Racism on public transport: ‘The community is standing up’

Transport services and the Immigrant Council of Ireland launch campaign against abuse

For Luas driver Lanre Bode Olatunji, being called a “black bastard” or having someone doing monkey impressions in front of his tram is a regular occurrence and one he has simply learnt to ignore.

“That can happen today, that can happen tomorrow,” he says with an air of resignation outside Dublin’s Heuston Station where streams of passengers head towards the trains and nearby trams.

"It has changed slowly but surely. When I moved here first it was unbelievable," says Olatunji who arrived from Nigeria in the late 1990s.

“I experienced (racism) in the workplace, in the street, in the shopping malls but now it’s getting better, the community is standing up.”


Public transport providers are standing up too. On Friday they launched a public campaign to stamp out such behaviour on their services, whether it is directed at employees or customers.

According to the Irish branch of the European Network Against Racism (Enar), whose biannual reports document relevant incidents, racist abuse is more likely to occur on public transport than in places of entertainment such as pubs. The only location where more abuse has been recorded is on the streets.

Friday's campaign, launched by Transport for Ireland - the National Transport Authority's (NTA) customer platform - and the Immigrant Council of Ireland, includes promotional material in which a mosaic poster of hundreds of photographs of commuters appeal for an end to such behaviour in their space.

The council points out that the level of racism on transport is impossible to quantify given the amount of incidents that are assumed to go unreported. There is no research specific to transport and no dedicated mechanism generally that might help isolate related experiences, it adds.

Irish Rail had just 12 incidents reported to it since the beginning of 2018 but this is unlikely to be a true reflection of the problem.

Zimbabwean bus driver Charles Nyagwaya, who moved to Ireland in 2004, is sanguine about his personal experience but concerned racist behaviour is being passed down to the current generation of young people.

He recalls a day when a group of youths passed his bus and called him a “black bastard”. While he tried to shrug it off, he recalls that “after 15 minutes it just started to come into my mind: Did they just do that?

“It kind of affected me; I am just doing my job like anyone else. Why did they do it?” he asks.

Even where people might assume "minor incidents" are just that, Dr Lucy Michael, a sociologist specialising in integration, said the phenomenon of "every day racism" was important and potentially dangerous.

“The fear of racism can drive people from using public transport,” she says, adding that often people “are not that aware of the impact of the low level stuff (happening) constantly”.

Enar, for which Dr Michael works, undertook an analysis of financial impacts of racism and cited cases arising from people avoiding public transport routes.

It also found that between 2013 and 2017 there was clear evidence that when those targeted by racism do not feel help or support from bystanders they are more likely to experience severe psychological impact and take actions such as avoiding public transport.

Speaking at Friday's launch, Anne Graham chief executive of the NTA said it was important, where people feel safe in doing so, to call out racist behaviour when they see it and to engage in reporting incidents.

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times