Government recognition of Traveller as a minority ethnic group is key if Travellers are to attain human rights and improved living conditions. We give you 4 reasons why.
1 – Full human rights for Travellers
Recognising Traveller ethnicity means recognising that Travellers experience racism and discrimination. It is only by fully recognising this problem that you can work towards a solution.
The dominant view of Travellers in Ireland has been that Travellers are some sort of deviant settled people. The solution to the Traveller ‘problem’ has been to try to turn Travellers back into settled people again. In other words if Travellers are not a distinct community then they should be treated the same as the general population and assimilated into the general population. But, in this way their specific needs will not be met. They become invisible to policy makers and service providers and the community suffers.
This idea has always been rejected by Travellers themselves. And, as it is a faulty analysis – it has never worked. Despite assimilationist policies and strategies – Travellers have not disappeared and remain as much Travellers as ever before.
However, not including Traveller needs has resulted in very poor living conditions for Travellers (800 families on the side of the road with no running water or sanitation), low levels of outcomes in education (55% of Travellers leave school before the age of 15; only 1% of Travellers attain a third level qualification), long term unemployment (84%) and serious health issue including low life expectancy, high rates of mortality including a suicide rate 6 times the national average.*
2 – A ‘named’ group versus ethnicity
Thanks to the work of Pavee Point, Travellers were explicitly named in the Incitement to Hatred Act, the Employment Equality & Equality Status Act. But this is not enough to ensure positive outcomes.
The Traveller experience needs to be acknowledged as what it is – one that includes racism and discrimination.
Just because Travellers are white and Irish does not mean they are not a distinct ethnic group from Irish settled people. Black people make up a range of ethnic groups. Roma peoples who are citizens of different European countries are Czech nationality and Roma ethnicity, Romanian nationality and Roma ethnicity and French nationality and Roma ethnicity.
The similarity of experience between Irish Travellers and Roma shows that the type of racism and discrimination that nomadic peoples experience is very similar – forced evictions, segregation within education, lack of access to health services or to employment.
At the moment, Irish Travellers are not automatically included in anti-racism and inter-cultural initiatives, many of which are about promoting integration and mutual respect in Ireland.
While the Government was developing the inter-cultural education policy, Travellers were excluded until we were obliged to bang down the door and demand to be included. Moreover, Traveller organisations can be perceived to be difficult, awkward and always complaining, whereas, if Travellers were to be included as a right, our input would be planned from the outset.
Pavee Point was the first organisation in Ireland to fight for an ethnic question to be included in our national Census (since 1994). It is ironic that when it was finally introduced in 2006 Travellers were going to be excluded from the question – because Travellers were not recognised as an ethnic group. Hence we reached a compromise with the Central Statistics Office and the question was changed to ethnic/cultural background.
Because Traveller ethnicity is not recognised, the unit in Department of Justice & Equality responsible for dealing with anti-racism and inter-culturalism does not actually include Travellers in their remit.
If one recognises Traveller ethnicity, one recognises that racism is the root cause of discrimination that Travellers face. If one does that, one then seeks to address and challenge it in order that adults and children are not exposed to hate crime, racism and discrimination.
3 – Celebrating Diversity
Recognising Traveller ethnicity is a celebration of the diversity of Irish society.
In the light of recent measures to acknowledge diversity it is important to recognise the historical diversity that makes up Irishness. The Traveller cultural tradition – including family, social customs and traditions– has made and continues to make a huge positive contribution to Irish society overall. For example Traveller contribution to Irish traditional music, particularly uileann piping, is widely recognised among musicians and academics.
Recognition of Traveller ethnicity would have huge symbolic value to the Traveller community and increase Travellers’ self-esteem and confidence in the face of the racism and discrimination. This, in turn, would promote mutual respect and tolerance in society.
4 – Irish reputation abroad
A variety of national and international organisations have called on the Irish Government to recognise Traveller ethnicity.
These Council of Europe mechanisms including the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the European Commission Against Racism & Intolerance (ECRI) have made this call. A range of United Nations Treaty Bodies including the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racism and Discrimination, the UN Committee for Economic, Social & Cultural Rights and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child have done the same. Irish Travellers are already recognised as an ethnic group in the UK and Northern Ireland.
The Government’s failure to date to recognise Traveller ethnicity, despite steps and initiatives taken to progress Traveller inclusion, is confusing and contradictory to outside bodies and begs the question – has the out-dated and failed assimilationist mindset really changed?
Please note: Source for statistics is either Census 2011 or All Ireland Traveller Health Study 2010.