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State is violating Travellers’ human rights, council finds

  • 16 May 2016

European committee criticises ‘insufficient’ provision and standard of accommodation

Kitty Holland, 

16th May 2016, The Irish Times

Travellers’ human rights are being violated by the Irish Government’s failure to provide enough accommodation and to maintain many sites at an acceptable standard, a European committee has found.

In a landmark judgment published this morning, the European Committee of Social Rights – part of the Council of Europe – has found the Government is violating Travellers’s rights under the European Social Charter.

A “collective complaint” – a form of class action – was taken by the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), with the support of the Irish Traveller Movement, in April 2013.

It was deemed admissible in October 2013 and the Irish Governmentresponded with submissions in February 2014. Additional observations and submissions from both sides were received by April last year.

The ERRC alleged Ireland had not satisfactorily applied the charter with respect to Traveller housing, and that Ireland was in breach of article 16, which deals with the rights of the family to “social, legal and economic protection”.

Rejected allegations

It said the budget for Traveller accommodation was cut from €40 million in 2008 to €3 million in 2014 and there was “chronic underspending by local authorities”.

The State rejected the ERRC’s allegations “in their entirety”, arguing “measurable progress” had been made in providing Traveller accommodation since 1999, when 25 per cent of all Traveller families lived on unauthorised sites.

This had dropped to 3.8 per cent by 2010, said the State.

Ireland signed up to 92 of the Charter’s 98 articles in 2000. The committee said article 16, which states “contracting parties [ie signatory states] undertake to promote . . . family life by such means as . . . provision of family housing”, was being breached in the case of Travellers.

It cites three grounds – that there is “insufficient provision of accommodation for Travellers”, that “many Traveller sites are in an inadequate condition”, and that there are “inadequate safeguards for Travellers threatened with eviction”.

It said that while “illegal occupation of a site or dwelling may justify the eviction of illegal occupants” those threatened with eviction were entitled to protection.

Coming four months after the eviction of 23 families from an unauthorised site in Dundalk, and the order on 15 families to vacate a site in Galway, the judgment says evicting authorities must consult the affected parties to find alternative housing, fix a reasonable notice period, provide access to legal remedies and legal aid, compensate in the case of illegal evictions, and must not evict at night or in the winter.

Though not legally binding on the State, the judgment will bring pressure, from the Committee of Ministers under the auspices of the Council of Europe, to address the violations.

ERRC president Djordje Jovanovic is “particularly concerned about the lack of safeguards” for those facing eviction in Ireland.

“Forced evictions are often discriminatory measures creating new forms of hardship for those evicted and exacerbating a pattern of human rights violations.”

He called on the State “to ensure that all those facing eviction have full access to free legal aid”.

Behind the statistics: St Margaret’s, Ballymun

The number of Traveller families living on unsafe, unserviced, unauthorised sites has increased by almost 50 per cent in two years, figures show.

The annual “Traveller count” also shows the number of families sharing overcrowded accommodation has increased by 30 per cent, at a time when the number of Traveller families has increased by less than 1 per cent.

The 2015 count, just published by the Department of the Environment, shows that the number of Traveller families on unauthorised sites increased from 361 in 2013 to 445 in 2014 and 534 last year.

The numbers sharing housing, or “doubling up”, as families move caravans beside other family caravans or houses because they can find nowhere else to live, increased from 663 in 2013 to 727 in 2014 and 862 last year.

In contrast, the numbers in private rented accommodation fell from 2,717 in 2013 to 2,480 in 2015.

The numbers in social housing remained steady at 5,574 in 2013 and 5,575 in 2015. In all, there were 9,899 Traveller families in 2013, and 9,997 last year.

Overcrowding is felt acutely at St Margaret’s in Ballymun, Dublin, where about 50 families live in 30 bays.

The site is referred to in the collective complaint to the European Committee of Social Rights.

Residents say overcrowding and the dilapidated state of outhouses are now the most pressing issues.

Helen Stokes (67) has lived on the site since it was built in 1997. She shares a mobile home with her husband, their son, his wife and their two children.

Another son, his wife and their three children have moved a caravan on to the bay. The 11 people share one steel toilet and one shower.

“I love the grandchildren and the family, but it does get hard with them all around all the time,” she says.

Dublin City Council says it “intends to upgrade the electrical infrastructure and refurbish the 30 day-houses [outhouses] in St Margaret’s Park.

“The submission from the St Margaret’s Traveller Community Association called for the provision of a second halting site near to the current St Margaret’s Park site. This request will be examined.”