Emma Patchett: On forced evictions and a never-ending winter for the Roma in France

Evicted Roma
Photo credit: European Roma Rights Centre (errc.org)

In 2014, before the sun had risen on a cold winter’s morning on the outskirts of Paris, police in riot gear arrived at a Roma encampment. Having given the 15 Roma families there less than half an hour to collect their belongings, the police began to demolish the camp site, digging gaping hollows into the ground “to stop anyone settling there again”. This familiar scene has been repeated throughout the last month in Roma housing settlements across France, to deafening silence from the international press.

The scale and extent of the evictions is made clear in a recent report (PDF) released by the European Roma Rights Centre and the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme. This report reveals that, despite France’s international obligations to provide alternative accommodation and access to housing, the French government has increased the number of evictions in the latter part of this year, with over 2,500 Romani people forcibly and violently evicted from their homes in the final quarter of 2016 alone. The majority of evictions tend to take place despite a complete lack of due process, and with no attempt to provide adequate alternative accommodation, leaving many families effectively homeless in the face of a long and cold winter. The same pattern occurred in 2015, during which over 11,000 forced evictions took place – as in 2016, mostly in the final quarter.

This systematic national policy of eviction was condemned by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which identified (PDF) “repeated breaches of their right to housing, many of which take the form of forced evacuations of Roma from their camps without, in many cases, any alternative type of lodging being offered” and “acts of violence by private individuals and the excessive use of force by police in the course of forced evacuations of Roma from their camps”. The Human Rights Committee also registered its concern about “discrimination in access to health care, social benefits, education and housing which is compounded by forced evictions from settlements and a frequent lack of resettlement solutions and adequate follow-up”.

These forced evictions take place within a climate of excessive discrimination. In one representative case, the town mayor of Saint-Ouen defended the refusal to enroll a Roma girl at a school by stating that he “cannot host all the misery of the world”. Roma children are routinely physically attacked by hostile members of the ‘local’ community, and a racist stereotype of Roma as criminal outsiders persistently pervades French socio-political discourse.

The European Court of Human Rights’ ruling in Winterstein v. France found violations of Article 8 (the right to respect for private and family life) to have been perpetrated in the eviction of 25 traveller families from their homes in Bois du Trou-Poulet in Herblay. This ruling recognized that “the loss of a dwelling is a most extreme form of interference with the right to respect for one’s home” and acknowledged the particular needs of this vulnerable minority group, arguing that “the consequences of the removal and the applicants’ vulnerability were not taken into account either by the authorities before the eviction procedure was initiated”.

While the Court has gradually recognized the right to a home, and even gone so far as penalizing the threat of eviction, its jurisprudential interventions on cases of access to space, facilitation, the ‘limit point’ of occupancy, and the proportionate limits of interference have not stopped these illegal evictions taking place on a vast scale. This can be seen clearly in the ongoing segregation and mistreatment of the Roma’s vulnerable, heterogeneous community.

Jurisprudence has shifted from defining the home in terms of property rights to recognizing homes as being constituted by the ‘sufficient and continuing links’ (PDF) of a subject with a particular place. However, this more enlightened jurisprudential understanding of the nature of inhabitation has failed to precipitate a shift from the violent enforcement of property law – and of a singular model of ownership as a manifestation of capitalist power relations, controlling who has access to space – to an absolute protection of the right to safe and legitimate inhabitation.

These recent evictions are not isolated, but part of a wider spate of evictions across Europe, despite the pledges made to counter discrimination during the recent Decade of Roma Inclusion. It is surely now evident that confronting the discrimination against and denial of access to space for the Roma community requires much more than judicial intervention (PDF) or promises of ‘raising awareness’ at the political level. It requires direct action, confrontation and engagement, right now, to combat this inhuman system of apartheid.

Emma Patchett is a Research Fellow at Käte Hamburger Kolleg

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