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The “thin line” between social inclusion and ethnic segregation

By Fotis Filippou, Campaigner in Amnesty International's EU Team

Fifty-six Romani families were forcibly evicted from their homes on Coastei Street, in the city of Cluj-Napoca in north-western Romania on 17 December 2010. For years residents had feared it would happen. That morning at 6am their fears became a reality.

After years of living in that street (some for two decades) they were being sent away. Police made sure they vacated their homes, taking whatever they could save from their belongings. The majority were moved by the authorities to temporary housing in the Pata Rât area at the outskirts of the city, next to a garbage dump and a former chemical waste station. Some were given nothing, remained homeless, and had to find shelter with neighbours or family members.

Hundreds of activists from around the world immediately responded to the Urgent Action issued by Amnesty International, alongside protests by local level organizations from across Romania also condemning the forced eviction of the Romani community.

The local authorities have responded to Amnesty International activists in order to reassure them that their action “… was not a forced evacuation, but a move from one location to another, upon request, that does not violate, under any circumstances, the European and International standards…”

There are, indeed, safeguards and international standards regulating evictions to ensure they are not in breach of human rights, that they are not “forced evictions”. But Amnesty International’s findings indicate that none of these standards was properly applied in the eviction of the Romani community from Coastei Street.

According to interviews we conducted during our early-December field visit to Cluj-Napoca and to research by Cluj-based NGOs Amare Prhala and Fundaţia Desire, no adequate notice was given to the families prior to the eviction; neither have the authorities adequately consulted all members of the community. Moreover, the eviction took place in the middle of a very cold winter (against both international standards and Romanian law), and some of the families were not even provided with alternative housing and were thus rendered homeless, in breach of Romania’s human rights obligations.

Amnesty International had already expressed its concerns about the adequacy of housing in an urgent action on 22 December. In his reply to activists, the Mayor of Cluj-Napoca suggests that “…the new housing…provides the necessary comfort, since they are equipped with water, sewerage, electricity installation, sanitary objects, and the local authority offered the stock of fire wood for free.”

When I shared this response on the phone with George*, one of the Romani men who were moved to the newly constructed, but overcrowded, modules, he protested: “We are over 20 people in the module, there are two uncovered toilets and if we have to go, we go with our neighbours. The water is dripping down the walls; every morning we have to clean the water, the new furniture that we had is now all mouldy.” His wife, Alina, felt that sharing one four-room module – and one bathroom – with three other families created quite a great level of discomfort and insecurity: “There is no privacy,” she told me. “When we go to the toilet we go two at once, one of us keeps an eye on the door while the other is using the toilet.” No hot water or gas connection is provided, although water, sewage and electricity are supplied.

The Mayor’s letter to the activists goes on stating that “the relocation…and the signing of the rental contracts has created the necessary premises for these persons to legally benefit of stable residence in Cluj-Napoca…This way, the access to the labor market, to continuous professional training, to education, to social and medical assistance system and last but not least, the social integration and the participation to the community life was facilitated.”

It is interesting that the local authorities see “social integration” in that way. The community was pushed to the outskirts of the city, at, what could be easily described, as a remote and isolated location next to the city’s garbage dump and a former drug factory’s waste station.

The closest bus stop is approximately 3 km away. Access to public transport, school, employment and health services appears to be more difficult. The community was moved from the centre of the city, where they used to live among the rest of the population, to an area primarily, if not exclusively, inhabited by Roma. How thin is the line separating “social inclusion” from ethnic segregation?

George told me: “I feel sorry for the conditions we are in, I was hoping that the municipality will help us and will give us a chance even if we are Roma; we were integrated in society. We wanted to integrate but they don’t let us, they banish us. All doors are closed, we have no right to speak…they said something like: ‘you are garbage, you like garbage’, so that’s why they moved us in this place.”

On 19 January, members of the evicted Romani communities, Roma and non-Roma human rights activists took to the streets to protest against the municipality’s actions. The local NGOs Amare Prhala and Foundation Desire, together with their partners Romani CRISS, the Roma Civic Alliance of Romania, European Roma Rights Centre and representatives of the evicted communities urged the authorities to stop forced evictions in this area, to stop residential segregation of Roma caused through administrative actions, and even more, to introduce a desegregation plan for Cluj-Napoca and “to find adequate solutions for housing, access to school and employment which ensures their social inclusion and assuming the Roma identity with dignity.”

We will continue supporting the community and the local NGOs advocating on their behalf.

A Working Group of Civil Organizations has been established at the local level proposing concrete solutions and actions. Local civil society organizations and activists have been petitioning the authorities. To find out more about their actions please go to: http://www.petitiononline.co.uk/petition/appeal-for-solidarity-and-action/2411

*Names were altered at the request of the interviewees