Discrimination against minority groups such LGBT, racial and religious groups has been a systematic issue since ancient time; and while tremendous progress has been made in protecting these disadvantaged groups, discrimination remains a serious problem. One inarguable example is represented by the situation of the Roma people in Europe. The Roma face discrimination on a widespread scale across Europe and, as a result, most of them live beneath the poverty level. In addition, research has shown that the Roma are deprived of educational opportunities that other Europeans possess and that Roma children are likely to drop out because of racism in schools. Only one out of four Roma finish school, causing only 20% of Roma adults to be able to read and write. To this day, many Roma are still facing discrimination when looking for a job, healthcare, housing or when in contact with administrative of governmental bodies. This is also evidenced by the European Court of Human Rights case called Yordanova and others v. Bulgaria (2012).
Only one out of four Roma finish school, causing only 20% of Roma adults to be able to read and write.
Yordanova and others v. Bulgaria (2012)
This case concerns 23 Bulgarian nationals of Roma ethnicity living on the outskirts of Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria. The group of Roma affected in this case arrived and settled there from the 1960s and 1970s along with recent arrivals in the 1990s. The homes in which they lived were manually built by them. These buildings lacked authorisation from the government and did not meet the basic safety requirements. Nevertheless, the government never sought to vacate the area or to look for solutions regarding the situation, such as providing them with adequate housing or discussing conditions under which the Roma would have been allowed to remain on the land.
The land on which the Roma people settled was state-owned by the Sofia municipality. It was later sold to a private investor and the 180 Roma were subsequently told by the mayor that they had to vacate the area within 7 days, as their homes would be demolished in order to clear the area for the new proprietor. The applicants did not comply with this order, which led to multiple attempts to remove the Roma. The group of Roma legally challenged this eviction order and asked the court of first instance to stay their removal pending the legal proceedings. The court granted their request: the Roma could not be evicted until all legal disputes were settled.
The court of first instance (the Sofia City Court) ruled that the eviction order was lawful. This claim was later upheld by the court of appeal (the Supreme Administrative Court of Bulgaria). The order was deemed lawful by the courts because the applicants had not shown a valid legal ground for occupying the land. The burden of proof rested on the applicants to seek notarial deeds or to bring civil proceedings to establish the rights to occupy the land.
The group of Roma decided to lodge an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights (hereafter: the Court), alleging that the eviction would amount to inhuman and degrading treatment, and would violate their right to respect for their homes (Article 3 and Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights). Under pressure from members of the European Parliament, the district mayor had postponed the eviction order pending the decision from the European Court.
In their appeal, the applicants stated that the houses in which they lived and where they were registered remained their homes regardless of the fact that these homes were unlawfully built. Furthermore, the applicants claimed that the Government’s justification for the eviction order is based on private complaints by non-Roma citizens. These complaints include terms that clearly show racial prejudice. According to the applicants, the private complaints are based on the racial opposition between non-Roma residents and the applicants, seeking the ‘return of the Roma to their native places’. The applicants also argued that the Government selectively chose to demolish illegal constructions in Bulgaria based on racial profiling. Lastly, the applicants considered that the houses they built constituted their ‘possessions’ in the sense of Article 1 of Protocol Number 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Government of Bulgaria primarily based its arguments on the fact that the applicants unlawfully occupy state-owned property. As such, the applicants could not claim ownership, as they built makeshift houses that violate construction rules. The Government also argued that the buildings pose a sanitary risk, do not meet fire safety requirements and could collapse. In addition, the Government presented the argument that the Roma intentionally stirred tensions and provoked reactions from other ethnic groups in order to gain popularity and privileged treatment, arguing that they were attempting to incite ethnic hatred.
Firstly, the Court had to examine whether enforcing the removal order would constitute an interference of the applicants’ rights within the meaning of article 8(2) ECHR. The Court stated that the makeshift houses in which the applicants lived are indisputably their homes regardless of the lawfulness of settling on that land. Therefore, it logically follows that the enforcement of the removal order would constitute an interference of the applicants’ rights.
Afterward, the Court determined whether the measure pursued a legitimate aim. According to the Court, it is undeniable that seeking to regain possession of unlawfully occupied land is legitimate. Furthermore, the Government’s argument was strengthened by the lack of sewage and sanitary facilities along with the risk of some of the applicants’ homes collapsing.
The loss of one’s home constitutes the most extreme form of interference of a person’s right to respect for one’s home.
Lastly, the Court observed whether an interference would be considered ‘necessary in a democratic society’. The Court asserted that an interference would be considered as such if it answered a ‘pressing social need’ and if it is was proportionate to the aim pursued. The Court declared that the loss of one’s home constitutes the most extreme form of interference of a person’s right to respect for one’s home. Thus, the Court expressed that the State’s interest in reclaiming its property should come second to the applicants’ right.
The Court considered that, since the residents have been inhabiting the area for a considerable amount of time, they have developed a connection with the community and have become intertwined with the locals. According to the Court, the principle of proportionality requires that such situations should be treated entirely different from routine cases of removal of an individual from unlawfully occupied property. The Court further observes that the Government failed to look at alternative methods to deal with risks stemming from the lack of basic sanitary and safety requirements in the applicants houses.
The Court acknowledges that the Bulgarian government adopted a ten-year national programme on housing and the situation of the Roma people in order to ascertain the prevalent issues faced by the Roma and to make improvements. Yet, this and other studies or programmes led to no significant results or measures on the issue of housing for racial minorities. Moreover, the administrative authorities had failed to consider the risk of the applicant’s becoming homeless if evicted. The Court found it also problematic that the authorities failed to guarantee shelter for the applicants in case of eviction. Article 8 of the European Convention does not include an obligation to provide housing to applicants, but an obligation to secure shelter to particularly vulnerable individuals may flow from this provision. The government should have taken the underprivileged position of the applicants as a weighty factor in the decision to issue an eviction order. The Court ruled that the forceful eviction of the residents would entail a violation of the right to private life under Article 8 of European Convention on Human Rights, as the legislation did not require the authorities to examine the proportionality of the eviction, and decision-making procedure did ‘not offer safeguards against disproportionate interference’.
This case, Yordanova and others v. Bulgaria, has become a landmark case and shows that adequate housing and social security undoubtedly constitute essential human rights which are intrinsically linked to Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. As such, the Court stresses in its judgment that governments should prioritize providing their citizens with adequate housing instead of focusing on their own interests. The significance of this particular case is accentuated in light of the increasing need for affordable housing in Europe as the real estate market becomes progressively more volatile.
Fortunately, the Court ruling on this matter was beneficial to the Roma that were threatened with eviction, as they were able to keep their homes and protect their private lives. Nevertheless, the circumstances concerning the Roma in Europe remain surprisingly unchanged, as many initiatives that have been commenced at a national level proved to be inefficient. Examples of such attempts can be found in Romania, where Roma are assured to enter university free of tuition and without having to sit any other entrance exams that are generally required of other Romanians. However, this attempt has been notoriously riddled with corruption, since there have been many non-Roma Romanians who have taken advantage of the special places allotted to the Roma through the use of bribery, emphasizing the widespread corruption and general lack of care towards the plight of the Roma. Nevertheless, this case has highlighted that a concerted, definite effort should be made to ensure the housing of citizens regardless of their ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation, thus stressing the need for a large-scale effort to improve the housing situation in Europe.