'The law is not on our side' - African man living in Ireland speaks about the racist abuse he has faced here
At a time when important legislative decisions are being made in the country, there has been a growing chorus of several civil society groups demanding a suitable legislation to address the presence of hate crime in Ireland.
The chorus grew louder in light of the report published last month, titled “Life Cycle of a Hate Crime,” which stated that Ireland has one of the highest rates of some forms of hate crime in the EU but is "seriously deficient" in tackling them.
According to authors of the report, “hate crime is simply not a part of the language of the Irish criminal justice system.”
For Sammy Akorede (51), who moved to Ireland 18 years ago and has been working as a Luas driver for the past 14 years, this report did not provide much new information, but voiced what he had been saying for a long time: racism is prominently present but largely ignored in the country.
He recounts the varying degrees of racial abuse he encounters while on duty: “There’s all sorts of name-calling and bullying involved - I’ve been called a monkey, and things that I can’t even bring myself to repeat. But, to me, the worst experience I’ve had is people spitting at you.
“As much as physical abuse is considered worse and is condoned more, spitting on a fellow human being is the worst of the worst experience you can ever encounter.”
Mr Akorede said that he faces most of the abuse when he is on the job and asks a passenger for their ticket: “Asking for ticket leads to people abusing you. Name calling, bullying - they even go to the extent of physical violence, because they know you can’t touch them.
“I’m not just talking about myself- I represent most of my foreign colleagues here, and so many of my colleagues have been attacked while on the tram. Just doing your job gets you loads of abuses almost everyday.
“You’ll be shocked that a fellow human being treats another one like this.”
He said that most of these attacks have been carried out by youngsters, between the ages of 12 - 25 years.
Even outside work, according to Mr Akorede, racism lingers and forces him to always be “cautious.”
“As an African, the only day you don’t face any iota of racism is the day you don’t leave your house.
“So, you have to be cautious of the environment. For example, if I’m driving and I see a group of youth, I’ll be cautious. Because it has happened to friends of mine, that they’ve left their cars, only to come back and see that the glass has been smashed in. I have friends that have faced vandalism at home - in their houses and properties. “
According to Mr Akorede, the final straw is the absence of any redressal mechanism after encountering abuse, which leads to serious levels of under-reporting amongst his peers.
He cites an instance when he encountered the problem head on: “Years ago, I was abused by someone at Smithfield Luas stop, without any provocation,” he said. “Usually they abuse you when you ask for tickets, but this was without any cause.
“These two guys just started abusing me - they said almost everything they could say, and my colleague, who was Irish, just couldn’t take it anymore. Smithfield is very close to Four Courts, where there’s a Garda station. Luckily, he saw two guards walking away. He ran to them for assistance.
“They didn’t touch us- but it was verbal abuse. My colleague ran to the guards to ask what they can do to assist us, and the guards told us that unfortunately, there was nothing they could do. Because the guy was just ranting, there is nothing they can do about it.”
Mr Akorede said that the procedure the Luas head office follows is not “enough” either, and lack of redressal makes his colleagues “wary” of filing reports with Garda again.
“The law is not on our side, in the sense that whoever abuses us walks away. We try to call the control while it’s happening, who then call the guards, but with due respect to them, such cases are not important to them as such.
“When the staff gets back- in most cases they get along with it and continue their normal duties, but in some few cases the abuse is enormous - the procedure is for them to come back to the office, sit down and chill out- we can put the camera and if we’re lucky, we can get the image of the abuser.
“We don’t have the power to hold somebody on the Luas, so they just walk away. The staff write a statement, and we ask them to report to the police. They’re wary now, because they keep reporting and nothing happens- the same person will abuse them on the tram tomorrow.”
In response to the report and its findings, the Department of Justice has cited the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act, 1989, that creates offences of incitement to hatred on account of race, religion, nationality, ethnic or sexual orientation.
“In addition to the 1989 Act, the criminal law also addresses crimes motivated by hate,” said Cathal Redmond, from the Department of Justice.
“Where criminal offences such as assault, criminal damage, or public order offences are committed with a racist motive, they are prosecuted as generic offences through the wider criminal law and the trial judge can take aggravating factors, including racist motivation, into account at sentencing.”
However, Jennifer Schweppe, co-author of the “Life Cycle of a Hate Crime” report, said that is not how it transpires once the case is reported and recorded.
“What we clearly showed in the report, talking to people within the criminal justice system, that the element of hate gets dropped in the process of reporting or prosecution of the crime. It does not get to the courts. Even if it does, it’s not recognised by the judge.
“Or sometimes, judges will see a hate element when it is not present,” she said.
“Basically, our research has found that the hate element of the crime is routinely filtered out of the justice system. To cite the 1989 act is to misunderstand what a hate crime is.
“Internationally, hate crime is defined as a criminal offence committed with a bias motive. There is no such offence in the Irish law. The 1989 Act is not suitable, wasn’t designed to address it and should not be used in that context.”
The Department of Justice states that “the provisions of the 1989 Act are currently under review in the Department, and this work will have regard to the views of stakeholders and the recent report of the ICCL and the University of Limerick as they relate to that Act and the legislative provisions by which other hate crime offences are prosecuted.”
However, in the third Ireland based report of European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance, the Irish authorities informed ECRI that the review of the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989 is “nearly complete.” This report came out in 2006.
Pippa Woolnough, from the Immigration Council, also pointed out that “the National Action Plan Against Racism expired in 2008, and ever since then, there has been no other initiative in its place.”
She said that it is necessary to act now: “Ireland is increasingly diverse; 1 in 8 persons of the population is from a non Irish background. If we don’t take action now, there is a real danger that we might sow seeds and see potential overt racism.
“The lack of political prioritisation is worrying; there have been no state funded campaigns to tackle racism. Ireland is a very welcoming country, but if proactive efforts are not taken for deliberate integration we might run a danger in the future,” she said.
Talking about the wave of support he has received whenever he talks about his experiences, Mr Akorede said that “until strong legislations are made, nothing will change.” He appeals to the public to empathise with his experience.
“Look into my eyes, and tell me I’m a monkey. Put yourself in my shoes- someone telling your son or your daughter vile things, imagine how that feels.”