Racist state

Following the Human Rights Commission report on racism and discrimination, Hilary Curley presents the lowlights of Ireland's treatment of minorities

The rights of migrant workers, Travellers and asylum seekers are infringed on a daily basis, but the Government has failed to show strong leadership in combating racism and still refuses to acknowledge that discrimination is a serious problem, according to the Irish Human Rights Commission in a new report.

Migrant workers and their families are exploited through the work permit system, which is controlled by employers and recruitment agencies.

Changing jobs is an option only if another employer applies for a permit on the worker's behalf. The transfer of the work permit is at the discretion of the Department of Enterprise, so workers who become unemployed face difficulties accessing alternative employment.

The right of workers to bring their family to live with them ("family reunification") is overly restricted and wholly discretionary which further erodes the rights and quality of life of the individual.

Travellers are discriminated against through the health, housing and education systems.

The life expectancy of Traveller women is on average 12 years less than women in the general population. Traveller men have a life expectancy of 10 years less than men in the general population.

The infant mortality rate for Travellers is 18.1 per 1000 live births, compared to a national figure of 7.4.

Fifty four per cent of Travellers have primary education only. Sixty three per cent of Traveller children under the age of 15 leave school early.

Limited progress has been made by local authorities in providing Traveller accommodation.

Seven hundred and seventy eight Travellers families were living on the roadside in 2003, without access to water, sanitation and electricity.

Many other families live in official accommodation that is poorly serviced and maintained and often situated in unhealthy and dangerous conditions. There are no sanctions applied to local authorities when they fail to meet their accommodation targets.

Legislation introduced in 2002 criminalises Travellers who trespass on land. Camping on public or private land is now punishable by one month's imprisonment, or a fine, which can include the confiscation of property, including caravans.

Through this law, the state has exposed Travellers to "unjustified and disproportionate interference with their rights in a situation where public authorities have shamefully failed to provide adequate accommodation".

Asylum seekers and refugees have been the target for a high proportion of racist attacks in recent years. Public misinformation about these groups is a key factor in generating these attacks, through the media, through politicians and more recently through the internet. Negative stereotypes of asylum seekers being "fraudulent", "economic migrants", "welfare tourists" or "citizenship tourists" have been pedalled through radio stations, newspapers and election campaigns.

Denying asylum seekers the right to work has assisted in building this stereotype. The policy of communal dispersal centres throughout the country has made these individuals easily identifiable for racist attacks and has bred hostility among local people. Asylum seekers receive social welfare of €19.10 per week and since the referendum in May 2004 on Irish citizenship, Government policy has become increasingly strict.

Child benefit payments are no longer being paid to asylum seekers and they can they can no longer look for private rented accommodation or seek rent allowance. These payments along with other welfare supports such as disability benefit, carer's allowance and the pension are only given to asylum seekers that have been in the country for more than two years.

The treatment of asylum seekers and their restricted welfare payments is a move away from the general principle of needs-based social protection. The policy of detaining unsuccessful asylum seekers in prison while awaiting deportation may be in contravenion of the European Convention on Human Rights.

On vulnerable children

Over the past few weeks Village has documented the apparent lack of care that is given to unaccompanied minors who come into the state seeking asylum and has revealed that significant numbers of these children go missing from health board care. The Human Rights Commission says: "unaccompanied children seeking asylum are accommodated in centres which are separate from and regarded as being inferior to accommodation for other children in the case of the state".

No data is collected or sought on child trafficking but there is anecdotal information from the Garda suggesting that trafficking is becoming a serious problem in Ireland. From January 2002 to May 2003, 23 cases of investigations or preparation of prosecutions for trafficking in children for labour or sexual exploitation were identified.

^^the UN convention on racism and discrimination

Even though the Government signed the Convention on the Elimination of of Racial Discrimination in 1968, it ratified it in 2000, 32 years later.

The first report on Ireland's progress under the Convention was submitted to the UN committee in April 2004 and Frank Fahy, Minister of State at the Department of Justice, will will make an appearance before the Committee in early March for oral hearings on Ireland's performance on combating racism and discrimination.

The Human Rights Commission says the report prepared by Government contained only a general description of measures being taken rather than presenting an accurate picture of the reality of racism in Ireland. There is no Garda system for recording racist attacks and the lack of legislation defining crimes as racist further compounds this problem. The Commission also draws attention to public servants, gardaí, teachers, social workers, who all interact on a daily basis with ethnic minorities with little or no awareness of human rights obligations.

There are specific problems with racist speech and incitement to hatred but there are insufficient and inadequate measures in place to tackle these. The current Incitement to Hatred Act is ineffective and the review needs to be completed immediately.

The Government has argued that it cannot fully incorporate the convention on racism because it would require changes to the constitution. But other countries with a similar legislative structure to ours have managed to accommodate the convention and their constitutions with relative ease.

According to Alpha Connolly, Chief Executive of the Human Rights Commission, "incorporation of the Convention by legislation would mean that persons could directly plead the Convention before the courts and in this way the courts could play a role in ensuring that public authorities comply with the Convention". Incorporating the convernion into law would "send out a clear public message that racism and racial discrimination have no place in Irish society", she said.