Greece Systematically Frustrates Fundamental Rights of Roma to Adequate Housing

08 June 2005

European Committee of Social Rights Rules Greece in Violation of Three Separate Aspects of the European Social Charter

Athens, Strasbourg, Budapest, 8 June 2005.

In a decision made public today in the matter of European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) v. Greece, the European Committee of Social Rights held that the Greek policies with respect to housing and accommodation of Roma infringe Article 16 of the European Social Charter due to:

  • The insufficient number of dwellings of an acceptable quality to meet the needs of settled Roma;
  • The insufficient number of stopping places for Roma who choose to follow an itinerant lifestyle or who are forced to do so;
  • The systemic eviction of Roma from sites or dwellings unlawfully occupied by them.

"This decision is among the first in Roma rights to find an entire field of policy and practice by a European government illegal," said Claude Cahn, Acting Executive Director of the ERRC, "It therefore marks a key turning point in our efforts to challenge the systemic human rights abuse of Roma in Europe."

The decision comes as a result of a Collective Complaint lodged under the European Social Charter mechanism. The Collective Complaint, submitted in April 2003, alleged violations of the Charter by the Greek government, as a result of:

  • Extremely substandard housing prevailing among significant segments of the Greek Romani community;
  • Patterns and practices of forced eviction, unchecked by any of the safeguards specified by international law;Mai nap fejlemenyei:
  • Enforced nomadism;
  • The near complete failure to implement housing policies in existence since 1996;
  • The criminal prosecution of Roma for "violating" a 1983 decree requiring local authorities to provide halting sites for nomads.

In finding Greece in breach of the Charter, the Committee held, "The Committee finds that Greece has failed to take sufficient measures to improve the living conditions of the Roma and that the measures taken have not yet achieved what is required by the Charter, notably by reason of the insufficient means for constraining local authorities or sanctioning them. It finds on the evidence submitted that a significant number of Roma are living in conditions that fail to meet the minimum standards and therefore that the situation is in breach of the obligation to promote the right of families to adequate housing laid down in Article 16."

Panayote Dimitras, Spokesperson for the Greek Helsinki Monitor (GHM), ERRC partner in documenting Roma rights issues in Greece, also welcomed the ruling: "This ruling finally vindicates our efforts -- repeatedly frustrated -- to bring the Greek government to act on its own policies on Romani housing. We look forward to seeing the decision implemented in full by Greek authorities."

Commenting on the implications for housing rights matters in Europe, Senior Legal Officer of the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) said, "This is truly a landmark decision for establishing housing rights in Europe. It will be a key precedent for future action."

For further information, please contact:

  • Claude Cahn (ERRC): (36 20) 98 36 445
  • Panayote Dimitras (GHM): (30) 69 444 31 941
  • Malcolm Langford (COHRE): (47) 4647 4196

BACKGROUND

The decision in the Collective Complaint European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) v. Greece is the first ruling ever by the European Committee of Social Rights in a Collective Complaint on Roma Rights issues. It comes as a result of a Collective Complaint filed by the ERRC in April 2003 on the basis of extensive documentation undertaken jointly with partner organisation Greek Helsinki Monitor (GHM). The Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) and the Coordinated Organisations and Communities for Roma Human Rights in Greece (SOKADRE) subsequently joined proceedings with the ERRC and GHM. Member of the European Parliament Livia Jaroka provided expert testimony on the housing situation of Roma in Greece.

The Collective Complaint alleged that by policy and practice, Greek policies on "Gypsies" frustrate systematically the right to adequate housing and therefore contravene Article 16 of the European Social Charter, guaranteeing the right of the family to social, legal and economic protection, read together with and/or independently of the Charter's preambulatory non-discrimination guarantees. The ERRC, GHM, COHRE and SOKADRE pointed to a range of segregating practices by Greek authorities, including:

  • Extremely substandard housing prevailing among significant segments of the Greek Romani community;
  • Patterns and practices of forced eviction, unchecked by any of the safeguards specified by international law;
  • Enforced nomadism;
  • The near complete failure to implement housing policies in existence since 1996;
  • The criminal prosecution of Roma for "violating" a 1983 decree requiring local authorities to provide halting sites for nomads.

In the ruling, the Committee elaborated significantly standards through which the housing situation of Roma and others regarded as "Gypsies" are to be assessed in Europe. Key aspects of the decision follow:

In elaborating the requirements of Article 16, the Committee stated that "one of the underlying purposes of the social rights protected by the Charter is to express solidarity and promote social inclusion. It follows that States must respect difference and ensure that social arrangements are not such as would effectively lead to or reinforce social exclusion. ... The imperative to avoid social exclusion, respect difference and not to discriminate applies to all groups of Roma; itinerant and settled. ... the principle of equality and non-discrimination form an integral part of Article 16 as a result of the Preamble."

The Committee also recalled that "the ultimate responsibility for implementation of official policy lies with the [...] state."

In assessing the question of the insufficiency of permanent dwellings of an adequate standard for Roma in Greece, the Committee stated: "The Committee finds that Greece has failed to take sufficient measures to improve the living conditions of the Roma and that the measures taken have not yet achieved what is required by the Charter, notably by reason of the insufficient means for constraining local authorities or sanctioning them. It finds on the evidence submitted that a significant number of Roma are living in conditions that fail to meet the minimum standards and therefore that the situation is in breach of the obligation to promote the right of families to adequate housing laid down in Article 16."

In its review of the problem of an insufficiency of camping sites for Roma who choose to follow an itinerant lifestyle or who are forced to do so, the Committee held: "... the conditions for temporary encampment as well as the conditions regarding the amenities are extremely strict ... in the absence of the diligence on the part of the local authorities to select appropriate sites and on the other the reluctance to carry out the necessary works to provide the appropriate infrastructure, Roma have an insufficient supply of appropriate camping sites. The Committee therefore holds that the situation constitutes a violation of Article 16 of the Charter."

As to forced evictions and other sanctions, the Committee "notes that the government provides no real information on evictions, (either statistics, or remedies for those unlawfully evicted or examples of relevant case law). It fails either to comment on or contradict the information provided by the ERRC on collective evictions of Roma both settled and itinerant without the provision of alternative housing and sometimes involving the destruction of personal property.

"The Committee considers that illegal occupation of a site or dwelling may justify the eviction of the illegal occupants. However the criteria of illegal occupation must not be unduly wide, the eviction should take place in accordance with the applicable rules of procedure and these should be sufficiently protective of the rights of the persons concerned. The Committee considers that on these three grounds the situation is not satisfactory."

In addition to finding three separate violations of the Article 16 guarantees of the European Social Charter, the Committee expressed extreme dismay at the apparent inability of the Greek government to produce statistical data of relevance to any assessment as to the efficacy of policy:

"The Committee notes that, in connection with its wish to assess the allegation of the discrimination against Roma made by the complainant organisation, the Government stated that until recently it was unable to provide any estimate whatsoever of the size of the groups concerned. To justify its position, it refers to legal and more specifically constitutional obstacles. The Committee considers that when the collection and storage of personal data is prevented for such reasons, but it is also generally acknowledged that a particular group is or could be discriminated against, the authorities have the responsibility for finding alternative means of assessing the extent of the problem and progress towards resolving it that are not subject to such constitutional restrictions."

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