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'Naturalisation and recognition of Irish citizenship will improve Roma rights'

As EU citizens and ordinary residents of Ireland, Roma should not have to face discrimination here, writes Jennifer DeWan.

Jennifer DeWan Campaigns Manager, Nasc Ireland

IT IS ESTIMATED that there are only about 5,000 Roma living in Ireland. The majority come from former Eastern Bloc countries – in particular Romania and Bulgaria – and came to Ireland following the accession of these countries to the European Union in 2007.

However, some arrived earlier, either as seasonal workers (for instance fruit-picking in the southeast) or seeking asylum on the basis of persecution.

This means that the majority of Roma living in Ireland have been here over a decade, if not longer. Their children have been born here and gone to school, and are now getting married and starting their own families.

And yet, many of the rights that Roma are entitled to as EU citizens, and as long term residents of Ireland, are not accessible to them. And as a result, many Roma have not really integrated into Irish society, and remain marginalised.

Here in Nasc Ireland, the Irish Immigrant Support Centre, we provide legal advice and information to migrants, refugees and asylum seekers from all over the world.

Roma are experiencing racism when accessing their rights

We have worked closely with our Roma clients to ensure that they are able to access the rights they are entitled to, things like jobseekers allowance, child benefit, medical cards, housing assistance, and access to education and employment.

We have found through this work that many people in this community can experience racism and even institutional discrimination when trying to access those rights.

These are issues that Roma experience across Europe, regardless of their EU citizenship. This can be partially explained by the rules governing the 2007 accession of several Eastern European states to the European Union, states that funnily enough have high populations of Roma.

When the 2007 Accession was negotiated, EU member states were given the right to restrict some employment rights of new member citizens for several years. Which effectively meant that people coming to Ireland from Romania and Bulgaria didn’t have an automatic right to work in the same way that people coming from France or Germany did.

Lower literacy, health outcomes and employment

Although the Irish government reversed that policy in 2012, as a result of Nasc’s strategic advocacy, the policy has had a long-term impact on access to rights and benefits which we believe has had a disproportionate effect on members of the Roma community, who already tend to experience lower literacy and education levels, lower health outcomes, and less employment opportunities compared to EU and Irish citizens.

Add to that what can only be described as institutional discrimination in the form of excessive requirements for documentation, arbitrary refusals that are then overturned on appeal, long delays in decision making, and sometimes even outright racism from service providers, means that some members of the Roma community live in extreme poverty, without access to social welfare, medical cards or social housing.

These are all rights that as EU citizens and ordinary residents of Ireland, they are entitled to.

Naturalisation is crucial to advance Roma rights

Rights that exist on paper but are not accessible are hollow indeed when your family is starving, or living in one room with no heat. When you are forced to beg on the street and run the risk of a cycle of arrest and incarceration just to survive.

Nasc has been working to support members of the Roma community in applying for Irish citizenship and passports for eligible Irish citizen children.

Naturalisation and recognition of Irish citizenship will significantly improve access to rights and services for this community, to guarantee and vindicate those rights, which will also help promote their participation and integration into Irish society.

Jennifer DeWan is the Campaigns and Communications Manager at Nasc Ireland, in Cork. As a migrant to Ireland from the US, Jennifer is committed to raising awareness about and promoting positive changes in relation to immigration and integration. To mark this year’s International Roma Day Nasc are hosting an event to promote the political and civic participation of Roma, which will include intensive advice and support on applying for naturalisation and Irish passports, as well as information on housing, social welfare, healthcare and other issues. 

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About the author:

Jennifer DeWan  / Campaigns Manager, Nasc Ireland

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