I have long had an interest in the Traveller community, in their culture, nomadic life-style and music. The decision to recognise Traveller ethnicity in 2017 finally brought the Irish State into line with recognition already in place in the North, as well as in England, Scotland and Wales. But more is needed. The distinct culture, traditions and ethnicity of the Traveller community need to be cherished and valued.
Two weeks ago the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) produced a comprehensive report on the treatment of Travellers, refugees, the Direct Provision system for asylum seekers, anti-racism laws and hate crime. The report is a scathing indictment of the failure of successive Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil led governments.
It identified major legislative and policy failings in relation to hate speech, hate crime, the response of An Garda Síochána to these and the use of ethnic profiling by the Garda.
It is especially critical of the disgraceful refusal by many local Councils to draw down funding that is available from the government to provide Traveller specific accommodation. In February my colleague Teachta Eoin O’Broin revealed that of the 31 Councils in the South ten did not draw down any money in 2018 for Traveller accommodation – not a penny. A further 14 Councils failed to draw down all of their allocated funding. Overall less than half of the twelve million euro available for Traveller accommodation was spent in 2018.
A recent report – the 2019 #TravellerHomesNow monitoring report - published for that region by the Galway Traveller Movement (GTM) revealed that Travellers continue to live in appalling conditions. A year after a similar report, the 2019 review concluded that little change had taken place. The report examined the situation on 18 sites and describes accommodation that is overcrowded, damp and mouldy, overflowing sewerage, rat and fly infestations and no facilities for children. Poverty and social exclusion are the norm for Travellers.
Another report last year, from the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, found that the Traveller community was the group most at risk of homelessness. It also experiences the highest level of discrimination when seeking rented housing.
The ECRI report underlines the significant difficulties faced by Travellers. It specifically calls for increased efforts to meet the accommodation needs of Travellers. It suggests that this can be done by improving existing halting sites to meet decent and safe living standards, and by providing adequate, accessible, suitable and culturally-appropriate accommodation.
Crucially, the Commission calls for the imposition of sanctions on local authorities for failure to spend allocated funding. Failing this it argues for removing the responsibility for Traveller accommodation entirely from local authorities and placing it under the authority of a central housing commission. This is a proposal that Traveller groups have supported for many years.
The ECRI is also highly critical of the Direct Provision system of holding asylum seekers in so-called accommodation centres that are run by private companies. Many have been in the system for years waiting on a decision on their application for asylum. The system has been frequently and justifiably criticised.
Last week we heard of the disturbing case of Sylva Tukula, who lived at the Great Western House Direct Provision Centre in Galway, and who died there last August. Sylva was buried in early May without any of her friends being informed.
This case has highlighted the fact that the Department of Justice no longer provides information about deaths in Direct Provision. It did until two years ago. Between 2007 and 2017 at least 44 people died in Direct Provision. 15 of these have no known cause. In a discussion about Direct Provision at the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice two weeks ago Mr. Lucky Khumbule of the Movement of Asylum Seekers revealed that in the last 18 months there have been at least five suicides that they know of.
The Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) which is responsible for the Direct Provision system and treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, and the Department of Justice now tell us that recording deaths is not their business.
When I raised this issue and the ECRI report in the Dáil last week the Minister said he would write to me. I await his response with interest.
The ECRI report is a very welcome wake-up call. It sets out a range of common sense measures that would significantly advance equality and fairness in society.
All of us have rights. These include the right to receive equal service in shops and pubs, the right to access education, health services and work, and the right to accommodation, on the basis of equality. Regrettably, this has not been the case for our Traveller brothers and sisters. Or the unfortunate people in Direct Provision. This needs changed.