Over 1,000 Traveller families living in inhumane conditions

New research carried out on a Travellers' site in Galway demonstrates the inextricable link between their deplorable living conditions and poor health status, writes Sara Burke.

Last week Minister Eamon O'Cuív launched the report on the health of residents living in the Carrowbrowne halting site, which is located in the Minister's own constituency, north east of Galway on the Headford Road. It reveals the appalling conditions experienced by the Travelling community and the benefits for involving Travellers at an early stage in the planning and development of any sites.

The Galway Traveller Movement carried out this research between 2007 and 2009 before the site was refurbished. It is a detailed analysis of the health of 101 residents on the site, with the findings a combination of residents' experiences and medical records. It found that:

  • The site had no electricity except for a generator that was off at night and very expensive to run
  • The site had no hot water and the cold water came from 2 external cold water taps and a fire hydrant
  • There were no plumbed toilets – the toilets were 22 old portaloos that were emptied twice a week
  • The site was rat infested
  • The site was beside Headford Road, which has a speed limit of 100km an hour
  • The site was on an old landfill site and beside a composting site
  • The surface of the site was mostly gravel, which made it prone to flooding and made access to portaloos impossible
  • There were no green areas, no play areas, far from shops and services and no footpaths
  • There was no caretaking provision on site
  • Emergency services were not able to access the site

While it is obvious living in such an environment would have very negative impacts on the residents’ health, what is significant about this research is that it is the first time that the relationship between Travellers' accommodation and their health has been examined. 

We know that Irish Travellers live about ten years fewer than their settled counterparts, and that they experiences greater levels of illness. This research clearly finds this from their medical records. Residents are much more likely to have higher rates of asthma, diabetes, kidney infections and anxiety and depression, as well as being more at risk of suffering accidental injury.

But it also details very real experiences of the people living at Carrowbrowne. If you have diabetes, you need to take insulin and it needs to be stored in a fridge. If the generator is off at night, then that is just not possible. Mothers spoke about being unable to heat bottles at night because they could not boil the kettle. They spoke about children having to go out in the cold and wet in wellies to go to a portaloo and bang it with a stick before going in for fear of rats. They spoke about the very high costs of living if you have nowhere to store food. They spoke about the stigma their children feel as they cannot shower before school. 

In the words of one resident: “Living on Carrowbrowne was not living. It was surviving."

The good news is that the Carrowbrowne site has since been redeveloped and is much improved since the research took place. The Galway Traveller Movement has produced a video of the site before and after its redevelopment and it is unrecognisable. Now there are bays for caravans, plumbed toilets, showers and electricity. On the video the Travellers speak about the real improvement in the quality of their lives and you see children playing in safe areas.

However, Carrowbrowne was built as a transient site. In reality, the families live there permanently, despite the fact that it is not built for that purpose. A permanent site would have better facilities and more room, but it would have been much more expensive to construct.

And while the residents in Carrowbrowne are no longer live in such deplorable conditions, there are many other families living in the conditions described above, without the most basic facilities. We do not know exactly how many because there is no audit of types and conditions of halting sites in Ireland. 

However, Department of Environment figures show there are 600 families living on the side of the road in conditions similar to the old Carrowbrowne site and there are another 800 Traveller families living in low grade accommodation. In other words, there are at least 1,000 families living in these inhumane conditions.

Minister O'Cuív is familiar with the conditions in Carrowbrowne and has visited the site in the past. He said that the conditions were “totally unacceptable”, that there needed to be “radical change”, and that the government’s job was to make sure that that happened.

Yet the track record is not good. Ireland has had a very poor record of redeveloping, refurbishing and building new sites for the remaining 1,400 families. There have been improvements in certain sites but, under policy and legislation, every county council is meant to have a transient site. The reality is that not one county has one because the people in them stay there; there are simply not enough permanent sites. 

Every county also has a three year Traveller Accommodation Plan. Despite this, there is a significant gap between the plans and what actually happens, not to mention the fact that there is a big push to get Travellers into houses they may not want to be in.

So there needs to be implementation of the guidelines, policies and legislation that exists. Perhaps if city and county councils who consistently break their plans and promises were penalised there would be a more concerted effort to implement these policies. At the moment, however, this is not happening.

This research was carried out at the same time as the redevelopment of Carrowbrowne and as a result the Travellers became involved in the redevelopment. This resulted in changes which greatly improved the quality of life of the residents, but did not cost any money and, indeed, saved money in the long term.

However, as the Travellers were not involved at design stage, there were some things they simply could not change. For example, the school is at the front of the site beside the main road when it would be much safer to have it at the back.

What this project shows very clearly is that if you involved Travellers at the earliest stage, you will save money and get a better result. As Bridget Corcoran, a Traveller who lives on the site who was at the launch today said: "None of the officials have ever lived on a site, so they don’t know."

Some of the report's other findings:

  • Census 2006 found over 6,700 Travellers were living in caravans and of these 91 per cent of Travellers had no central heating, 26 per cent had no piped water and 25 per cent has no sewage facilities.
  • The timing of this report is very important it was carried out between December 2007 and March 2009, at the peak of the boom, so there is no excuse for inaction.
  • There is not one transient halting site in any county in Ireland as recommended in the 1995 Travellers task force report so. 15 years on, during our most prosperous decade, we failed to act.
  • The task force report also recommended a joint committee between the Department of Health and Children and the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government. This committee has met very rarely and never since the review of the task force report in 2000.