Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Travellers - Moving On?

On the first day of Traveller Focus Week, Monday’s Irish Times contained two interesting pieces regarding travellers:
Lorna Siggins reported a Galway Traveller Movement study which found that travellers are 8 times more likely to be unemployed, have a 1% chance of living past age 65 and are so used to discrimination that they rarely complain.
Then Felim O’Rourke, on the Opinion & Analysis page, reviewed government policy with regard to travellers over the past 40 years and presented a cogent argument as to how nomadism is itself a major contributory factor to social exclusion and criminality among travellers.
He agrees with the recommendations of the 1965 Commission on Itinerancy that, while no compulsion should be used to force travellers to settle, all efforts to improve their lot should have as their aim the eventual absorption of travellers into the general community. To this end, he concludes that nomadism should not be publicly funded, but rather that such funds should be channelled into other areas for the benefit of travellers.

However, the 1995 Task Force on the Travelling Community recommended the provision of 3,100 units of additional Traveller accommodation. This was to include 2,200 Traveller- specific units of accommodation (halting sites and group housing units). The Housing [Traveller Accommodation] Act, 1998 was subsequently enacted in order to ensure provision of Traveller-specific accommodation by Local Authorities. The 1998 Act also specifies that provision should be made by Local Authorities for the annual patterns of movement of Travellers.

In its January 2005 submission to the Commission for Eradication of Racial Discrimination, the Geneva-based NGO Centre on Housing Rights & Evictions (COHRE) reported that progress in the provision of the traveller-specific housing was wholly inadequate and, coupled with a very significant number of evictions of travellers by gardai, under Section 10 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1992 and Section 24 of the 2002 “Trespass Act”, had resulted in an intolerable situation for travellers and one where the Government of Ireland is in breach of its obligation under Article 5(e)(iii) of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

While it is difficult to make any compelling case in support of nomadism, in terms of providing appropriate quality of life opportunities for travellers, Felim O’Rourke fails to address the current nature of that nomadism and the impact that might be having on issues such as criminality.

Much traveller nomadism is now involuntary - travellers are moved on at 24-hours notice by the Gardai, evicted under Section 10 of the 1992 Housing Act or Section 24 of the 2002 “Trespass Act”. These evictions occur despite the fact that often there is nowhere for these families to go. Such evictions must severely disrupt any prospect of children receiving an education, access to services such as health and social welfare or employment in the legal economy.

It would be hard to argue with the inference of the Galway Traveller Movement finding regarding discrimination - it is routine and ubiquitous. In such circumstances, which of us would be good citizens or ideal neighbours?

National and Local government has failed to provide the necessary leadership and NIMBYism has meant that accommodation needs identified over ten years ago has still not been provided, despite our much vaunted economic prosperity.

The current situation is not only grossly unjust to travellers, it’s not working for the settled community either.

For what worth, the following were the COHRE recommendations in 2005:

1. Declare a moratorium on evictions of Travellers and immediately halt current plans for eviction of Traveller families until safeguards, consistent with international human rights law, are in place.
2. Repeal the trespass provisions - Section 24 of the Public Order Act, as amended by the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act.
3. Issue clear guidelines to Gardaí and Local Authorities that ensure that any eviction carried out under Housing [Traveller Accommodation] Act, 1998 or other piece of legislation complies with international human rights standards. The guidelines should be monitored and Travellers should be given a system of appeal against breaches of such guidelines. In due course, such safeguards should be contained in legislation.
4. Establish a central government agency with the necessary powers to ensure the timely and effective provision of Traveller-specific accommodation under the Housing [Traveller Accommodation] Act, 1998.

Where is the political leadership on this important issue? There are clearly no votes in it!

Some key statistics from COHRE Jan 2005 submission to CERD

In the 4-year period 2000-2003 only 228 new halting sites and 192 new group housing units were made available to Traveller families. Significant progress only appears to have been made in providing standard housing for Travellers, with an increase of 665 units in the same period. In the interim, little progress has been achieved in bridging the shortfall in traveller-specific housing units.

There were 452 eviction notices served against Travellers under Section 10 of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1992 , in the year ended 31 May 2003. In addition, there is anecdotal evidence that the number of evictions under the 2002 Trespass Act is quite high. The latter are verbally delivered by the gardai, no record is available unless an arrest is actually made, which would only be in a minority of cases. This suggests that the combined effect of Section 10 eviction notices and verbal warnings to move on under the 2002 Trespass Act impact on a very high proportion of traveller families, given Department of Environment estimates of approximately 700 Traveller families living by the roadside, with another 350 sharing accommodation with relatives to avoid eviction from the roadside.


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