By Chrissie Sullivan.
This year the Traveller Visibility Group (TVG) will celebrate its 21st year working in Cork with the Traveller community, tackling social exclusion and discrimination head-on.
We have been to the fore in highlighting the many practices of institutional racism in our city. When we were set up, there were three key services in Cork implementing segregated provision to Travellers. The local Social Welfare Office had all Travellers signing on on the same day of the week; maternity services put Traveller mothers in private wards to spare local settled women “the trauma” of having to be in the same room as young Traveller mothers; and from pre-school up to secondary-level Traveller children were educated in separate classrooms.
These systems have changed. However, insitutional racism continues to be a reality. Most recently we have learned that racial profiling of young
Travellers has been taking place in the city. Traveller children are being placed on the Garda pulse system. This is an abuse of human rights.
TVG has been to the fore in creating the expectation that Travellers have the right to a seat as equal partners at the table for decision-making in Cork, when it involves Traveller issues. We are playing a key role in the Traveller ‘interagency’ forum and we are seen as equal partners by the Traveller Health Unit. This brings together heads of disciplines from within the HSE and Traveller projects across the south to deliver a more effective health service to Travellers.
We are strong advocates for the Traveller community in obtaining state services that have clearly been set up with one community in mind, the Irish settled population. Many of these services are slow to change. Some services are taking steps to adapt and change. However we lack political leadership on this. The Government needs to focus on the experiences of minorities within state service provision. The 2010 All Ireland Traveller Health Study shows this is a life and death issue for Travellers. Life expectancy for Traveller men was 15.1 years less than the general population, while that of Traveller women was 11.5 years less. Traveller infant mortality was estimated at 14.1 per 1,000 live births compared to 3.9 per 1,000 for the general population.
Traveller unemployment runs at over 80%. We were one of the first projects in the country that took on the direct employment of Travellers as Traveller Community Health Workers. TVG is now the biggest employer of Travellers in the south. This is important so that other Travellers see that there are real job opportunities in the community. We have worked hard at interagency level to address the issues of long-term unemployment within our community. However, we do not have adequate resources and there needs to be a targeted approach to engagement of Travellers in new programmes and employment opportunities in the mainstream labour market.
We are particularly proud of the child-care centre we have created as it represents a truly multi-cultural approach to early-childhood learning. When it opened seven years ago it was Traveller-specific. We wanted to be sure of how best to approach a move to a more integrated service. Now we have quite a number of different nationalities, including Irish settled children playing and working alongside Traveller children in our centre. This gives hope for the future education of our children in an inclusive society.
These are all positive steps but many issues remain. Only 8.2% of Travellers completed secondary school according to census 2011. The 4.3 percent overall reduction in government spending in the five years after 2008 compare with an 86 percent cut to Traveller education initiatives and an 85 percent cut to Traveller accommodation schemes during the same period.
Traveller accommodation policy has made little impact on living conditions for many Travellers. Traveller-specific accommodation is less and less available. Conditions on some sites are awful. Nomadic facilities are still not being provided. Standard housing and private-rented accommodation are the accommodation options being provided. Local authorities develop plans to accommodate Travellers on the basis of poor consultation methods. They often fail to meet their own targets and there is no State sanction.
The recent five-year Traveller accommodation plans in both the city and county of Cork have fallen way short in their assessment of the needs for Traveller-specific accommodation.
When TVG was set up in the 1990s we didn’t have the drugs and alcohol misuse that we have today in the community. The rate of Traveller suicide is now six times higher than the national average. These new issues are putting huge pressure on whole families and the whole community.
TVG is seen as a beacon for Travellers in the city. We have created a safe space for Travellers who want to embrace their Traveller identity and who want to be part of the Traveller movement. •
Chrissie Sullivan is coordinator of the Traveller Visibility Group