The universal character of human rights, as seen from a morally idealistic point of view, is derived from the equality of men – remnants of this belief transcend the philosophical realm and materialise into legal theory through the prohibition on discrimination inherent in every legal right, thus propelling the idea that the universality of human rights necessarily entails their equal application to all members of society. As such, the right to housing should be construed in such a way that unequivocally precludes bias in its application. And yet, given that the application of law is subject to human error, it is often the case that prejudice alters the effective protection of the right to housing for certain socially disadvantaged communities, such as the Roma community. This blog shall depict the impact of ethnic prejudice on the interpretation of “adequate housing” by focusing on the human rights crisis in Pata-Rât, Romania. Pata-Rât, the former landfill of Cluj-Napoca, doubles as the largest garbage ghetto in Europe, housing over 1,500 Roma people, many of them having been evicted by the Cluj municipality from their flats and relocated to the city garbage dump. As such, it provides a poignant image of the dissonance between the legal obligations of Romania regarding the right to housing and its treatment of the Roma minority in connection to this right.
The right to housing: rights and obligations
The right to housing can be understood from two perspectives – not only does it confer upon individuals legal certainty and security against forceful evictions, but it also creates a relative standard as to the “adequacy” of the dwelling. In Winterstein and Others v. France, the European Court of Human Rights (hereinafter: ECtHR) ruled that eviction measures must pass both a necessity and a proportionality test in order to sufficiently and effectively protect the rights of the evicted party. Building upon that in Yordanova and Others v. Bulgaria, the Court contends that the proportionality test creates a positive obligation for the Member States to aid evictees in finding alternative housing – such an obligation is especially paramount in situations concerning vulnerable communities and socially disadvantaged groups. The imminent risk of homelessness for the individual due to the lack of alternative housing has repeatedly been considered a decisive factor in assessing the proportionality of an eviction measure, tipping the scale towards the Court finding a violation of the right to respect for the home (see inter alia Stankova v. Slovakia, Gladysheva v. Russia).
Triggering a housing crisis: the eviction of 76 Roma families
On 17 December 2010, the municipal authorities of Cluj-Napoca forcibly evicted 76 Roma families from their homes on Coastei Street, by demolishing the blocks of flats in which they resided – the inhabitants were given a one-day notice to vacate the premises, in spite of earlier promises from the municipality that they would not be forced to leave their homes. Moreover, it was contended by the European Roma Rights Centre that the eviction measure lacked legal authorisationWhile the official justification for the eviction measure referred to the inhabitants’ lack of legal right over the property (as most of the families were residing in the flats on Coastei Street pursuant to an expired rental contract concluded with the municipality), the general public considered the eviction to be a political move, considering the contiguous transfer of the land to the Romanian Orthodox Church in exchange for support in the upcoming elections. On behalf of the evictees, the European Roma Rights Centre sued the municipality, seeking financial compensation – unfortunately, the trial was subjected to a back-and-forth trajectory between the Cluj Tribunal and the Cluj Higher Court due to procedural issues relating to the legality of the eviction order; despite the Cluj Tribunal finding that the eviction measure had been discharged illegally, the decision was quashed, and the case was ultimately prescribed in 2017. At the same time, the Desire Foundation filed a complaint with the National Council of Romania for Combating Discrimination (hereinafter: NCCD), the latter unanimously ruling that the eviction measure amounted to discriminatory treatment reflecting ethnic bias towards the Romani community and fining the Cluj municipality with 8000 RON (approximately 1600 EUR).
A landfill as adequate alternative housing?
The “alternative accommodation” requirement developed by the ECtHR in Yordanova and Others v. Bulgaria and subsequent case law is especially relevant in the Pata-Rât case – the 350 people forcibly evicted from their flats in Cluj-Napoca were relocated by the Romanian authorities next to the municipal landfill. Therefore, it was considered that the national authorities had discharged themselves of the obligation to aid the evictees in finding alternative housing. Such recourse does however give rise to the question what qualifies as “alternative accommodation”. While the ECtHR does not thoroughly engage in assessing the living conditions in situations of alternative housing, it can be inferred from its reference to the ICESCR in Yordanova and Others v. Bulgaria that the interpretation of Article 8 ECHR, and thus of alternative accommodation, is to be aligned with the international understanding of the right to adequate housing, as detailed by the UN Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (hereinafter: CESCR) in its General Comment No. 4.
A dwelling is to be considered adequate when, inter alia, it contains “certain facilities essential for health, security, comfort, and nutrition” such as safe drinking water, heating, energy or sanitation facilities. Moreover, “housing should not be built on polluted sites” which may endanger the health of its inhabitants and should be located as such so that the dwellers have access to employment, health-care services and education. Considering these requirements developed by the CESCR, the Pata-Rât ghetto can hardly be regarded adequate. According to a report submitted by Căși sociale ACUM! (an activist movement fighting for the implementation and protection of adequate housing rights for the Romani community in Romania) to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights most dwellings in Pata-Rât have no running water, sanitation facilities, heating or electricity. The segregated community is at elevated risk of diseases (impaired lung function, exacerbation of chronic diseases, poisoning with ammonia, methane and hydrogen sulphide) due to the prolonged exposure to noxious fumes and the polluted soil and ground water from the landfill, according to the Cluj County Committee for Emergency Situations. Moreover, the inhabitants live in extreme poverty, with limited access to employment or education – due to the distance between the landfill and the city, but also because of the aversion of local employers towards the inhabitants of Pata-Rât. As a result, many families exclusively rely on garbage scavenging as their sole source of income. Having no legal tenure rights over their dwellings and living in informal settlements, these people are generally restricted from accessing social benefits, as they usually do not have any form of identification due to the lack of formal domicile. All these aspects effectively entrap the inhabitants of Pata-Rât in a cycle of extreme poverty and segregation, thus highlighting the symbiotic relationship between adequate housing and societal acceptance. While the inhumane housing conditions faced by the residents are the consequence of a discriminatory eviction measure (as established by the NCCD), the lack of adequate housing and resources directly impedes their reintegration into society.
Institutional responses to the crisis
The eviction measure enforced against the 350 people relocated in Pata-Rât from a block of flats in Coastei Street has been found to be fuelled by ethnic bias against the Roma community; yet little has been said about the adverse living conditions subsequently imposed on this community. The narrative constructed by the Cluj Municipality is however especially telling, considering the view expressed by the mayor – from his perspective, the relocation of Roma evictees to Pata-Rât and their subsequent segregation can only be considered beneficial to the victims. Such claims reveal an intrinsic bias towards the Roma community and a distorted understanding of what “adequate” housing represents for this ethnic minority. In the view of the mayor, the “inadequate” living conditions of the evictees a priori to their forced evictions rendered the measure necessary – there is however only circumstantial evidence to support his claim. Against this background, it can be inferred that such justifications are construed on a prejudicial understanding of the Roma lifestyle, which is often misrepresented as foul and unkempt. It can be argued that the references made by the CESCR in its General Comment No. 4 to cultural, social and economic factors influencing the interpretation of “adequate housing” are misemployed by the administrative authorities of Cluj-Napoca, resulting in a discriminatory housing policy against Romani people. Throughout the decision-making process, the national authorities substituted their own prejudiced understanding of the situation for the interests of the victims, presenting the idea that the conditions in Pata-Rât are superior to those in the block of flats in which they initially resided. Such discriminatory policies further promote ethnic stereotypes against the Roma minority and entrench the segregation of this community, condemning them to a life of extreme poverty.
The systematic segregation of the Roma minority in informal settlements characterised by extremely substandard living conditions, as seen in Pata-Rât, amounts to an egregious violation of the right to adequate housing, as highlighted by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights. In addition, in Moldovan and Others v. Romania, the ECtHR found that the extended exposure of the claimants to a “severely overcrowded and unsanitary environment” which negatively impacts their health and well-being, in conjunction with the dismissive attitude of the authorities, amounts to degrading treatment having the effect of diminishing the victims’ human dignity. When applying this rationale to the Pata-Rât situation, the ethnically discriminatory indifference exercised by the Romanian authorities regarding the continued violations of the right to adequate housing sustained by the inhabitants of the former landfill amounts to an infringement on the human dignity of the residents.
In light of the above, the interconnectedness of the right to adequate housing and the ethnic component of the individual becomes evident – as such, socially disadvantaged minority groups are often the subject of discriminatory policies which subject them to substandard housing conditions, segregation and poverty. Despite harsh criticism from the international community (especially from several human rights bodies of the United Nations such as the Human Rights Council), the discriminatory attitude of the Romanian authorities regarding access to housing for its minorities remains immutable, thus highlighting the deep entrenchment of prejudice in its administrative apparatus. As such, through the policy implemented by the Cluj-Napoca municipality, the inhabitants of the former landfill are denied the effective enjoyment of their right to housing, in its all-encompassing interpretation, due to ethnical bias. The residents of Pata-Rât are merely the exponents of the systemic failure of the authorities to protect their right to live in peace and security, and ultimately to enjoy their human dignity. The calamitous consequences of their relocation by the landfill, as described above, highlight the position of the right to housing at the core of all economic, cultural and social rights – the question thus remains: how can the interdependence between human rights be engaged in order to address the situation?