UN Special Rapporteur: Romania in deep denial about poverty and discrimination
Despite Romania’s miserable rankings statistics on many poverty and social exclusion indicators, Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, found that “Many Romanian officials are in denial about the extent of poverty and especially about the systemic and deep-rooted discrimination against the extremely poor, particularly the Roma, as illustrated by cases of forced evictions and police abuse.”
(Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. Credit: UN Photo/Loey Felipe)
Economic and social rights
In his oral statement to the 32nd session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, on 14 June 2016, Philip Alston stressed that economic and social rights (ESR) must be respected as human rights and not viewed as development goals or welfare programs: “Until ESR are given their full due, we will continue to struggle, both in terms of addressing extreme poverty as a human rights issue, and of restoring faith in the human rights endeavour whose hold on the popular imagination is today very much at risk.
In his report on his mission to Romania, the Special Rapporteur argued that programs and initiatives are doomed to fail unless there is a sustained focus to tackle inequality and a solid foundation for ESR, based on what he called the RIA framework: Recognition, Institutionalization, and Accountability. What is needed is (a) to accord legal recognition to the rights; (b) to establish appropriate institutional arrangements to promote and facilitate realization of the rights; and (c) to adopt measures that promote governmental accountability.
The state of denial
The Special Rapporteur noted that the “state of denial” about the extent of poverty and discrimination in Romania was compounded by a continuing ethos in too many parts of government that resists transparency, consultation and accountability
“The facts are clear, however. On many poverty and social exclusion indicators, Romania ranks last in the European Union. Government services, especially, but not only, for the poorest, are generally the worst in the European Union. The official state of denial about poverty and inequality in Romania is most striking when it comes to the Roma population.”
Despite the wealth of evidence, in a country where the maternal mortality rate among Romani women is 15 times that of non-Roma, senior officials assured the Special Rapporteur spoke that “there is no discrimination against Roma in Romania” and that they “live exactly as they want to live”. Others described the “Gypsies” as criminally inclined, workshy nomads who never send their children to school. Alston was clear about the reasons for higher rates of unemployment and school dropouts: “it is not because Roma are by nature unwilling to work or follow an education, but because of a long and continuing history of discrimination, neglect and isolation.”
Policies, strategies and data gaps
Alston stated that while the Government may have adopted the Roma Inclusion Strategy, it has shown absolutely no political will to implement it: “The strategy floats in space, disconnected from relevant government policies; there is no clear budget for it other than external funds and no ministry or senior politician is keen to lead on the issue.”
Coherent policies to combat Roma exclusion and inequality are further hindered by data gaps. The confusion generated by radical official underestimates of the number of Roma and the lack of reliable ethnically disaggregated data is, according to Alston, “abetted by government officials who regularly assert that the State cannot collect data that distinguishes between Roma and non-Roma, whether in education, health, employment or housing.” Officials’ insistence that the Government is prohibited from collecting ethnically- disaggregated data is based on an interpretation of the law that “is both unwarranted and patently inconsistent with other official actions.”
Despite wide acceptance that improved housing is integral to fighting poverty and exclusion among Roma, an estimated 30% of Roma households live in dilapidated dwellings or slums; many have no security of tenure and live under constant threat of forced evictions. When these threats are realised, Roma are often ‘relocated’ to contaminated and isolated areas even more excluded than before. When the Special Rapporteur visited what the Mayor of Cluj described as ‘model’ housing for evictees in Pata Rât, the reality was dramatically different to the photographs he was shown by the mayor: “Four or more family members lived in single rooms of about 16-18 square metres. The rooms are damp, poorly insulated and pervaded by the stench emanating from the adjacent garbage dump. Many children have “unexplained” rashes and stomach illnesses.”
The public housing system offers no succour. Not only is the existing stock of public housing in Romania completely insufficient, but Roma generally do not qualify for such housing. Roma are not listed in the Housing Law as one of the categories of beneficiaries of public housing. Where they could qualify under a different category, Roma face discrimination as local authority housing criteria are set “in such a way as to ensure the exclusion of most Roma.”
Alston was deeply concerned by the widespread allegations of police abuse, and disturbed by the lack of the most basic procedures to deter abuse and utterly ineffectual complaints system. He called for the urgent introduction of stricter rules; the need for more transparent figures and regular reporting; and the establishment of a meaningful complaints procedure. Noting that there is nothing peculiar about police violence the world over, “what is peculiar about the Romanian situation is that the rules that currently apply could be seen as a charter for harassment. The system includes characteristics that make abuse easy and ensure that accountability will be the rare exception rather than the norm.”
Among the many recommendations on Roma, the Special Rapporteur called on the highest Romanian public officials to publicly acknowledge that Roma continue to face severe discrimination. He stressed the need for effective targeted measures in education, health care, employment and housing; urged authorities to collect reliable ethnically disaggregated data; and introduce additional adequate procedural safeguards against forced evictions, in conformity with international standards. He called for legislation on public housing to be amended to include Roma as a category of priority beneficiaries; and for central government to issue guidelines for local governments on the criteria for access to public housing to ensure the reasonable eligibility of Roma for such housing.
In its response to the report, the Government of Romania declared that it aims to lift 580,000 people out of poverty by 2020 in pursuit of its objective that all citizens be provided with equal opportunities; that they should feel valued and appreciated, and be able to live in dignity, that their basic needs to be met and their differences respected. On the evidence of this report, there’s a long way to go.