway County sites. Reports of no running water, no electricity or heat were heard. Families shared their experience of having to layer up their children’s clothes constantly and having to use hot water bottles at night. They reported that this affected their daily lives as it is usually too cold to bring the children to creche in the morning and that the child is regularly ill.

Families living in a ‘temporary site’ said they were told they were staying on the site for 18 months and have now lived there for 15 years. This site is across from a rubbish dump and the families reported everyone on the site being regularly ill from the smell and fumes from the dump, the children especially have stomach issues from this and are sometimes unable to eat breakfast before going to school due to the smell. They also reported dealing with a rat infestation for over a decade. The children on the site are particularly affected as the site location is quite isolated, with no green spaces at all and no play areas for the children. They talked about how there has been a noticeable effect on the physical and mental health of the people living on the site, particularly the elderly and the children. The families also spoke about their experience with the Local County Council, saying that their calls go unanswered. The families finished their testimonies simply asking for a clean, safe and suitable home for their children.

 Unfortunately, similar testimonies to the above were heard at the first launch of the campaign in 2017 and continue to be echoed by Travellers nationwide. The Traveller community collectively face poor living conditions nationwide and this speaks to a larger, longstanding systemic disregard and lack of care for the community. The poor living conditions this community faces have serious consequences on all other aspects of people’s and families’ lives, with housing being a cornerstone of the social determinants of health (The Health Foundation,2020). Travellers have consistently had a life expectancy ten years lower than that of the general population, and the rate of suicide within the community is six times higher than the general populations, this rate being particularly high for young Traveller men (AITHS, 2010). The impact on children's development, physical and mental health, access and participation in education and future opportunities is detrimental and is sustaining a cycle of poverty within the majority of the community (IHREC, 2021a; The Health Foundation, 2020). Representatives from Galway Traveller Movement spoke about how the pandemic highlighted the already existing humanitarian crisis the Traveller community have been facing. They cited that Galway County Council’s failure to meet accommodation standards has happened over three plans and minimal intervention has taken place. The Traveller community are reporting a feeling of being forgotten about, while the mental health crisis in the community continues to worsen as the Local Authorities are failing the community. T

he Traveller Homes Now campaign is calling for all government departments and all government institutions to consider the impact their work has on the population they serve, when addressing the following issues. The campaigns closing calls for action were:

- Demand that the government and Galway County Council allow and support Traveller culture by ending their denial of Traveller Cultural rights and by building Traveller specific accommodation that meets national and international standards

- Demand that the government and Galway County Council address the issues of overcrowding and the homelessness crisis the community is facing by building Traveller specific accommodation that meets national and international standards

- Demand that a system be introduced for the government and Local Authorities where they face repercussions when they fail to meet accommodation standards and when they fail to meet the needs of the Traveller community so that they face accountability for their lack of action.

The campaign made several attempts to receive a government response to their findings, however none was received.

The conditions that people are being forced to live in are a clear breach of their most basic Human Rights, and with the notable lack of spending of budget that has been specifically allocated towards the creation and maintenance of Traveller accommodation-with 72 million euros going unspent from 2008 to 2019- it is a wilful breach of these rights. Galway Traveller Movement and the Traveller Homes Now campaign are “Calling for immediate state action and a whole new approach to delivery to include a deliberate intercultural approach”. Quick and meaningful action at a state level in consultation and cooperation with the Traveller community and organisations is needed to ensure that no more generations are subjected to this discrimination.

 

Bibliography

Safa Abdalla, Cecily Kelleher, Brigid Quirke, Leslie Daly, on Behalf of the All-Ireland Traveller Health Study team, Fran Cronin, Anne Drummond, Patricia Fitzpatrick, Kate Frazier, Noor Aman Hamid, Claire Kelly, Jean Kilroe, Juzer Lotya, Catherine McGorrian, Ronnie G Moore, Sinead Murnane, Roisin Nic Carthaigh, Deirdre O'Mahony, Brid O'Shea, Anthony Staines, David Staines, Mary Rose Sweeney, Jill Turner, Aileen Ward, Jane Whelan, Social inequalities in health expectancy and the contribution of mortality and morbidity: the case of Irish Travellers, Journal of Public Health, Volume 35, Issue 4, December 2013, Pages 533–540

AITHS (2010) All Ireland Traveller Health Study, All Ireland Traveller Health Study Team: Dublin.

Gilbert, J., 2006. Still no place to go: nomadic peoples’ territorial rights in Europe (Vol. 4). Brill.

IHREC (2021a) No End in Site: An investigation into the living conditions of children on a local authority halting site, IHREC: Dublin

Ombudsman for Children (2021) No End in Site: An investigation into the living conditions s of children on a local authority halting site, Ombudsman for Children: Dublin

Pavee Point (2021) The Traveller Community and Homelessness, Pavee Point: Dublin

The Health Foundation (2020) Better housing is crucial for our health and the COVID-19 recovery, The Health Foundation: London

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