Utrecht, a city of human rights for Roma, Sinti and Travelers?

Woonwagen_in_het_Hoogeland_openluchtmuseum_te_WarffumThe Netherlands, just like other northern and western European countries, is host to several Roma, Sinti and Traveler communities. Local Dutch authorities have a history of conflict with these communities, often revolving around housing. Although Roma, Sinti and Travelers now mainly live in permanent or semi-permanent mobile homes, their traveling lifestyle is an important part of their heritage. The Netherlands has ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) and the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR). These conventions create human rights obligations on all organs of state, including municipalities. Recently, Roma, Sinti and Traveler groups have invoked these obligations and made successful human rights based claims for respect for their heritage, with potential consequences for Utrecht.

Extinction policies for Roma, Sinti and Traveler housing

In September 2014, a young man from the city of Oss, whose mother had just passed away, received a letter from the Mayor. In this letter, he was informed that the late mother’s mobile home would be destroyed and that it would be replaced by a concrete block. The mayor of Oss based this decision on the municipality’s extinction policy for mobile homes. After learning of the letter, the Roma, Sinti and Traveler community in Oss was furious. In their view, the young man had every right to move into his late mother’s mobile home. A documentary about this incident can be seen here. It is just one example of many housing conflicts between Roma, Sinti and Travelers and local authorities that have been taking place for decades.

Such conflicts, which have escalated in recent years, take place at the local level, because the Dutch national government does not have a policy relating to Roma, Sinti and Travelers’ housing. The national government explicitly refers this matter to local authorities, asking them to ‘normalize’ the housing situation of Roma, Sinti and Travelers. The term ‘normalization’ implies, paradoxically, that local authorities are not to consider the mobile home lifestyle of Roma, Sinti and Travelers as ‘normal’. The national government suggests five ‘normalization’ policy options for local authorities. The first option it suggests is a ‘zero option’, which leaves no space for mobile home sites at all. The other four options that the national government suggests are a ‘phasing out’ policy, integrating Travelers’ housing into conventional housing policies, a ‘demand oriented’ policy and a ‘neutral policy’. Many local authorities have interpreted ‘normalization’ and the first ‘zero option’ to mean an ‘extinction policy’ for Traveler sites. Local authorities openly state their intentions behind this policy. For example, the mayor of the city of Waalre said in 2012 that he intended to make mobile home sites ‘disappear’. Local authorities appear to be supported by the Dutch national government, not only because of the policy options suggested, but also because of public statements by the public prosecution service (PPS). After a formal incitement to hatred complaint was filed against the mayor of Waalre for his statement cited above, the PPS decided not start a criminal investigation. In the view of the PPS, mobile home inhabitants, who are Roma, Sinti and Travelers, cannot be considered a racial or ethnic group. Accordingly, many local authorities have assumed that extinction policies are permitted.

However, something new happened after the incident in Oss. For the first time, the Roma, Sinti and Traveler community instituted a human rights claim. The community in Oss filed a complaint with the National Institution for Human Rights (NIHR). They were successful. In December 2014, the Dutch National Institute for Human Rights (NHRI) ruled that the extinction policy of the municipality of Oss was discriminatory. According to the NHRI, the policy violated Dutch equal treatment legislation and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

Legal challenges to extinction policies

While this ruling of the NHRI is not legally binding – indeed, it was ignored by the municipality of Oss – it does confirm that Roma, Sinti and Travelers can challenge extinction policies by way of a human rights claim. However, binding, enforceable judgments are needed. This is why Roma, Sinti and Traveler communities have now joined hands with a new public interest litigation project (PILP), which has taken on this issue. The intention of the PILP litigation is to legally challenge extinction policies, following examples of similar projects throughout Europe. These legal challenges to national and municipal extinction policies have potential because such policies are in conflict with numerous judgments of the European Court of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECtHR). For example, in the case of Chapman v. the United Kingdom, the ECtHR considered that Roma, Sinti and Travelers belong to a vulnerable minority and that measures affecting their stationing of mobile homes affect their ability to maintain their identity and to lead their private and family life in accordance with their tradition. The ECtHR has consistently maintained this position in later judgments. Because the rights as defined in article 8 of the Convention are at issue, measures affecting housing are only allowed if they are pursued in accordance with the law, with a legitimate aim and if they are necessary in a democratic society. The national government does not require local authorities to make such an assessment at all; neither when they make their policy choice, nor when they apply their policy in individual cases. Indeed, the only reason that the mayor of Oss gave when he applied the local extinction policy was the purpose of the ‘extinction’ of mobile home culture. It is difficult to reconcile this purpose with the ‘legitimate aim’ requirement of the ECtHR. It is to be expected that this will be one of the main arguments in the upcoming PILP litigation.

Before commencing this litigation, PILP first commissioned a study into the legitimacy of extinction policies for mobile home sites throughout the Netherlands. This study was done by UU legal research master student Dijkstra under the supervision of UCALL researcher Emaus. The study concluded that extinction policies are incompatible with international and European human rights conventions and case law. Moreover, the study concluded that these policies were unethical. Jelle Klaas, coordinator of PILP, confirms that litigation is the next step: ‘As a minimum, we want municipalities to consider the policy’s human rights implications in individual cases. This is the minimum standard according to the ECtHR. We are preparing our case with this aim, in cooperation with a large Amsterdam-based law firm’ (interview by author, March 3, 2015).

Leadership potential for Utrecht

Although the city of Oss is the first target of the strategic litigation, other cities, including Utrecht, will potentially follow. Indeed, PILP already lists Utrecht as an example on its website. Just like Oss, the city of Utrecht has an extinction policy for Roma, Sinti and Traveler sites, even if the city does not give it that name. In an official policy paper from 2013, it is stated that the current number of mobile home sites (137) ‘has to remain stable’, even though there are many people on a waiting list. It is also stated in the policy paper that the waiting list should be integrated with the conventional waiting list for housing in Utrecht. The policy paper makes no reference to human rights, the law, a legitimate aim or necessity in a democratic society. According to representatives of the Roma, Sinti and Traveler community, the application of this policy in practice means that mobile home sites become available to people who are not from the Roma, Sinti and Traveler community. This will inevitably lead to ending the Roma, Sinti and Traveler lifestyle in Utrecht. At the same time, the city of Utrecht has stated it is proud to be the first human rights city of the Netherlands. If Utrecht manages to implement a human rights based policy on the housing rights of the Roma, Sinti and Traveler community, preferably before litigation starts, it can set an important example for other cities with Roma, Sinti and Traveler communities in the Netherlands. As the examples from Waalre and Oss show, leadership on this issue is sorely needed, which the city of Utrecht is in a strong position to fulfill.

(this blog is a significantly reworked version of an article that was originally published on http://www.liberties.eu/en/news/utrecht-city-of-human-rights-for-roma-sinti-travelers in March 2015)