• There are an estimated 5,000 Roma living in Ireland
  • Some 80% of Irish Roma immigrated from Romania
  • Roma in Ireland suffer from poverty, poor housing, discrimination

The coronavirus crisis has now touched virtually every corner of the globe, placing vulnerable communities at particular risk. One such group of people are the Roma community of Ireland – a segment of the Irish population that rarely receives any attention from the global media. The Roma form a unique enclave in Ireland. Similar to their more numerous kinsmen in Eastern Europe, the Roma of Ireland face poverty, discrimination and stigmatization. Now the COVID-19 pandemic presents yet another challenge for these marginalized people.

International Business Times spoke with a representative of the Pavee Point Traveller and Roma Centre in Dublin, to discuss how the Roma are currently faring in Ireland.

IB TIMES: Can you estimate how large Ireland’s Roma community is? Are they concentrated mostly in Dublin?

PAVEE POINT: There are an estimated 5,000 Roma living in Ireland, and Roma families identified in every county in Ireland. Based on information from Roma in Ireland: A National Needs Assessment (2018) published by Pavee Point and the Department of Justice and Equality, the largest communities of Roma are believed to be in Dublin, Louth, Kildare, Wexford, Cork, Kerry, Clare, and Donegal -- however, we do not have official data from the [Irish government’s] Central Statistics Office. A Roma ‘drop down box’ will likely be introduced in the next census in 2021.

IB TIMES: How long have the Roma been established in Ireland? Are most of them now immigrants from Eastern Europe?

PAVEE POINT: As the National Needs Assessment reports, prior to the mid-1990s a small number of Roma came to Ireland as seasonal short-term workers, in fruit picking or farm laboring. In the mid-1990s a number of Roma sought asylum in Ireland and in addition, some Roma sought more permanent employment opportunities. Since 2007 with the enlargement of the European Union to include Bulgaria and Romania, Roma have migrated to Ireland as EU citizens. However, it was only since 2012 that Romanian and Bulgarian nationals were not subjected to employment restrictions.

While the majority of Roma in Ireland are from Romania (approximately 80%), mapping from the National Roma Needs Assessment also identified Roma from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland.

IB TIMES: What kinds of work do they do in Ireland?

PAVEE POINT: It’s very difficult to get an accurate picture of the type of work that Roma are doing in Ireland. This is because many Roma hide their identity while in employment, due to the high levels of discrimination that Roma experience. The National Roma Needs Assessment found that 78.9% of respondents reported feeling discriminated against in getting hired or getting a job. For example, we worked on a case where a Roma woman was clearly discriminated against because of her traditional dress. The case was brought to the government’s Workplace Relations Commission and the woman subsequently received compensation.

IB TIMES: What is the current housing situation for Roma in Ireland?

PAVEE POINT: Ireland has experienced a housing crisis over the past few years and Roma have been strongly impacted by this. Due to discrimination and inflated rent and property prices, it has been extremely difficult for Roma to find appropriate accommodation. This housing crisis has been exacerbated by COVID-19 as many Roma either live in overcrowded private rented accommodation, in homeless accommodation or are sleeping rough [on the streets]. The National Roma Needs Assessment found that 44.8% of respondents did not have enough beds in their accommodation.

IB TIMES: How specifically has the coronavirus pandemic impacted the Roma community?

PAVEE POINT: The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted a number of significant challenges for Roma, especially those who are living in very precarious circumstances. It’s clear that this disease is disproportionately impacting on Roma compared to the general Irish population. In particular, as I mentioned, many Roma families are living in severely overcrowded and unsafe accommodation. For Roma who find themselves in these situations, the options for self-isolation and social distancing are very difficult. However, we are working very closely with the housing bodies and the HSE [Health Service Executive of Ireland] to address these issues.

Pavee Point, together with the Capuchin Centre, a nongovernmental organization called Cairde, and with the support of the HSE, have set up a dedicated Roma COVID-19 information hotline which provides information on COVID-19 in both the Romani and Romanian languages to members of the Roma community seven days a week. As well as general information about the virus, callers can also receive support in accessing a [general practitioner] and organizing a test if they feel unwell.

IB TIMES: Has poverty exacerbated the Roma’s problems?

PAVEE POINT: A number of Roma have been facing dire poverty, and have been without food, milk, and [diapers] for newborn babies. We have been working very closely with other NGOs, charities and the government’s Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to make sure that no Roma is left destitute. The crisis is also having a disproportionate impact on Roma throughout Europe, and in Ireland we note the alarming number of Roma rapidly becoming infected with the virus, with many in a critical condition and sadly, some deaths.

Pavee Point acknowledges and welcomes the efforts made by the Irish state to date in addressing some of the issues we have raised including facilitating access to GP care for those Roma without a PPS [Personal Public Services] number; as well as arrangements by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection to ensure that Roma at risk of destitution can access Urgent Needs Payments from the government during COVID-19.

However, it is clear that further humanitarian actions need to be taken to protect Roma and the wider community during this COVID-19 crisis. Also, the crisis has demonstrated the clear need for an ethnic identifier across all government departments.

IB TIMES: What distinguishes Roma from Irish Travellers?

PAVEE POINT: Irish Travellers and Roma are two distinct ethnic groups. Irish Travellers are from Ireland and, as far as we know, have always existed in parallel to the majority population. There are written references to Travellers or ‘tinkers’ that go back to the 12th Century, and oral references that go back to the 4th Century. In contrast, Roma are originally from Northern India and it is thought they migrated to Europe around the 11th century, currently making up the largest ethnic minority in Europe. Their language Romani/Romanes, is still very widely spoken and is based on the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit.

IB TIMES: Are most Roma now Irish citizens?

PAVEE POINT: The National Roma Needs Assessment found that based on replies from adult respondents, 5.6% were Irish citizens. However, the proportion of Roma children who were Irish citizens was much higher at 52.2%.

IB TIMES: Are Roma children being educated in Irish schools?

PAVEE POINT: The National Roma Needs Assessment found that 40% of households with children under the age of five reported that children were attending pre-school. In 78% of households primary [elementary school] aged children attended school. Post-primary aged children were attending school in 37.8% of households.

IB TIMES: Aside from the current pandemic, what are some of the other big challenges Roma face in Ireland?

PAVEE POINT: The Roma community, similar to Irish Travellers, have been recognized as one of the most marginalized and disadvantaged groups in Ireland, experiencing structural and systematic discrimination, active prejudice and racism. Roma in Ireland continue to experience poorer health outcomes, including higher rates of chronic health diseases, extreme poverty, poor housing and unemployment; and the lack of access to mainstream health services. This is further compounded by language barriers and literacy issues.