Ireland is changing and along with it the many ways oppression including racism manifests in society. The past few years has seen a marked denial of the very existence of racism with the language of diversity and integration dominating the policy and public discourse.
The only formal structure with an exclusive focus on racism, the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism, was unceremoniously closed in 2009, the National Action Plan Against Racism was ground to a halt and Anti-Racism in the Workplace Week was renamed Workplace Diversity Week.
Support for action on diversity, interculturalism and integration whilst important will not generate positive results without equal weight and attention being given to the more difficult and challenging work of countering racism.
Racism has always been and continues to be a contested concept. While accepted that the concept of ‘race’ has no scientific basis, nevertheless, it is still used in everyday life to demarcate groups largely according to physical appearance and skin colour, but also in terms of ethnicity, culture and national origin.
Debates about cultural ‘fit’ and practices have intensified in recent times across Europe. Debate is, of course, healthy but when it involves stigmatizing or stereotyping the cultures and ways of life of black and ethnic minorities as inferior, or deeming them to be a threat to the dominant culture, what we are really seeing is a particular manifestation of contemporary racism.
To understand racism we need to recognise that one of its main functions is the generalisation of human characteristics of a certain group. In fact, cultural differences tend to be generalised in the same way as the traditional biological racial hierarchies, for example the tendency to behave in a certain way or live according to certain moral values.
Racism operates at both an individual and an institutional level. Individual or direct forms of racism can range from verbal name calling to violent physical abuse. By contrast, institutional forms of racism refer to the effects of institutional actions i.e. policies and practices that are discriminatory towards or indifferent to the needs and requirements of minority ethnic groups including migrant workers.
There is a direct link between individual and institutional racism. Individuals are either enabled or excluded by the way a society and its institutions operate. Individuals are racist consciously or unconsciously, mainly as a result of acting on a belief system where certain people are considered superior or inferior based on their membership of a particular group.
Central to discriminatory relations between those who do and those who do not experience racism is a difference in power status. The role played by the state, politicians and the media (through banner and sensationalist and inflammatory headlines) is of paramount importance. These groups have the power to define the social world and impose a framework within which migrants are perceived ie legally or illegally resident, citizen or non citizen.
Racial discrimination both in terms of everyday abuse and discrimination and exclusion within Irish institutions is becoming more widespread. In a survey carried out by Amnesty in 2001, almost 80% of individuals from black or ethnic minority groups living in Ireland claimed they had experienced some form of racism or discrimination.
A recent report by the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency found that Ireland was among the worst five countries in the EU when it came to racial discrimination and abuse. 73% of those surveyed from Sub-Saharan Africa stated they had experienced racism in Ireland as did 25% of those from central and Eastern Europe.
The incidence of recorded racist crime fell by 21% to 180 incidents in 2008 when the estimated number of non Irish nationals (aged 15 years and over) was 476,100. Rather than this indicating decreasing levels of racism NGO’s report significant difficulties in reporting incidents of racism to the Gardai.
In practice the majority of racist incidents fall into the category of verbal harassment which are difficult to verify. In addition many migrants are reluctant to report racist incidents to guards who also act as immigration officers.
Across the world considerable attention has been given to the practice of ethnic profiling. To date no such examination of ethnic and racial profiling has been undertaken in Ireland (MRCI has commenced exploratory research in this area). Police and law enforcement officers, including immigration officers, are using ethnic profiling when they view people as suspicious because of who they are, what they look like, or where they pray, rather than because of what they have done.
Justification for ethnic and racial profiling is often made on the basis of countering terrorism, criminality and irregular immigration. Worryingly, the European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey published in 2009 identified that the stop rate in Ireland for people from Sub Saharan Africa was the highest for any ethnic minority in the EU.
The effectiveness of ethnic profiling has been seriously questioned by various studies including the excellent work undertaken by Open Society International. Irish people know only too well the racist effects of ethnic profiling. Ethnic profiling of the Irish community during the 1970′s and 80′s by the police in the UK and when travelling to and from the UK has been well documented as having led to discriminatory outcomes not least the very high number of Irish people arrested and imprisoned during that period.
Unequal treatment in the access of public services also has a direct bearing on the lived experiences and social status of any community. While many frontline service providers are respectful and aim to deliver services without prejudice, direct experiences of racism are unfortunately a reality for many migrant workers. This can take many different forms i.e. the manner and tone used, prejudiced behaviour, being denied services.
Racism in the delivery of public services is evident too in the policies shaping services and access to services. The Habitual Residency Condition is of particular concern for migrant workers as their eligibility for essential supports and services is predicated on meeting a number of restrictive criteria and not on their economic need.
Sufficient evidence exists that migrant workers experience difficulties asserting their employment rights and are vulnerable to discrimination and racism in the workplace. The way the work permit system operates by binding a migrant worker to a particular employer, exacerbates this vulnerability. 80% of work exploitation cases in the MRCI involve people on work permits.
Racism can range from being treated less favourably to fellow employees in terms of pay and associated work privileges to scenarios of extreme exploitation and forced labour. Work environments that are unwelcoming and are sharply divided on ethnical lines fuel racial tension and generally mean that migrant workers have more negative experiences.
Migrant workers have also been hindered from accessing employment and certain occupations because of racism and discrimination. The ESRI in 2008 found that Non-Irish nationals are three times more likely to experience discrimination while looking for work, while black people are seven times more likely.
For migrant women there is the additional concern of gender discrimination, such as experiences of unequal pay, sexual harassment, and pregnancy related discrimination. Migrant women, like women in all parts of society, are in an unequal position at an individual, community and societal level. This combined with racism experienced in the workplace and in accessing services places them at a much greater risk of discrimination.
Growing hostility towards migrants is a worrying development in times of recession. The impression that migrant workers were no longer welcome is reinforced by contradictory political and policy statements. The unfounded perception created by certain politicians that migrant workers are more disproportionally involved in ‘frauding’ the social welfare system is a good example of the type of dangerous political opportunism that is creeping into our political processes.
In conclusion, countering racism requires a comprehensive and strategic policy and legislative approach. A plan of action to follow on from the ending of the National Action Plan Against Racism in 2008 would be an important step in the right direction.
A legislative basis for recognising racism as a crime and ensuring that the racially aggravated dimension of crimes committed are considered in sentencing is absolutely necessary. So too is a national racist reporting and monitoring system that is independent of the Gardai and enables reporting of racist incidents other than those currently defined as crimes.
Without improving access to redress for victims of racism, policies and law will remain severely inadequate and finally communities who experience racism require the supports and resources to become empowered and fully participate in advocating for the rights of their communities.
Siobhán O’ Donoghue is Director of the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland, a national organisation concerned with the rights of migrant workers and their families since 2002. She has worked for many years in community sector organisations in Ireland, ranging from local grass roots to national policy organisations and structures.
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