For the second time in five years, the European Committee of Social Rights has condemned Greece for continued serious and widespread discrimination against Roma in respect of housing rights. In an unprecedented re-examination under the collective complaints system, the Committee unanimously upheld all of the main substantive allegations in a collective complaint filed in March 2008 by INTERIGHTS in partnership with Greek Helsinki Monitor. The complaint detailed the Greek government’s continuing failure to provide adequate housing and related infrastructure for the Roma as well as its involvement in over 20 forced evictions since 2004. It also highlighted the systematic discrimination experienced by the Roma and the failure of the government to provide adequate safeguards and remedies for this vulnerable community. There are approximately 300,000 individuals of Roma origin living in Greece and due to the absence of suitable housing, many are dwelling in 52 improvised and dangerous encampments.
The complaint marks a turning point in the Committees’ work, being the first time it has been asked and agreed to re-examine an issue that it has previously considered. In returning to this issue, the Committee found that not only had Greece made insufficient progress in implementing recommendations from the previous decision but it had also committed significant new breaches of its housing obligations. The result is that the housing situation for most Roma families has worsened in the last five years.
Commenting on the decision, Iain Byrne, a Senior Lawyer at INTERIGHTS who worked on the case, said: “This decision clearly demonstrates that governments can no longer fail to implement their economic and social rights obligations and expect to be let off the hook. By dismissing the Greek government’s objections to a re-examination of the complaint, the Committee has sent a clear signal that victims should not be denied access to justice. It is to be hoped that, in contrast to its record over the last five years, the Greek Government will take concrete action to address the Committee’s serious concerns.”
Drawing on a large amount of material presented by the complainants, together with the findings of a number of UN, Council of Europe and national experts, the Committee found significant evidence that many Roma continue to live in housing which fails to meet minimum standards of habitability and infrastructure. Many settlements consist solely of prefabricated housing with no electricity, running water or waste collection.
The Committee dismissed the Government’s arguments that Greek legislation provides adequate safeguards for the prevention of discrimination, emphasising that in general, but in particular in the case of the Roma, merely ensuring identical treatment as a means of protection against any discrimination is not sufficient. Instead, real and effective equality requires the taking into account the different situation that the Roma find themselves.
The Committee also concluded that the Government failed to demonstrate that either in law or practice there was sufficient provision for consultation with those to be affected by eviction, including reasonable notice and information on the provision of alternative accommodation. In summary, “no serious efforts are being made to find alternative sites or accommodation.”
In a finding that could also impact on access to justice for other marginalised communities, the Committee also deemed that the legal recourse available was not sufficiently accessible. With many Roma families unaware of the right to challenge an eviction notice, for example, the Committee found that “[t]he special circumstances of Roma families threatened by eviction means that special support should be available including targeted advice on availability of legal aid and on appeals.”
The Committee concluded unanimously that there had been a violation of (a) Article 16 of the Charter on the grounds that the different situation of Roma families is not sufficiently taken into account with the result that a significant number of Roma families continue to live in conditions that fail to meet minimum standards and (b) Article 16 of the Charter on the grounds that Roma families continue to be forcibly evicted in breach of the Charter and the legal remedies generally available are not sufficiently accessible to them.
Panayote Dimitras, Spokesperson of Greek Helsinki Monitor, said: “The government must admit that the Roma housing program failed; that most housing loans did not help Roma move out from destitute settlements into adequate homes; that hundreds of forced evictions have been taking place instead. Appropriate authorities must investigate these charges and punish those found responsible. The government should appoint new persons to implement a new holistic and effective integration plan so as to execute the double Special Charter conviction and avoid a third one in a few years. This new approach requires that authorities work directly with destitute Roma and those really representing them, rather than state-appointed assimilated Roma ‘leaders.’”
1. Under the European Social Charter, member states have agreed to protect the social and economic rights of all of their citizens. The Committee is responsible for considering ‘collective complaints’ of non-compliance with the Charter. A collective complaint does not require specific victims to be identified, rather the complaint is considered on the basis of patterns of evidence.
2. INTERIGHTS, in partnership with Greek Helsinki Monitor, filed a complaint (No. 49/2008) on 31 March 2008 to the European Committee of Social Rights against Greece detailing serious and widespread violations of the Roma community’s right to housing and related guarantees as protected by Article 16 of the Charter together with the safeguard against nondiscrimination in the Preamble.
3. In its decision on the earlier Collective Complaint (No. 15/2003) European Roma Rights Center v Greece dated 8 December 2004, the Committee concluded that Greek actions and policies in relation to the housing rights of the Roma were in breach of Article 16 of the 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.’