EU calls for action on housing segregation, while many Roma live from ‘expulsion to expulsion’
18 October 2023
As the latest EU Council Conclusions call for action to ensure equal access for Roma to decent housing, continued evictions and attacks on Roma dwellings provide a stark reminder of the enormity of the challenge to eradicate this aspect of anti-Roma racism in Europe.
The acute lack of housing provision, policy measures or investment, combined with discrimination and segregation have, according to the Council of the European Union, caused the gap in access to housing between Roma and the rest of the population in a number of Member States to remain virtually unchanged in recent years.
The conclusions stated that the segregation of Roma communities is often exacerbated by ‘gentrification’, which pushes low-income families to leave areas where property values increase significantly. Such obstacles reinforce “the vicious circle of intergenerational poverty and violations of human rights. This limits life expectancy and impedes social cohesion.”
The Council stressed how important it was for Member States to redress these inequalities and ensure access to adequate housing for Roma communities. However recent developments suggest that many Member States will be slow to heed this latest set of Council conclusions.
France: ‘evictions in the north are on the rise’
A recent article about the commune of Lomme, in the northernmost Hauts-de-France region, described the plight of fifteen Romani families, about 50 people in total – ‘living from expulsion to expulsion’ – and awaiting the outcome of a court appeal against the latest threat of imminent eviction. One member of the Solidarité Roma collective, told the reporter that “social workers from Coallia (an association mandated by the prefecture for the social support of precarious people) came last week to make a semblance of a social diagnosis, saying that it was to offer rehousing to families, but we know that it doesn’t happen like that. From our experience, when Coallia comes calling to a camp, we know that a week later there is an expulsion.”
According to the Lille Human Rights League, evictions in the north are on the rise, and proposals for rehousing are ‘not realistic’: three nights in a hotel, or accommodation in hostels for mothers and their children, but no room for fathers. Often families get caught up in a cycle of repeat evictions, with employment opportunities scuppered, and schooling for children disrupted. With the increase in expulsions, things are becoming harher: it is no longer the case that residents of evicted camps can come by later to collect their possessions, “destruction of property has become a systemic practice … There is no furniture storage provided. So, the prefecture calls companies who come and raze everything.”
On 19 September 2023, the ERRC and others launched a new collective complaint to the European Committee of Social Rights (ECSR) against France, asserting that expedited procedures for the imposition of fixed fines on Travellers in France for "illegal halting in order to set up a home even temporarily" is blatantly discriminatory, further criminalises Travellers, constitutes a violation of their fundamental human rights, and amounts to a deliberate assault on the nomadic way of life, “completing the legislative arsenal that contributes to the systemic discrimination of Travellers”.
Roma in the Czech Republic: housing situations where ‘their right to life is put at risk’
In her latest report on the Czech Republic, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, Dunja Mijatović, expressed her deep concern about the lack of tangible progress on the advancement of the rights of Roma, and noted that no specific housing programmes exist to support Roma, who also face discrimination in the private rental market.
Her report spoke of systematic discrimination by local authorities towards Roma, including when purporting to combat ‘undesirable social phenomena’, and earlier attempts to prevent Roma from accessing specific types of housing support by establishing ‘benefit free zones’, although this was subjected to a successful legal challenge. The result of deliberate discrimination and neglect is that “Many Roma continue to live in unsuitable housing, which can lead to situations that seriously infringe on their private and family lives, as well as on their right to health, and in some cases their right to life is put at risk.”
Italy: arson attack on camp serves as a reminder of the precarity of Romani lives
In the Italian city of Prato in Tuscany, "on the night between 18 and 19 September a dark Punto slowly passed alongside the entrance to Sinti camp of San Giorgio a Colonica, and from the car someone threw a Molotov cocktail, setting it on fire.” According to the regional councilor of the Democratic Party, Iacopo Melio, it was fortunate that ‘only’ a work truck was incinerated, “because if some caravan had caught fire, it would have been the end".
On Facebook, Melio recalled that local far-right Fratelli d’Italia MP Giovanni Donzelli, who wanted to raze the camp to the ground, chanting "Look for a job, a house, the fun is over...", escaped censure for incitement to racial hatred thanks to parliamentary immunity. Hate speech and hounding Roma from camps have gone hand-in-hand for far too long, and attracted much criticism of Italy from international human rights bodies.
In January 2019, the European Committee of Social Rights (ECSR) noted that despite 15 years of recommendations with regards to ‘nomad camps’ and forced evictions, many Roma continue to live in “deplorable conditions, in spite of court rulings confirming that assigning housing in prefabricated containers surrounded by fencing constitutes discrimination”. For its part, the European Commission found that these appalling conditions did not constitute a breach of the Racial Equality Directive.
In its 2023 submission to UNCERD, ERRC research found that families living in informal camps were persistently evicted without respect for the protections prescribed by international standards. Residents were not consulted prior to eviction and they did not receive formal eviction orders, making it difficult to challenge the evictions legally: “The situation of schoolchildren, elderly people, pregnant women and people with health issues was not taken into consideration. Most of the time the evictees were not offered alternative accommodation, which forced them into an endless cycle of evictions from one camp to another.”
The Council of the European Union invites the Member States …
With due deference to their national competences and circumstances, the Council of the European Union invites the Member States to improve the housing situation of Roma and to eradicate housing segregation where segregated Roma settlements exist; to make smart use of the various EU financial tools; dedicate adequate resources to establish, maintain, improve infrastructure in terms of essential services; and to ensure that Roma can benefit from universal housing policies.
The focus on housing in these Council Conclusions is welcome, and the recommendations are worthy. On the issue of what constitutes segregation, the Council’s definitional clarity is noteworthy: “segregated settlements are slums and substandard housing settlements of an informal and stable nature, with physical, functional and/or social isolation, where the objective conditions related to housing, poverty and access to rights and public services are significantly worse as compared to the rest of the population.”
This segregation is symptomatic of the wider issue of environmental racism faced by Roma across Europe, starkly evident in forced displacement and mass evictions to make way for gentrification, tourism or corporate development projects, that pitiless confluence of neo-liberal avarice and racial prejudice. It is clear that this is a deliberate structural form of exclusion that serves to banish Romani communities to sites beyond the pale, out of sight and out of mind, to desolate locations, devoid of infrastructure or public transport or services. Much remains to be done when it comes to environmental justice to ensure that Roma and other racialised minorities are not side-lined in Europe’s colourblind, green deals for a climate-resilient and prosperous society that leaves no one behind. These Council Conclusions signal an overdue but welcome recognition of the need to remedy these injustices and undo the institutional racism that reproduces them. The pity is that the worst offenders among the Member States will likely pay little heed, thus the struggle continues, for justice is never given, it must be exacted.