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Madrid colloquium addresses Roma segregation in housing

On 16 and 17 January, OHCHR’s Regional Office for Europe organized its second “Chatham House rule” colloquium on Roma rights – this time in Madrid, hosted by the Government of Spain, on the issue of Roma segregation in housing.

On 17 Jan 2014

The thought-provoking presentation by Romanian Roma activist Valeriu Nicolae of his report “In Europe’s Roma Ghettoes: Lost Generations”, helped to kick-start the discussions. In it, he describes the development of segregated, socially excluded slums and shantytowns, both rural and urban, in Albania, Bulgaria, Italy, Romania, Slovakia and Turkey. In the opening session, Mr. Nicolae emphasized that in some countries, particularly Italy and Slovakia, “the authorities themselves have invested in projects placing the Roma in segregated and isolated locations, with difficult access to work, schools and health and social services,” and that some projects of a deliberately segregating character had even been supported by EU Structural Funds.

In the debates under the Chatham House rule, the Spanish experience of more than three decades of Roma (Gitano) inclusion policies was discussed at length. In the early 1990s, Spain began replacing shantytowns around its cities with well-constructed - but nevertheless segregated - settlements, which remained isolated from mainstream society; this approach, participants heard had resulted in failure. Spain then re-oriented its policy towards genuine de-segregation and inclusion of Gitanos in society, with a simultaneous focus on education, health and jobs. Throughout this process, it was important to work closely with the Gitanos, to empower them and to support them in maintaining their cultural identity.

At the colloquium, the Spanish example was widely appreciated. However, participants also drew attention to differences between the Spanish context and that of the Central and Eastern European countries. Specific obstacles were mentioned, such as the dynamics of “gentrification” which drive Roma out of inner-city areas in Central Europe, as well as the near-absence of social housing programs in some Central and Eastern European States following the collapse of communism in the late 1980s. It was pointed out that where social housing does exist, Roma often do not fulfill the criteria for accessing it, since they do not have a stable income and in some cases lack even basic documents. The role of Equality Bodies and National Human Rights Institutions (NHRI) was mentioned in this context, and systemic proposals to address these issues by a NHRI were brought up as an example.

Critical attention was given to the effect of widespread discrimination, which restricts the access of Roma to cheaper housing on the open housing market – thus driving Roma into an “ethnic niche” market where landlords demand disproportionate amounts for housing of extremely poor quality while offering little or no security of tenure. It was noted as particularly worrying that some States actually support exploitative “hostels” which charge per day and specialize in Roma, thus abusing the fact that they cannot really access the mainstream market due to discrimination.

The last discussion theme concerned Travellers (Gens de voyage) who wish to enjoy their cultural rights – i.e., maintain a traveling lifestyle for a part of the year - while not being deprived of other rights. Participants emphasized that Travellers face great difficulties when authorities force them either to become fully sedentary, or create special legal regimes for them as Travellers which do not recognize their right to register in a home municipality. Travellers need to have their mobile homes recognized as housing and enjoy the full rights of residents of their home town or village. Innovative solutions should be sought to ensure the enjoyment by Travellers of other rights, for example education, for which modern information technology should be useful.