Recent events in Ireland confirm the suspicion that prejudice and racism continue to underpin bureaucratic policy in relation to the treatment of minority groups and immigrants. Two children were removed from the care of their Roma families simply because their hair/eye/skin colouring did not conform to the view commonly held as to what the Roma should look like, i.e. dark-haired, dark-eyed and sallow-skinned . Little or no consideration was given to the effect that such separation from their families would have on these young children, or to the trauma that could ensue for the families involved. Neither was there any thought for the effect that such actions could have on the Roma community in general, in terms of the fracturing of the often fragile relationships they share with the majority population. It will take some time to repair these relationships and to re-establish a basis of mutual trust and respect.
Was there another way that the situation could have been handled? There are always other options, some more humane and life-enhancing than others. In this instance, the children could have remained with their families for the short time it took to carry out DNA tests. The Roma families were not going to flee the country, having chosen to make Ireland their home. If the authorities had any doubts in this regard, they could have confiscated the passports of the parents, as they do in other situations where they feel there is a flight risk.
One wonders what would have happened if the situation had been reversed, i.e. if blond-haired, blue-eyed, white-skinned parents were discovered to have a dark-haired, dark-eyed, sallow-skinned child living with them? I do not doubt for one minute that the situation would have ben handled much more sensitively and with a greater degree of trust, resulting in the authorities waiting for conclusive evidence before contemplating the removal of the child. The injustice and inequality that are apparent in the handling of the Roma families in this incident are to be abhorred, and are an indication of how far we have yet to progress in terms of valuing and accepting marginalised and minority groups in Ireland.
It is not just because the Roma are immigrants that they are treated in such an uncaring and dehumanising way. Our own native Traveller community are treated equally badly. Just when schools had got to the stage of persuading Travellers that it was in the best interests of their children to attend school regularly and to continue their education to second level, and to envisage them as participants in the workforce on an equal basis with the settled population, the whole system collapsed through the actions of the Government. The Resource Teacher for Travellers, who ensured that Traveller children had school places and received adequate support to continue in school, was withdrawn in one of the first educational cutbacks. The Visiting Teacher for Travellers, who was instrumental in ensuring that Traveller children were placed in suitable second level schools, was also withdrawn. The free transport system for Traveller children was another casualty of the cutbacks in education. All of these measures have left Traveller education provision back where it was forty years ago, with no incentive for Traveller children to participate in the educational system and with no-one to mediate for them in their engagements with educational establishments, when neither they nor their parents have the wherewithal to do so.
The situations of both the Roma and the Traveller community outlined here demonstrate the levels of oppression and deprivation that can be inflicted on marginalised and minority groups when there is a lack of concern for values of justice and equality among the general population.