Roma women cry as riot police arrive to assist in the eviction of more than 100 people from their homes in Bucharest, Romania, Sept 15, 2014. PAimages/Vadim Ghirda. All rights reserved.Few people are more caricatured and stigmatised in media and political discourse by stereotypes, sensationalism and myths than Roma, by far the largest minority in Europe. Many Europeans believe that Roma choose to live in shanty camps in abject conditions, and that it is their culture to rear their children in the mud, pull them out of school and force them to beg. The reality is different.
We have visited Roma settlements in many European countries and met with Roma, with civil society groups, and with national authorities and, in practically every case, it has been clear that the situation of poverty, marginalisation and social exclusion in which many Roma live is not inevitable. Instead, the housing situation is most often the visible result of discrimination and social exclusion.
Roma are regularly forced to live in segregated settlements. Lacking basic infrastructure, they are victims of repeated forced evictions, and face more obstacles than majority populations in accessing affordable adequate housing. With access to education, health care, and other social services – not to mention employment opportunities – often dependent on the possession of an official address, the lack of proper housing only reinforces Roma marginalisation.
A few recent examples help demonstrate the magnitude of the problem. Some weeks ago in Milan and Rome, Italy, some 600 hundred Roma, half of whom were children, were evicted, and either moved to remote, substandard temporary accommodation or were left homeless.
In Sweden about 200 Roma were evicted in the Sorgenfri district of Malmö last November, with many of these becoming homeless as a result. There have been similar cases in Bulgaria. In Varna for example, more than 400 Roma people were left homeless after their forced eviction and the demolition of their homes, in August 2015.
In France, NGOs reported more than 100 forced evictions in 2015, affecting thousands of people, many of whom were not provided with alternative accommodation.
In the Hungarian city of Miskolc, around 450 people have been evicted and not provided alternative housing solutions, and another 450 are threatened with the same fate. This has set a negative example for other municipalities in the country, further worsening the environment for Roma communities. This dire situation has led the Canadian immigration authorities to grant asylum to some 1,500 Hungarians, many of whom are Roma, since 2012.
Governments often argue that evictions take place in the interest of Roma who live in unhealthy conditions. They also say the illegal occupation of a site justifies the eviction of those living there. While there is some merit to these arguments, international standards clearly provide that a state’s right to evict must be counterbalanced by its duty to provide adequate alternative housing, respecting people’s dignity, and to provide those being evicted with an effective chance to seek judicial redress.
The European Court of Human Rights, in a case against Bulgaria in 2012, established that forced evictions could amount to an infringement of the right to respect for the home and right to family life. In several other judgments, the court has underscored that Roma “require special protection” because of their specific disadvantages and vulnerability. In a case against France in 2013, the court stressed that evictions should not result in homelessness.
The European Committee of Social Rights has also established that evictions must never undermine the right to housing and the protection against poverty and social exclusion. In a decision against Belgium in 2012, the Committee affirmed that “states must set up procedures to limit the risk of eviction” and provide legal protection to the people concerned. This jurisprudence was confirmed last May, in a decision condemning Ireland for carrying out evictions “without the necessary safeguards”.
In addition to this legally binding jurisprudence, European countries have committed to uphold other standards they themselves adopted, within the Council of Europe, the UN, the EU and the OSCE, many of which they transposed into domestic legislation.
Yet, key decision-makers often ignore this wealth of legal standards and international commitments. Forced evictions without the provision of adequate housing alternatives continue unabated, severing Roma’s ties with localities, thus feeding marginalisation and exclusion.
European countries have to break this cycle of discrimination against Roma and start treating them as equal European citizens. They can do so by facilitating Roma access to housing, which is a precondition for the enjoyment of many other human rights, in particular the right to education.
They do not need to look far for solutions. In Spain for example, efforts made between 1999 and 2011 have made it possible to rehouse some 1 500 families, to reduce the percentage of Roma living in substandard housing from 31% to 11.7%, and to improve health and education.
The Belgian city of Ghent has been investing since 2010 in the integration of migrants, and particularly Roma from Eastern European countries, including by providing support to people in precarious housing situations.
While some Serbian municipalities continue to evict Roma, others have implemented policies to ensure Roma are able to legally register their homes, thus providing them better access to public infrastructure and services.
These and other encouraging examples show that, with political commitment, it is possible to support and increase Roma inclusion. Such examples should be used as drivers for change. To move forward, three main actions are required.
As a starter, European countries must become more serious in implementing the case-law of international bodies and the human rights standards they have agreed to. Continuing to ignore these would only lead to more unnecessary suffering and betray Europe’s fundamental values.
Second, European countries should use available resources, including EU funds, to promote adequate and long-term housing and integration initiatives, involving Roma in all projects concerning them, instead of squandering money on activities that lead to human rights violations, such as the development of segregated housing.
Lastly, political leaders, opinion makers and the media should act more responsibly when dealing with Roma issues. Instead of using Roma as scapegoats, notably for electoral purposes, and spreading stereotypes, they should inform public opinion from a principled standpoint and promote positive practices.
These measures are within reach. All it takes is political will. Only then can European countries start putting an end to their long and shameful history of discrimination against Roma.
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