Housing Rights in Greece: First ERRC Action Under the European Social Charter

29 October 2003

Mona Nicoarǎ1

in June 16, 2003, the European Committee of Social Rights, a committee of independent experts established under Article 25 of the European Social Charter, during its 195th session, declared admissible the collective complaint submitted by the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) against the Greek state under the European Social Charter (ESC). The ERRC complaint alleges that the Greek State violated its commitments under Article 16 of the ESC - the right of the family to social, legal and economic protection - by pursuing a policy of racial segregation in the field of housing and failing to ensure adequate living standards for many Roma in Greece. The complaint draws on the extensive research conducted by the ERRC in partnership with the Athens-based non-governmental organisation Greek Helsinki Monitor (GHM) in Greece in the period 1996-2003,2 and calls the European Committee on Social Rights to rule on the following violations of Article 16 of the ESC:

1. Discriminatory Legislation: The 1983 Ministerial Decree

A 1983 Ministerial Decree entitled "Sanitary provision for the organised relocation of wandering nomads"3 - in effect today - provides for the segregation and ghettoisation of Roma.

Article 1 of the Ministerial Decree states:

"The unchecked, without permit, encampment of wandering nomads (Athinganoi, etc.) in whatever region is prohibited."4

According to Article 3(1) the Decree:

"The lands for the organised encampments of wandering nomads [...] must be outside inhabited areas and in good distance from the approved urban plan or the last contiguous houses."

Furthermore, Article 3(3) states:

"Encampment is prohibited near archaeological sites, beaches, landscapes of natural beauty, visible by main highway points or areas which could affect the public health (springs supplying drinking water, etc.)."

The link between "wandering nomads" and "Athinganoi" is informed by racist presuppositions about Roma as a wandering population with no links or loyalties other than to kin and clan, and with a propensity to crime and fraud - a category requiring government action for the protection of "normal people". The provisions of the 1983 Ministerial Decree have moreover been applied, and continue to be applied, arbitrarily and indiscriminately to any Roma, regardless of whether they are itinerant or not. The 1983 Ministerial Decree therefore violates the general non-discrimination provision enshrined in the Preamble of the Charter by singling out "Athinganoi" - Roma - as the principal target group of its provisions, which in effect limit the realization of the housing rights of Roma. The continuing existence of this decree endorses the efforts of municipal authorities aiming to evict Roma from land they may occupy, and ultimately institutionalises the exclusion of Roma in Greece.

The enforced separation of Romani "encampments" from the approved urban plan called for by the 1983 Ministerial Decree amounts to racial segregation, a phenomenon unequivocally banned under international law. In particular, the provisions of the 1983 Ministerial Decree place Greece in violation of Article 3 of the ICERD, which states that "States Parties particularly condemn racial segregation and apartheid and undertake to prevent, prohibit, and eradicate all practices of this nature in territories under their jurisdiction", and of Article 5 of the ICERD, which requires that "State Parties undertake to prohibit and to eliminate racial discrimination in all its forms and to guarantee the right of everyone, without distinction as to race, colour, or national or ethnic origin, to equality before the law, notably in the enjoyment of [...] (d) (i) The right to freedom of movement and residence within the border of the State". Furthermore, the very fact that the 1983 Ministerial Decree continues to be in force - and to be enforced - is in contravention to Greece's commitment under Article 2 (c) of the ICERD, which states: "Each State Party shall take effective measures to review governmental, national and local policies, and to amend, rescind and nullify any laws and regulations which have the effect of creating or perpetuating racial discrimination wherever it exists."

The failure of Greek authorities to strike down the 1983 Decree places Greece in violation of domestic law as well - in particular, of Article 28(1) of the Greek Constitution, which states that, "[t]he generally recognised rules of international law and the international conventions after their ratification by law and their having been put into effect in accordance with their respective terms, shall constitute an integral part of Greek law and override any law provision to the contrary" (emphasis added). The 1983 Ministerial Decree should at the very least have been annulled upon ratification of the 1961 European Social Charter in 1984.

2. Residential Segregation of Roma

Large numbers of Roma in Greece today live segregated from non-Roma, in violation of international human rights norms banning racial segregation.5 Discriminatory housing policies which preclude Roma from living among the rest of the Greek population and subject them to forced evictions and multiple relocations have largely been responsible for the development of a system of segregated Romani settlements throughout Greece. 

Greek authorities routinely distinguish between Romani settlements and the rest of the urban plan, frequently placing the housing inhabited by Roma outside legal and administrative arrangements as a matter of discourse and practice. This distinction places Romani settlements not only outside the reach of legal protections afforded to housing inside municipalities, but also outside the ambit of public services such as sanitation or public transportation. As a result of such discriminatory housing policies, the National Commission for Human Rights stated, [in Greece] "Gypsies are condemned to living in conditions of apartheid."6

Residential segregation often occurs as a result of a decision or decisions by municipal authorities to relocate Romani residents. The motivation behind these relocations often appears to be related to the desire to remove Roma from central areas to the outskirts of particular localities or to expel them from municipalities entirely. Roma in Greece are frequently moved from integrated neighbourhoods to segregated settlements.

Relocated Roma often end up in even worse conditions than those in which they were previously living. Where alternate accommodation is provided at all, the majority of relocation settlements in Greece offer a substantial decline in living conditions, manifested inter alia through the absence of basic infrastructure, such as decent roads leading to the settlements, connections to the electricity grid, clean water supply, sewage removal systems and public transportation services. Furthermore, relocated Roma often are deprived of close proximity to schools, businesses and other services, which severely limits their education and employment opportunities. Relocated Roma also frequently lack legal tenure in the new settlements. Lack of legal tenure renders the residents of Romani settlements vulnerable to forced evictions by municipal authorities or private individuals or legal entities.

None of the elements of the right to adequate housing,7 as elaborated by the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) in General Comment 4 are met by segregated housing arrangements for Roma in Greece. The CESCR defined "adequate housing" as having sustainable access to natural and common resources, clean drinking water, energy for cooking, heating and lighting, sanitation and washing facilities, food storage facilities, refuse disposal, site drainage and emergency services. Moreover, housing should be made affordable and habitable. Habitability consists of allocating adequate space and protection from cold, damp, heat, rain, wind or other threats to health, structural hazards and disease vectors. Adequate housing must also ensure the physical safety of residents. Furthermore, housing must be accessible to those entitled to it. The location of the housing facilities must allow access to employment opportunities, health care services, schools, childcare services and other social facilities. Finally, housing should not be built on polluted sites or in immediate proximity to pollution sources that may threaten the right to health of the residents.8

Furthermore, by its very nature, segregation in the field of housing establishes arbitrary obstacles to the realisation of a number of other basic rights. Racial segregation impinges on the right of freedom of movement. Racial segregation has the effect of inhibiting Romani families from social participation and ultimately from the full realisation of other human rights such as civil and political rights. Additionally, by removing Roma from mainstream society in Greece, residential segregation often impedes the realisation of social and economic rights such as the rights to equal access to education or to access to adequate medical care.

3. Forced Evictions of Roma

Forced evictions are reported with alarming frequency in Greece. Since beginning monitoring in 1997, the ERRC/GHM have documented dozens of forced evictions of Roma and have received many further allegations of such evictions. Greek authorities frequently engage in forced evictions of Roma without providing genuine opportunities for the affected individuals to contest the grounds for eviction, without providing adequate alternative housing and without providing the victims of forced evictions with suitable legal redress. As a result of these actions, many Roma in Greece are effectively rendered homeless. It is commonplace that municipal authorities responsible for the execution of forced evictions of Roma avoid justice.

The CESCR observed in its General Comments 4 and 7 on the right to adequate housing that all persons should possess a degree of security of tenure which guarantees legal protection against forced evictions, harassment and other threats.9 According to General Comment 7 of the CESCR, the term "forced evictions" is defined as "the permanent or temporary removal against their will of individuals, families and/or communities from their homes and/or land which they occupy, without the provision of, and access to, appropriate forms of legal or other protection".10 The CESCR concluded in its General Comment 4 that the practice of forced evictions is a prima facie violation of the right to adequate housing, regardless of the level of development or availability of resources.11

In addition, the CESCR emphasized that special attention should be accorded to vulnerable individuals or groups, inter alia, ethnic and other minorities, since often these individuals and groups suffer disproportionately from the practice of forced evictions.12 Furthermore, "Evictions should not result in individuals being rendered homeless or vulnerable to violations of other human rights. Where those affected are unable to provide for themselves, authorities must take all appropriate measures, to the maximum of their available resources, to ensure that adequate alternative housing, resettlement or access to productive land, as the case may be, is available."13

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights has affirmed that the practice of forced evictions constitutes a gross violation of human rights, in particular the right to housing.14 Furthermore, the United Nations Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities has reaffirmed that the practice of forced eviction constitutes a gross violation of a broad range of human rights - in particular, of the right to adequate housing, the right to remain, the right to freedom of movement, the right to privacy, the right to property, the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to security of the home, the right to security of the person, the right to security of tenure and the right to equality of treatment.15

With particular reference to housing rights violations affecting Roma, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), in its General Recommendation 27 on "Discrimination Against Roma", has called on states: "[t]o act firmly against any discriminatory practices affecting Roma, mainly by local authorities and private owners, with regard to taking up residence and access to housing; to act firmly against local measures denying residence to and unlawful expulsion of Roma, and to refrain from placing Roma in camps outside populated areas that are isolated and without access to health care and other facilities."16

In continuing the practice of forced evictions, Greek authorities are not only in violation of international human rights law, but also outside the scope of relevant domestic constitutional provisions. For instance, Article 21(4) of the Greek Constitution states, "The provision of homes to those who are homeless or live in inadequate housing conditions shall be the subject of special care of the State". Similarly, Article 9 of the Greek Constitution proclaims the inviolability of a person's home and private and family life.

Due to the indivisibility of human rights, forced evictions frequently trigger violations of other human rights. Hence, the practice of forced evictions may also result in violations of civil and political rights - inter alia, the right to life, the right to security of the person, the right to non-interference with privacy, family and home, and the right to peaceful enjoyment of possessions.

4. Missing Legal Standards

The rights at issue in this complaint - the right to housing and the right to freedom from discrimination - are both in a period of expanding strength, breadth and depth in Europe. Greece has not kept pace with these developments, either in law or practice.

The Council of Europe has emphasised the importance of the right to adequate housing by including Article 31 in the Revised European Social Charter, which renders explicit the importance of adequate housing in the European social and economic rights acquis.17 Greece has not yet accepted Article 31 or, indeed, ratified any of the articles of the Revised Social Charter, although it has signed the Revised Charter and thereby evinced a willingness to undertake the commitments provided thereunder.

As to the non-discrimination right, in February 1998, the Council of Europe's Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities entered into effect. This instrument provides a range of legal protections to persons belonging to national minorities. To date, however, Greece has signed but not yet ratified the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.

Similarly, when opened for signature on November 4 , 2000, 25 countries - including Greece - signed Protocol 12 to the European Convention on Human Rights. Since that date, a further two states have signed the Protocol. Once it has secured 10 ratifications and thereby enters into force, Protocol 12 will provide blanket protection against discrimination "on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status" in the enjoyment of any right set forth by law. Protocol 12 significantly expands the existing protections available under the European Convention on Human Rights. Although a number of countries have now ratified Protocol 12, Greece is not yet among them.

In addition, in July 2000, the European Council of the European Union adopted Directive 2000/43/EC "implementing the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of racial or ethnic origin". The Directive provides detailed minimum standards on law banning racial discrimination and sets a deadline for current Member States of the European Union of 2003 for transposition of the provisions of the Directive into domestic law. The Directive includes a ban on discrimination "in access to and supply of goods and services which are available to the public, including housing."18 To date, Greece has not yet transposed the provisions of the Directive into its domestic legal order.

Finally, Greece has to date not yet made the declaration under Article 14 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and thus has not yet recognised the competence of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination to hear individual complaints.

Endnotes:

  1. Mona Nicoarǎ is former ERRC Advocacy Officer.
  2. A detailed account of the human rights situation of Roma in Greece is also contained in a recent ERRC/GHM country report on Greece entitled Cleaning Operations: Excluding Roma in Greece.
  3. No A5/696/25.4-11.5.83, Common Ministerial decision of the Minister of Internal Affairs and the Minister of Health entitled "Sanitary provision for the organised relocation of wandering nomads", hereinafter "1983 Ministerial Decree", published in Government Gazette B' 243. Unofficial translation by the ERRC/GHM.
  4. "Athinganoi" is the term used for administrative purposes for Roma in Greek. Alternatives in common usage are the usually neutral "Tsinganoi" and the pejorative "Gyftoi" or "Yiftoi". The term "Roma" was not commonly used in Greece until recently.
  5. In particular, Article 3 of the ICERD. In its General Recommendation 27 on "Discrimination Against Roma", the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination called on states "[t]o develop and implement policies and projects aimed at avoiding segregation of Roma communities in housing". UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). General Recommendation 27: Discrimination against Roma. Adopted on August 16, 2000, para. 30.
  6. National Commission for Human Rights. Ekthesi 2001 ("Report 2001"). January 2002, p. 194.
  7. The right to adequate housing is enshrined in a number of international instruments. Outside the Council of Europe framework, in the United Nations system, the right to adequate housing is derived from the right to an adequate standard of living: Article 11(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights states, "[t]he States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right [?]."
  8. UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR). General Comment 4: The right to adequate housing (Article 11(1) of the Covenant). Adopted on December 12, 1991, para. 8.
  9. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. General Comment 7: The right to adequate housing (Article 11(1) of the Covenant): forced evictions. Adopted on May 20, 1997, para. 9; General Comment 4, para. 8.
  10. CESCR. General Comment 7, para. 3.
  11. CESCR. General Comment 4, para. 18.
  12. CESCR. General Comment 7, para. 10.
  13. CESCR. General Comment 7, para. 16.
  14. Commission on Human Rights, Resolution 1993/77a.
  15. Sub-Commission Resolution 1998/9 on Forced Evictions, E/CN.4/SUB.2/RES/1998/9. Furthermore, international bodies have ruled that, in certain instances, forced evictions and the destruction of property can amount to cruel and inhuman or degrading treatment. For example, in the case of Selçuk and Asker v. Turkey, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the destruction of houses and the eviction of those living in them constituted a form of ill-treatment in violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (Judgement of 24 April 1998, Appls Nos 00023184/94 and 00023185/94). Similarly, in a recent case, the United Nations Committee against Torture (CAT) ruled that, under certain circumstances, destruction of property may amount to cruel and inhuman or degrading treatment in violation of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (See Committee against Torture, Communication No 161/2000: Yugoslavia. 02/12/2002. CAT/C/29/D/161/2000 (Jurisprudence)). The case is particularly noteworthy for the purposes of this collective complaint, insofar as the victims were Romani.
  16. CERD. General Recommendation 27, para. 31.
  17. Article 31 of the Revised Social Charter states, "With a view to ensuring the effective exercise of the right to housing, the Parties undertake to take measures designed: 1. to promote access to housing of an adequate standard; 2. to prevent and reduce homelessness with a view to its gradual elimination; 3. to make the price of housing accessible to those without adequate resources."
  18. European Council of the European Union Directive 2000/43/EC, Article 3(1)(h).

donate now

Challenge discrimination, promote equality

be informed

Receive our public announcements Receive our Roma Rights Journal

news portal

The latest Roma Rights news and content online

join us

Become a part of the ERRC's activist network in Europe