Expel first: housing policy for Roma in Greece
11 July 2000
On various occasions throughout its history, Greece has undertaken large- scale housing initiatives. Following the 1922 military disaster in Asia Minor and the subsequent exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey, the Greek state found itself faced with a major task: to incorporate one million ethnic Greeks from Turkey into the social, political and economic life of the country, and to do so with empty coffers. Yet public dissatisfaction within the country about the army's defeat in Asia Minor, as well as anticipation of the devastated newcomers' votes in the future, prompted immediate action. Efforts began first with housing; low interest loans, rent subsidies and allocations of land and houses were all part of a large-scale national policy for immigrant resettlement. Following World War II and the Greek civil war, similar action was undertaken by the Greek state to provide housing for internally displaced persons. The state-run Organisation for Workers' Housing engaged in massive construction projects to build apartments for workers' families. The same institution was put in charge of recent similar governmental initiatives for ethnic Greeks fleeing the former Soviet Union. To date, however, the Greek state has never engaged to provide adequate housing for Roma, Greece's largest minority. In fact, up until 1975, many Roma did not receive Greek citizenship, let alone a house2.
Paragraph 4 of Article 21 of the Greek Constitution provides for the right to housing, stipulating the state's obligation to secure accommodation for everybody. Greece's Constitution guarantees an acceptable standard of living for all individuals and their families, and this guarantee includes housing. The Greek Constitution is therefore in accord with Article 11(1) of the United Nations, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)3. In addition, the ICESCR obliges states to show improvement over time of individuals' living conditions.
Even after 1996, the year of the announcement of the government's Policy Framework for Greek Roma, tent-dwellers (approximately half of Greece's Romani population, overall estimated at approximately 350,000) did not experience any significant changes in their desperate situation4. Implementation of most housing and infrastructure schemes has been left up to the municipal and prefect authorities. Since these are often hostile to Roma, governmental orders to integrate Roma are often effectively ignored5. Despite this, the government's implementation procedure for the Policy Framework has to date not changed, and the government's most recent initiative to provide 940 Romani families with favourable loans for the purchase of houses is administered by municipalities6.
Since 1996, all attempts made as part of the socialist government's Policy Framework for Roma to improve the standards of living in destitute camps have been abandoned in progress. According to a lengthy "Review for the Years 1996-19997", provided in February 2000 by the Ministry of the Interior to a Progressive Left Coalition MP in answer to the latter's parliamentary question, the only part of the project that was completed over the first three years of the Policy Framework was a survey of the housing needs of the Roma.
Where works are progressing, they are taking a very long time to complete. The planned first self-managed Romani settlement in Greece - a project being developed outside the rubric of the 1996 government Policy Framework for Roma - is slated for the former military barrack of Gonou. The infrastructure for the settlement, planned to accommodate over 2500 Romani tent-dwellers evicted from Evosmos in August 1998, has not yet been completed. The government had announced that the army would clean the barracks by November 1998, and the infrastructure would be completed within three months after that, i.e., by February 1999. Today, almost one and a half years later, work is still in progress. For almost two years, the Roma of Evosmos have been living in the bed of the river Gallikos, in makeshift homes made of wood and plastic, under permanent threat of floods.
Where housing is concerned, Roma in Athens have been abandoned completely. Athens has the largest Romani population in Greece outside Thessaloniki. In the Minister of the Interior's 1996-1999 Review, no housing projects are mentioned for Romani residents living in the capital. The Athens municipality is intent on hosting the 2004 Olympic Games and undertaking all of the massive construction efforts necessary for that event, but to date has not provided adequate housing for the approximately 3000 Romani tent-dwellers of the Aspropyrgos and Ano Liosia suburbs of Athens.
The bureaucracy's discriminatory treatment of Roma is especially evident when seen in light of the state's immediate mobilisation for victims of the Athens earthquakes in September 1999. Free spaces were found at once on which to locate temporary housing for earthquake victims, and an abundance of land for earthquake victims appeared in municipalities where the scarcity of land has been the primary excuse for not accepting Roma. Infrastructure works were completed almost overnight and pre-fabricated houses were allocated to all of the victims. Aspropyrgos and Ano Liosia belong to the municipalities most effected by the major earthquakes. With the exception, however, of ten Romani families - official residents of Ano Liosia - the Romani tent-dwelling population of these two municipalities did not receive any of the prefabricated housing allocated for earthquake victims. Instead, the mayor of Ano Liosia seized the opportunity to expel local tent-dwelling Roma who were not registered municipal citizens. Many of these now live on a waste disposal site on the Ano Liosia-Aspropyrgos border. Roma in Ano Liosia and Aspropyrgos face hostility from local residents as well as from local officials. Keeping them in misery and despair appears to be a strategy by local authorities to make them leave. Opposing the idea of a self-managed settlement in West Athens, particularly within the borders of the Liosia municipality, Mayor Papadimas, in a letter addressed to the Doctors of the World-Greece, stated in 1999 that the Romani population in Ano Liosia was about to exceed the "8% upper limit" of minority presence. Beyond this percentage, according to him, ghettoisation would increase and integration would fail.
Forced evictions are incompatible with the right to housing under the ICESCR. As stated in the recent Report on the Situation of Roma and Sinti in the OSCE Area, the United Nations Committee "in interpreting Article 11(1) regarding the right to housing has emphasized in particular that 'instances of forced eviction are prima facie incompatible with the requirements of the Covenant and can only be justified in the most exceptional circumstances, and in accordance with the relevant principles of international law.8'" While not all evictions are in violation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, they are generally incompatible with the right to adequate housing when individuals are removed against their will from the homes they occupy "without the provision of, and access to, appropriate forms of legal or other protection9." The Committee has also stated that evictions "should not result in individuals being rendered homeless or vulnerable to the violation of other human rights. Where those affected are unable to provide for themselves, the State Party must take all appropriate measures, to the maximum of its available resources, to ensure that adequate alternative housing, resettlement or access to productive land, as the case may be, is available10."
Disregarding these obligations, Greek authorities regularly conduct forced evictions of Roma. Local authorities reportedly expelled fifty families in Trikala in 1990. In August 1996, 116 Roma living in Menemeni, near Thessaloniki, were transferred by local authorities to a second area, without the provision of any kind of infrastructure in the new location. At the end of May 1997, municipal authorities of Trikala destroyed the homes of twenty-five Romani families in the areas of Agroviz and Pyrgos, and expelled the Roma living there. On June 10, 1997, the tribunal of Thessaloniki ordered the expulsion of Roma from the area of Evosmos. The mayor of Evosmos and some local property owners had previously submitted a petition of temporary measures against 91 families of Roma on the grounds that the neighbourhood in which they lived was designated for recreational purposes. In August 1998, authorities carried out the order and expelled approximately 3000 Roma from Evosmos, without providing them with alternate accommodation. After demolishing the huts of ten Romani tent-dwelling families in Agia Paraskevi, on July 23, 1997, bulldozers sent by the municipal and prefect authorities entered the camp intending to finish the operation. Following hostile reaction by local Roma and, according to some sources, a refusal by the workers involved to implement the decision, the eviction was cancelled. Two years later, however, on June 21, 1999, the Public Prosecutor of Athens, together with policemen and bulldozers, visited the same settlement to execute an eviction order against two Roma who had been charged in absentia of trespassing on private land in 1997. Without first identifying the Roma, police asked two Romani families living on the private plots in question to take their personal belongings out of their shacks and leave the area so the bulldozers could knock the shacks to the ground. The Roma argued that they needed time to remove their belongings. Lengthy negotiations followed and the Roma signed a declaration that they would vacate the area in ten days. However, the Roma in question were illiterate and could not read the eviction order. After they consulted a lawyer it was discovered that the two Romani women against whom the court decision had been rendered did not live at the site.
On February 16, 1999, authorities in Aspropyrgos, Attica, entered the Romani camp of Nea Zoe and destroyed dwellings and property. The camp had around one hundred inhabitants. According to reports, six employees of the Aspropyrgos municipality, approximately twelve local police officers, as well as Deputy Mayor Mr Constantinos Tsiggos took part in the operation. Upon entering the settlement, the officials told the Roma that five of the barracks had to be evacuated so that they could be destroyed. The barracks were then crushed by bulldozers and the remaining debris set on fire, while the Roma protested. The Roma were reportedly not shown any document authorising the action. According to reports, the inhabitants of the destroyed barracks were not given enough time to remove all of their belongings from their homes. The inhabitants of some of the barracks were not in the camp at the time. One woman who was present while her dwelling was destroyed was critically ill. The police watched the proceedings but did not intervene. The Romani inhabitants of the settlement present at the time of the raid were allegedly told by authorities that they would be evicted from the entire region.
In August 1999, 35 Romani families - including ten Romani families from Albania - were evicted from private land in the Paralimni area of Ioanina, which they had been renting for 10,000 drachmas each (approximately 30 euro) per month. Most of them had been living in the region for almost four years without basic infrastructure. Without producing an eviction order, police asked Roma to pack and leave. Then bulldozers entered the site and razed everything to the ground. The eviction took place despite municipal promises -witnessed by human rights activists and faculty members of the local university - for alternate solutions. Roma from Paralimni were afterwards seen scattered in all directions, moving towards neighbouring camps. The very same Roma had, at the time of the eviction, been part of an education program for Roma run by the University of Ioanina under the auspices of the Ministry of Education11.
Sometimes, when alternatives are offered, they are only for some of the tent-dwelling Roma and are inadequate. One common practice by authorities is to disarm opposition to group evictions of Roma by promising to house those Roma already in possession of municipal citizenship. The municipality of Ano Liosia has made use of this practice at least twice. The mayor of Ano Liosia, Mr Papadimas, taking advantage of differences between local and non-local Roma, easily split the group of tent-dwellers in two. Promising relocation and humane living conditions to those Roma already in possession of local residence permits, the mayor proceeded to evict the rest with the consent of the first group. The first time this occurred, in 1997, the mayor did not keep his promises. Following the eviction, Romani municipal residents, who constituted twenty-five out of one hundred families, were transferred to a remote camp, surrounded by a fence. The rest of Roma were simply expelled from the municipality. Some of them joined the camp near the garbage dump, in the neighbouring municipality of Aspropyrgos. In December 1999, using the same tactics, the mayor proceeded to conduct a second eviction. Municipal residents - ten out of twenty families - were transferred from the fenced camp to nearby settlements intended for earthquake victims. The others were simply expelled. In November 1997, authorities undertook similar action with respect to Roma living in the "Makriyani" area of Patras (Peloponese). Roma who were municipal residents were allowed to stay in the camp, in supposedly better conditions, while the rest were evicted.
Romani tent-dwellers in Nea Alikarnasos (Crete) have to date narrowly escaped eviction. In November 1999, the Heraklion County Court cancelled an eviction protocol against them, issued by the mayor in 1997. The court acknowledged that in principle, the municipality, as proprietor of the land in question, had the right to issue a protocol of eviction. However, taking into account a number of facts, the court ruled that the eviction order was abusive. In the first place, the land was public, not private. Romani tent-dwellers had settled fifteen years ago on the land with the prior consent of the authorities. They had built shacks and made plans based on the authorities' promises for better living conditions. Roma had been asked to leave the area without being provided with alternate housing. They then appealed their case in court. The resulting decision is a very important precedent12.
Greece's embarrassment in international fora over discriminatory practices against Roma seems now to be having some impact. Until very recently, evictions against Roma were seen by local authorities as one way to gain public support. In 1998, when candidates for mayor in the municipality of Spata (Athens) promised to deal with the "problem of Gypsies", they were almost certainly not implying improvements in housing, infrastructure and standards of living for the Roma. Today, the mayor of Spata seems to be making efforts to provide seventeen Romani tent-dwelling families with the minimum for a decent life: prefabricated houses (originally used by the earthquake victims), water supply, electricity and a sewage system. The very same families were threatened with eviction in 1997. Recently the municipality agreed to provide land for the Roma in Spata. Unfortunately, these positive developments have come about not so much because public aversion towards Roma has decreased or because state sensitivity has increased. Unfortunately, both the public and Greek officials continue to harbour strong anti-Romani sentiments. What seems rather to have changed is the importance the government attributes to its image outside the country, affecting attitudes and policies internally.
- Christina Rougheri holds a BA in Mass Media and Communication from the University of Athens and an MA in Southeast European Studies from the Central European University, Budapest. Since August 1999, she has been working for the Greek Helsinki Monitor, a non-governmental organisation, monitoring Roma rights in Greece.
- With the exception of those Roma covered by the 1923 Lausanne Treaty between Greece and Turkey, the rest had to wait until the mid-1970s to become full citizens of Greece. The Muslim Roma of Western Thrace were under the protection of the Lausanne Treaty, which regulated the exchange of populations as well as the status of the remaining minority populations in both countries. Most Roma acquired Greek citizenship only in the mid-1970s. Until then, Roma were treated as "aliens of Gypsy descent", having special identification documents which authorities required them to renew every two years.
- Greece acceded to the ICESCR on May 16, 1985.
- The 1996 Policy Framework has never been adopted into law; NGOs working in Greece have never been provided with the 1996 Policy Framework; and all efforts to acquire an official paper version of the Policy Framework have been unsuccessful to date. The Policy Framework was presented to the public by former Minister of Health Kotsonis, following negative publicity concerning the Romani settlement in Ano Liosia. The announced measures, reported in the press, were vague, affecting areas such as housing, education, training/employment, health and culture. With respect to housing in particular, infrastructure works such as integration into main electrical grids, garbage collection and construction of public toilets with showers were announced as short-term interventions in Romani settlements. Allocation of land and houses as well as favourable loans formed part of the government's long-term strategy for Roma. Since the announcement of the Policy Framework, government funds have been allocated within it, and the government often makes reference to the Policy Framework when representing Greece at international events.
- Municipal authorities have recently made explicitly anti-Romani statements. For example, on September 12, 1999, the Greek daily Avgi reported that Mr Apostolos Zervas, the mayor of the Zefyri municipality on the periphery of Athens, had made racist statements about Roma following the massive earthquake on September 7, 1999. According to Avgi, while commenting on the action taken by the municipality after the quake, Mayor Zervas stated, "We only faced problems with the Gypsies. They looted tents, made business by selling them, engaged in fights with the citizens or the municipality, attacked municipal employees and created problems with the aid distribution." On September 14, Mayor Zervas made similar anti-Romani comments during a press conference when, according to the Greek daily Eleftherotypia, he stated, "Gypsy stories. Do not bother me with the Gypsies... They have been robbing the whole world." The widespread negative predisposition of local authorities towards Roma was publicly acknowledged by the Greek delegation to the 1999 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Review Meeting in Vienna.
- The loan scheme is not, of itself, bad. By [pre-election] ministerial decision - also promulgated in the State Gazette - 80% of the interest rate on 940 loans would be subsidised by the Greek state, which is also the official guarantor of the loans, through the National Bank of Greece. The maximum amount allocated per family would be 15 million drachmas (approximately 50,000 euro) or 120,000 drachmas (approximately 400 euro) per square meter. Romani families without real estate, living permanently in municipalities throughout Greece, would be eligible for the loans. Municipal authorities would be responsible for selecting and announcing the beneficiaries. At present, the number of loans implies the scheme's pilot character and is by no means adequate to address the housing problem of Romani tent-dwellers in Greece.
- Deputy Minister of the Interior G. Florides, February 24, 2000, in answer to parliamentary question no. 5295/2-2-2000, raised by Progressive Left Coalition MP M. Damanaki.
- Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), High Commissioner on National Minorities, Report On The Situation Of Roma And Sinti In The OSCE Area, April 2000, pp.114-115.
- Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, "General Comment No. 7: The right to adequate housing (Article 11.1 of the Covenant): forced evictions", 1997, paragraph 4.
- Ibid., at paragraph 17.
- For more detail on forced evictions of Roma in Greece, 1990-present, see http://errc.org.
- Heraklion (Crete) County Court, Decision no. 975/1999 of 12.11.1999, cancelling the 17.12.1999 eviction protocol issued by the mayor of Nea Alikarnasos against local Roma.