ECSR: Ireland’s Inadequate Traveller Accommodations Violate European Social Charter
In a case concerning the right of Traveller families to adequate housing and caravan sites, the European Committee of Social Rights (ECSR) held that Ireland violated their right to social, legal, and economic protection under Article 16 of the Revised European Social Charter because of the de facto insufficiency of accommodations for Travellers, inadequate conditions in the existing Traveller accommodations, and the legislative framework and practice of evictions. See ECSR, European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) v. Ireland, Complaint No. 100/2013, Merits, 1 December 2015. In its decision, published earlier this month, the ECSR declined to find Ireland in violation of Article E’s non-discrimination provisions or to find a violation of Article 30, which protects the right to protection against poverty and social exclusion, noting that the Irish government has made substantial progress in the past few years and demonstrated an effort to accommodate the Traveller community. Id. at paras. 71 and 191.
The decision reinforces an earlier ruling from the ECSR on Roma communities in Greece, in which it found the same violations under Article 16. See ECSR, European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) v. Greece, Complaint No. 15/2003, Merits, 8 December 2004. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has also held in past cases that evictions of and insufficient accommodations for Roma communities violate the right to family life. See ECtHR, Connors v. United Kingdom, no. 66746/01, ECHR 2004, Judgment of 27 May 2004. ECtHR, Winterstein and Others v. France, no. 27013/07, Judgment of 17 October 2013.
According to census data, at least 30,000 Traveller families live in Ireland. See European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) v. Ireland, 1 December 2015, para. 30. Irish media have recently reported on homelessness and evictions of Travellers in the country, where one-fifth of Travellers do not have access to appropriate accommodation.
The Committee’s Assessment
Failure to Provide Sufficient Accommodations
The complainant organization, the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC), alleged that the government has provided insufficient numbers of Traveller-specific accommodations, such as permanent halting (caravan) sites, group housing, and transient halting sites. Id. at para. 31. The ECSR noted that the intent behind the European Social Charter’s protection of social rights is to promote and ensure social inclusion and the respect for differences in lifestyle. Id. at para. 54. In Ireland, a government-appointed task force on the needs of the Traveller community found in 1995 that 1,000 sites were needed to accommodate the population, but the ECSR found that only 54 had been constructed as of 2011. Id. at para. 61. Moreover, the 1,000-site target did not account for population growth, and not all of the 54 sites may serve as transient sites. Id. Thus, despite the creation of the task force and subsequent policies put in place to provide Traveller accommodation, the ECSR held that there was a de facto insufficiency of accommodation, in violation of Article 16 of the European Social Charter. Id. at paras. 60, 67.
The ESCR did not find that the State failed to provide sufficient accommodations on the basis of discrimination or within the legislative framework. Even though Ireland failed to meet its obligations under the Revised European Social Charter in practice, the State did show consideration for the unique needs of Travellers, satisfying its non-discrimination obligations. Id. at para. 71. The ECSR also found that the State attempted to provide sufficient accommodation for Travellers through its legislation focused on Travellers’ needs and relied on the agencies and local authorities to implement that legislation. Id. at paras. 59, 77. Even when local authorities are tasked with implementation of a law, the ECSR found, under international law the national government has the obligation to regulate that implementation. Id. at para. 79. However, the ECSR held that Ireland had not violated Article 16 on legislative grounds, because the State had passed legislation aimed at providing sufficient accommodation to Travellers. See id. at paras. 77-80.
Failure to Ensure Adequacy of Existing Sites
The ERRC further alleged that the quality of the existing accommodations is inadequate. The sites suffer from overcrowding, poor sanitation, insufficient electric services, and a lack of accommodations for persons with disabilities and are often in remote locations far from public services. Id. at para. 81. Accordingly, the ECSR found a violation of Article 16 based on the actual reality for Traveller families in Ireland, noting that reports show substantial problems with many Traveller accommodations and that a substantial percentage were in need of refurbishment or other work. Id. at paras. 89, 91, and 92.
The Committee held that Ireland’s eviction procedures against Travellers also violated Article 16, both in practice and based on the legislative framework. Id. at paras. 143 and 167. Although the ECSR recognized the State’s legitimate interest in preventing unlawful presence in buildings that may result in property damage, it impressed upon Ireland the need to balance this interest with procedural safeguards for those being forcibly evicted, such as prior notice. Id. at para. 140. It referred to the UN Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights’ General Comment No. 7, which requires genuine consultation with evictees and adequate notice. Id. at para. 139. The lack of sufficient legal remedies due to inadequate legal aid and judicial review in the legislative framework and a failure to legislate consultation with evictees violate Article 16 of the Charter. Id. at paras. 140-47. The government of Ireland alleged that, in practice, authorities do hold consultations with evictees, but the ECSR found a lack of evidence to suggest that consultations are held with Travellers before evictions. Id. at para. 166. Accordingly, the ECSR held that, in addition to a violation of Article 16 based on the legislative framework on its face, the eviction of Travellers in practice also gave rise to a violation of the same article. Id.
The ECSR again declined to find a violation of Article E (non-discrimination) with regard to the evictions because Ireland’s legislation on evictions did not expressly refer to Travellers and was not shown to have a disproportionate effect on them. Id. at para. 148-57. The ECSR also found several other pieces of legislation not to violate Article 16, despite their effect of giving rise to evictions, including the Roads Act 1993, Planning and Development Act 2000, and Public Health Act 1878. Id. at Conclusions.
Other Articles Considered
The ERRC also alleged that Ireland violated Article 17 (right of children and young persons to social, legal, and economic protection) because the evictions had a negative effect on Traveller children’s school attendance. Id. at para. 170. The ECSR held that the complaint lacked specificity to demonstrate a violation of the Charter in this regard. Id. at para. 178.
The complainant organization also raised Article 30 (right to protection against poverty and social exclusion). Id. at para. 182. The Committee stated that the presence of other violations did not necessarily give rise to a violation under Article 30. Id. at para. 189. Considering the overall progress Ireland had made toward inclusion and the legislative and practical steps taken to address accommodation concerns, the ECSR found that Ireland had not violated Article 30. Id. at para. 192. In his dissent, Committee member Petros Stangos argued that this was an inconsistent application of law that tarnished the integrity of the decision. ECSR, European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) v. Ireland, Complaint No. 100/2013, Dissenting Opinion of Petros Stangos, 1 December 2015.
Prior Precedent on Housing for Roma Populations
The ECSR and European Court of Human Rights have previously considered issues of adequate housing for Traveller or Roma communities in Europe. In a similar case against Greece, the ECSR found the State had violated Article 16 due to the insufficient number of permanent dwellings of an acceptable quality, the insufficient number of stopping places for Roma, and the systematic forced eviction of Roma people. See ECSR, European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) v. Greece, Complaint No. 15/2003, Merits, 8 December 2004.
Two ECtHR judgments have held that Roma communities, as a vulnerable minority group, are entitled to special consideration regarding their needs and specific lifestyle. ECtHR, Connors v. United Kingdom, no. 66746/01, ECHR 2004, Judgment of 27 May 2004, para. 84; ECtHR, Winterstein and Others v. France, no. 27013/07, Judgment of 17 October 2013, para. 148. In Connors v. United Kingdom, the ECtHR found a violation of the right to family life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights where a local authority evicted a Roma caravan based on nuisance law. See Connors v. United Kingdom, Judgment of 27 May 2004. The Court found that the State determination that the applicants were unlawful trespassers had a profound effect on the Roma people, interfering with their ability to maintain their home. Id. at para. 95. The State proceedings failed to provide adequate procedural safeguards and proper justification for the interference, in violation of the European Convention. Id.
In Winterstein and Others v. France, eviction proceedings were brought against several Traveller families who had occupied the same land for up to 30 years. See Winterstein and Others v. France, Judgment of 17 October 2013, paras. 16, 25, and 38. A French court ordered their eviction, only some of the families were provided with alternative accommodations in social housing, and the State failed to establish “family sites” preferred by the Traveller families. Id. The ECtHR found France in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights because it failed to take into account the length of time the families had been on the land and the fact that the evictees comprised an entire community of people. Id. at paras. 150, 167.
The European Committee of Social Rights is a regional human rights body charged with overseeing Council of Europe Member States’ implementation of the European Social Charter and Revised European Social Charter, including through decisions on collective complaints. For more information on the European Committee of Social Rights, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.