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Column: Institutional racism? It’s regular – just look around you

People associate racism with name-calling or physical assaults. But in Ireland it can be as subtle as a letter, writes Salome Mbugua.

Salome Mbugua

IT IS TIME for Irish society to recognise that State policies that deny migrants fundamental rights and freedoms amount to a form of racism.

Most people associate racism with name-calling, vandalism or physical abuse. However, State institutions that isolate migrants and treat them in unacceptable ways are guilty of discrimination and promoting racism, even if the individuals delivering those systems are not overtly racist.

For instance, the system of direct provision for asylum seekers is now an embedded State practice. Under this procedure asylum-seekers are deprived of their freedoms to work and participate fully in society. At a very basic level, they sometimes have to contend with poor quality food, which is not in keeping with their normal diet. Many live for unacceptably long periods in inappropriate spaces where privacy is not afforded.

The policy of direct provision is more than a decade old. It has never been reviewed, despite the appalling impact it can have on individuals. By treating asylum-seekers in a grossly unacceptable manner, the State is negatively shaping public attitudes to asylum-seekers.

However, institutional racism does not end with asylum-seekers. Migrant communities are regularly singled out for specific treatment by State institutions: finding a school willing to take migrant children is an issue for many parents, for example.

In addition, many citizens and residents with ‘foreign’-sounding names receive letters from the authorities on a regular basis, checking to see if they are still living in Ireland. These are just some of the actions that point to institutional racism here and grind people down.

‘When Ireland boomed, migrants were welcomed’

Consistent, robust and strong political leadership to combat racism is increasingly lacking, particularly in national politics. When Ireland boomed, migrants were welcomed and infrastructure was put in place to promote integration. This included having a minister with responsibility for integration and State-funded institutions to promote anti-racism policies. When the bust happened, these were among the first items to be taken away.

Parliamentary schedules are bereft of regular and in-depth discussion on how the State responds to migrants. There is no doubt that there are very many politicians who are genuinely concerned about racism, but there seems to be a lack of impetus to help them turn that concern into a persistent and active expression in their parliamentary work.

It was very interesting recently, at a conference entitled Institutional Racism: Is Ireland Responding organised by the NGO Alliance Against Racism, to hear how the situation here is viewed by a distinguished human rights lawyer and anti-racism campaigner from outside Ireland.

The keynote speaker Imran Khan, probably best known for his work on the Stephen Lawrence case, told the conference that Ireland reminded him of the situation in England in 1993 when Stephen was murdered. He said:

Ireland appears an outward and forward-looking country, but when it comes to recognising and dealing with racism, it is very weak. There has been a shocking lack of progress in terms of preventing racism and there seems to be an inability – at Government level – to acknowledge that racism is an issue.

The Government should listen to the advice of Imran Khan and take account of the experiences of migrant communities in Ireland.

There are a number of steps that must be taken.

We need better legal protection: acts of racism and unlawful racial discrimination, including incitement of racial hatred and racist attacks are serious violations of human rights and should be combated by all lawful means.

We need stronger legislation on racist crimes to allow for the effective prosecution of those responsible for racist violence. This process should clearly define racism as a crime and ensure that the racially-aggravated dimensions of crimes committed are considered in sentencing.

Education and awareness raising are crucial to combating racism. We must encourage the introduction of human rights education, including promoting anti-racism, in the school curriculum and in institutions of higher education.

Salome Mbugua is the director of AkiDwA, an organisation promoting equality and justice for migrant women living in Ireland.

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Salome Mbugua

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