Salome Mbugua: Ireland has not done enough to fight racism. It’s time to act

Today, a delegation to the UN, including Equality Minister David Stanton, will be scrutinised about the country’s policy and record in combating discrimination. It will be found wanting, says Salome Mbugua.

Protesters taking part at a recent rally in Galway City against racism and the direct provision system. Salome Mbugua says asylum seekers have increasingly become the focus of hostility amid a ‘worrying confluence’ of the housing crisis, a capacity crisis in direct provision, and a rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric in political life. Picture: Hany Marzouk
Protesters taking part at a recent rally in Galway City against racism and the direct provision system. Salome Mbugua says asylum seekers have increasingly become the focus of hostility amid a ‘worrying confluence’ of the housing crisis, a capacity crisis in direct provision, and a rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric in political life. Picture: Hany Marzouk

IRELAND is a diverse society, but it has not always been accepting of difference. It is a challenge we share with many other countries.

The United Nations Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) sets international standards for countries in this regard.

CERD in based on the principle that there is no justification for racial discrimination.

In 2000, Ireland signed up to this convention, making a national commitment to:

  • Condemn racial discrimination;
  • The elimination of racial discrimination in all its forms;
  • Promote understanding, tolerance, and friendship.

Today, in Geneva, for the first time since 2011, minister of state for equality, immigration and integration David Stanton and senior government officials will be examined before an expert UN committee to assess how Ireland has lived up to these commitments, and what it has done to eliminate racial discrimination.

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, Ireland’s National Human Rights Institution, is participating in this UN review of Ireland. 

And our independent report, delivered to UN experts ahead of today’s examination, demonstrates that we have much to do to combat racism and discrimination.

While there has been welcome progress, not least the official recognition by the State of Traveller ethnicity, new human rights challenges have emerged, including an unprecedented housing and homelessness crisis, and a worrying lack of progress, if not regression, in significant areas.

Ireland has a demonstrable history of chronic racism towards Travellers, which sadly persists today.

People of African descent and Roma face multiple levels of discrimination. And there has recently been troubling growth in anti-immigrant and anti-refugee discourse.

Ireland has not yet put in place adequate measures to ensure human rights and equality are embedded in our public service. 

Our public institutions are not responsive to the needs of minority communities.

Our approach to hate crime and hate speech in Ireland is inadequate. 

We need an effective response in the criminal law, and we need to implement broader policy, regulatory, and monitoring measures to encourage non-discriminatory discourse, including for those in, or seeking, public office.

The provision by local authorities of culturally appropriate housing for Travellers has been characterised by inertia, including the persistent underspending of budgets.

In the context of the State’s failure to ensure adequate social and public housing, minority ethnic groups, including Roma and people of African descent, face discrimination and inequality in the private rental sector and are disproportionately at risk of family homelessness.

Direct provision centres are at capacity — exacerbated by the housing crisis — resulting in applicants being placed in emergency accommodation, including in inadequate living conditions. The use of such emergency accommodation should cease as soon as possible, direct provision must be reformed, and, in the long-term, direct provision should be phased out.

These challenges are interlinked. 

In recent months, we have seen a worrying confluence of the housing crisis, the capacity crisis in direct provision, and the rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric in our public life, with asylum seekers increasingly the focus of hostility and discriminatory discourse.

These worrying developments underscore the need for stronger and more diverse leadership across the State — in our political representation, in the public service, and also in our public discourse — to eliminate institutional racism, to maintain and strengthen Ireland’s commitment to equality and non-discrimination, and to ensure Ireland does not succumb to the regression in human rights norms, and the cheapening of public discourse, that has been occurring around the world in recent years.

Leadership is required to ensure Ireland progresses from historical inaction and delay to concrete steps and commitments. 

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission report to the UN makes 150 recommendations for action.

Earlier this year, when we sat down with 80 young people to ask about their perspectives and experiences of racial discrimination, one young man said: “I’m angry, because we actually have to sit down and talk about this.” He’s right, we shouldn’t have to.

But we do. And, as a State, we must move beyond talking to action.

Salome Mbugua is a commission member of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission.

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