Incidents involving Roma children highlight our attitude to the dispossessed

Opinion: If we condemn recent actions but fail to support integration we are being hypocritical

A child cries as families of Roma origin are forced to leave their homes after a Hungarian far-right militia invaded their village in 2011. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

A child cries as families of Roma origin are forced to leave their homes after a Hungarian far-right militia invaded their village in 2011. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Sat, Oct 26, 2013, 00:01

I first came across Roma people about 20 years ago in Rome. I was sightseeing with a tiny baby strapped to me when I saw a group of young women dressed in traditional Roma clothing surround a Japanese tourist.

Within seconds they had relieved him of his camera, his wallet and a bag, and then immediately disappeared. It was like a conjuring trick, except that the baffled and distraught tourist was not applauding.

Amazed, I could not wait to tell the Italian couple with whom I was staying about the thieves, whom I described as being as efficient as piranhas. I did not get the reaction I expected.

Before I rushed to judgment, and described human beings as piranhas, the wife said icily, perhaps I should reflect about what it would be like to be part of one of the most despised minorities in Europe. Perhaps I should think about having people make the sign against the evil eye when you appeared, or having to protect yourself every day against verbal abuse and even violence.

Perhaps I might like to reflect on how I would make a living, or feed my child, if every form of respectable work was closed to me. Or what it might be like to know that the bodies of your relatives had been piled high in Nazi crematoria and that some people thought not enough of you had died there.

Or perhaps I might like to visit the shanties in Rome where they lived, worse than many Brazilian favelas, and think about what it must be like to be pushed to the margins of every society.

One day, she concluded, they may be pushed as far as Ireland. And then only the Atlantic would be left. Perhaps I might like to see them pushed into the ocean.

By this stage I was suitably crushed. The Italian couple were members of the Sant’Egidio community, a Christian community formed by second-level students in Rome that had, as one of its many endeavours, an outreach project to the Roma people.

And of course the Roma did come to Ireland. We had had a harmonious relationship for years with an Irish Traveller family that regularly visited us looking for help, so when the first Roma came to the door I was initially warm and welcoming. Perhaps I still had the Italian woman’s reprimand ringing in my ears.

I wish I could say that it all went well, but it did not. Three Roma women called to me, and I came to the reluctant conclusion that one fitted into what my mother used to call the “daylight” category. In other words, if such a person said it was daylight you would be wise to go outside to check.

This woman’s toddlers were allegedly constantly being hospitalised, usually in the National Maternity Hospital in Holles Street, resulting in regular requests of large sums of money for medication.

When I pointed out to her that I was surprised they were in Holles Street rather than in Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital in Crumlin, suddenly they were frequently in Crumlin.

The other two women are different – one in particular is gentle, with an innate dignity. But every time I give them money I wonder whether I and others like me are trapping them in begging for a living.

Every few months I resolve to find out how I could be more productively helpful, perhaps by supporting instead some project that offers alternatives to begging, and each time I fail to do so. Through inertia, or worse, I continue to give out about my “daylight” woman without ever taking the steps to do something more positive.

Similarly, we can be filled with righteous indignation about the actions of the gardaí who took those Roma children from their parents, and it is absolutely right that there should be an investigation.

But are we guilty of hypocrisy in condemning this heavy- handed deployment of the Child Care Act if we never support action aimed at integrating the Roma community or, indeed, Travellers?

I don’t recall any great degree of righteous indignation when cuts to Traveller education were made.

In an appallingly short-sighted move, Traveller children were among the first targets of austerity. In 2010, pre-school places for Traveller children were cut, followed by dismantling virtually all the supports at primary and post-primary levels. Even special transport arrangements for Traveller children living within a certain radius of their schools disappeared. I imagine the government at the time thought they were a soft target and that few were likely to defend them. How right it was.

Yet education is a route to inclusion in our society. Measurable progress was being made until the recession. According to Ronnie Fay of Pavee Point, the first GP from a Traveller background qualified in 2012.

If we are shocked that young children can be wrested from their parents because they do not look like them, why are we not shocked when cutbacks seem likely to lock an entire generation into a further cycle of deprivation and poverty?

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