Head to Head: Do Roma face discrimination?


YES: Ronnie Faysays the plight of Roma families on the M50 may have helped to focus international attention on their problems

The return to Romania of the Roma families living on the M50 roundabout would seem to bring closure to an immediate humanitarian crisis. The roundabout has been cleared of the pathetic temporary dwellings where up to 85 people, including 22 children and infants, lived for two months in conditions that in recent weeks increasingly resembled a first World War trench.

The Romanian embassy in Ireland has assured us all that they will be treated with consideration when they return to Romania and they will be bussed to their home villages. International human rights bodies continue to monitor the situation.

But as the planes carrying the Roma home leave Ireland, nagging questions remain regarding discrimination against the Roma throughout the European Union member states.

What will be the response by the Irish and other EU governments to similar situations occurring in the future?

Despite divided public opinion, Pavee Point Travellers' Centre has been inundated over the past few weeks with messages of support from across Ireland and beyond. Practical support to the Roma was provided by the people such as the remarkable Brother Kevin from the Capuchin Day Centre, who provided hot meals to the families on a daily basis and who visited the site so often that he had to dispose of shoes that became soaked and soiled with mud.

Tribute must also be paid to the staff of Crosscare, the Catholic social service, in particular the Holles Row Centre, which also demonstrated that people can still be touched and can respond to the condition of others, even in the face of some public criticism and cynicism.

The same can be said for the supportive work of local staff from the Health Service Executive, including social workers, public health nurses and managers.

It should also be noted that the Roma were particularly surprised by the professionalism and courtesy of local gardaí from Ballymun, even when difficult decisions had to be implemented, which they said was in sharp contrast to their past experience with other police forces.

Pavee Point has been in existence for 24 years. In all that time, we have experienced both criticism and support, but in general we have at least earned a level of respect.

In this context, those who know our work would vehemently reject the accusations that the situation of the M50 Roma was contrived and orchestrated by us and that we were in some way seeking to manipulate the media or that we were seeking to jeopardise Ireland's immigration laws. These accusations are unfounded. It is reassuring that most journalists have paid scant attention to such accusations which are consistent with the tired and obvious tactic of "shooting the messenger".

Pavee Point's consistent position throughout the crisis was the need for an immediate humanitarian response to provide emergency shelter and food on a temporary basis. We knew that the families were likely to be deported if they did not return home voluntarily.

We have consistently stated that the problems faced by the Roma in Romania and elsewhere cannot be solved in Ireland and require a response from the EU. This includes the establishment of an effective mechanism to implement the many reports and recommendations of bodies such as the Council of Europe, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the EU Fundamental Rights Agency.

Ireland, as has already been pointed out by Crosscare, could play a leading role in this process.

In short, we fully understand the need to prevent unmanaged inward migration into Ireland by any group, including the Roma and that their long-term needs cannot be addressed within Ireland.

Pavee Point only called a press conference after it had exhausted all other avenues as can be corroborated by a wide range of senior public servants and NGOs.

Our representations included a meeting with the Romanian ambassador. By then, there had also been a considerable media focus, during which a Pavee Point response was being demanded.

It should be noted that when the government provided residential centres for asylum seekers in the 1990s, they were accused of creating pull factors for more asylum seekers coming to Ireland. In fact, the numbers seeking asylum to Ireland has been steadily falling in recent years.

Romania had been making encouraging signals on its Roma community prior to EU accession, as this was a precondition of joining the European Union. Renewed efforts are now required to address the situation of Roma in new member states and throughout the EU.

The plight of the M50 Roma received considerable publicity in other parts of Europe. Although it was not our original intent, if the crisis has contributed in some small way to bringing international focus on the need to speed up such efforts, then it will not have been in vain.

  • Ronnie Fayis director of Pavee Point Travellers' Centre

NO: Silvia Davidoiusays the Romanian government has the policies and programmes to address the needs of the Roma.

The Romanian authorities have been, and are, fully aware of the need to address, in a positive manner, some of the issues facing the Roma community.

Many things have been achieved in the past years in this respect, mostly due to the support of the European institutions - the European Union, the Council of Europe and the OSCE - and the direct involvement of NGOs from all the European countries. To say that things have not changed in Romania, that the situation is as bad as it was years ago, is a denial of all the positive results reached due to the involvement, effort, dedication and work of many people, Irish included.

This does not amount to denying that there are still many things to be done until we will reach an acceptable living standard for all Romanian citizens, but poverty is not limited to some of the Roma people. It is, unfortunately, a situation that affects diverse categories of citizens.

The government of Romania is determined to ensure that the situation of the Roma continues to improve, in accordance with the National Strategy for Improving the Living Conditions of the Roma Community, approved in 2001 and modified in 2006. The strategy was developed with the participation of Roma representatives and covers 10 essential fields of action - community development and administration; housing; social security; healthcare; economy; justice and public order; child welfare; education, culture and communication and civic participation. Fulfilling the strategy's objectives represents a priority for the Romanian authorities.

These objectives entail our political commitment to social policies focused on preventing and combating institutional and social discrimination; preserving Roma identity; ensuring equal opportunities for the achievement of a decent living standard, and encouraging Roma participation in the economic, social, cultural, educational and political life of Romanian society. At the end of 2004, the government established the National Agency for Roma (NAR) to co-ordinate Roma-related issues.

We have developed a comprehensive legal framework for preventing and combating discrimination. The implementation of this legislation is supervised by the National Council for Combating Discrimination (NCCD), whose steering committee includes a member of the Roma minority.

One of the most important goals of NCCD is ensuring the application of the relevant legislation and, in the case of non-compliance, sanctioning acts of discrimination. Out of the total number of 95 sanctions applied by NCCD between 2002 and August 2005, 40 concerned discrimination against Roma ethnics. Sanctions have been applied in cases of discrimination in employment, and of forced displacement of Roma people and their placement in improper places. Following a case of school segregation, the NCCD issued a warning to the school director and notified the ministry of education to avoid future similar cases.

Other cases sanctioned by NCCD mostly referred to infringement of the right to free access to public places. To prevent discriminatory acts and behaviour, the NCCD periodically organises awareness-raising campaigns, drawing the public's attention to what discrimination is and how it should be avoided, especially in the case of the Roma.

The NCCD is also involved in the European Commission-financed programme, Roma EDEM, which seeks to integrate and treat the Roma equally in the fields of education and employment.

Five other states - Spain, Portugal, Great Britain, Hungary and the Czech Republic - are also involved.

Roma children and families benefit from social assistance payments. To stimulate the employment of Roma, a package of active measures addressing their needs was established by the National Agency for Employment, including a special employment exchange. To improve the education enrolment for Roma children, the ministry of education implemented strategic measures and programmes for Roma youth and their Roma teachers. Some of them were delivered in partnership with non-governmental organisations, who provided the financing, while others were carried out with governmental and/or intergovernmental resources.

In 2002, the ministry of health introduced a new profession - healthcare mediators - their responsibility being to ensure mutual trust between the local public authorities and the Roma.

The Phare Programme regarding access to education for disadvantaged groups, with a focus on the Roma, started in September, 2004 in 74 schools and kindergartens from 10 counties, where most of the pupils were Roma. The programme continued in these counties and was extended to 12 other new counties in June 2005. Places were allocated to admit young Roma in secondary schools and art and craft schools, as well as in faculties and university colleges (In 2004/2005, 2,500 Roma pupils were admitted).

Attention is paid to teaching the Romany language and traditions, as a key factor in the education of the Roma and in promoting a culture of tolerance. There are 135 schools offering classes in Romany language, benefiting almost 16,000 pupils. There are also classes in Romany literature and Roma history and traditions.

  • Silvia Davidoiu is Romanian ambassador to Ireland

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In the last Head 2 Head, Ivana Bacikand Berry Kielydebated the question Is it time to legislate for abortion in Ireland? Here is an edited selection of some of your comments:

I'm Catholic, so I believe the life of the unborn should be protected at all costs. I think the pro-choice feminists just want to get their way, regardless of who they hurt or kill in the process. I will not vote to change the law to accommodate the weaknesses of others. The bar should be kept high as an example to young girls. - Eimear Nestor, Ireland

I have seen young women die after a clandestine abortion, in New York and in Kampala, and I have witnessed extremely severe complications in many more cases. As a young medical doctor, aware of my most compelling professional duty, which consists in preserving life and health of people calling upon me, I decided 30 years ago - a number of colleagues did - that I could no longer remain passive. The right to control their fertility is a basic human right. Women who are denied this right resort in a majority of cases to termination of pregnancy, if need be, carried out by the most incompetent abortionist, in the most squalid conditions, and with the known risk for their health. The choice is between an induced abortion carried out in safe and dignified conditions, and one performed by an unskilled person or in a foreign country, at a considerably greater cost and in an unusual environment. Since qualified doctors in Belgium have taken up their responsibility in this regard, there have been no more fatalities and extremely few serious complications. - Prof Emeritus Jean-Jacques Amy Belgium

The logic applied by many commentators to the recent case brought by Miss D against the HSE is frightening. The argument that a woman/girl should be entitled to end the life of her unborn baby if that baby cannot possibly live for longer than a certain period of time is immoral. What if a child has a disease which would mean they would not live past their tenth birthday? Is that child not entitled to live those 10 years as much as his/her healthy peers? When the right to kill people is granted on the basis of how long they may or may not live, we are treading on very dangerous ground. - Muiris Ó Fiannachta, Ireland

I had an abortion a number of years ago and I remain happy with that decision. I took the decision to end the further development of a potential life and I have never regretted that decision. No amount of "abortion abattoir" or "torn limb from limb" language is going to change the fact that I am happy with my decision. Providing the proper morning after pill, available over the counter, would reduce the number of Irish abortions, albeit in British clinics. Allowing Irish women access to the RU486 pill would reduce the number of Irish clinical abortions. And legislating for abortion here, would reduce the number of late stage abortions in clinics overseas. Doing nothing, as our Government is good at, means that more women will continue to have late stage abortions overseas. Is this really pro-life? - Áine, Ireland

I live in a country with positively zero legal restrictions on abortions. Abortion in Canada happen from the first few weeks until right up until delivery time. Once you legislate abortion, you go down a slippery slope. Any exceptions will be so widely interpreted as to effectively become abortion on demand. Ireland can be proud that it defends its unborn. If anything, the Irish should be fighting to have the unborn recognized as citizens, so that no abortions are ever allowed on its citizens. - Suzanne, Canada

Internationally, we're known for the smoking ban. Wouldn't it be even more laudable if we were known as that country that most respects life? If we are true to our instincts, we must protect the most vulnerable and defenceless in our society - the unborn or the aged. - Fergal Maher, Ireland