ECHR Rules in Favor of Illegal Squatters in Bulgarian Roma CaseSociety | April 24, 2012, Tuesday // 19:32| views
The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg has ruled against the eviction of squatters who settled illegally, creating a Roma ghetto in the Bulgarian capital Sofia.
ECHR's Tuesday ruling against the attempts of the Sofia Municipality to remove the illegal Roma ghetto known as "Batalova Vodenitsa" has been noted by the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, a NGO that supported the suit against the Bulgarian authorities, which itself was filed by Bulgarian Roma affected by the eviction, as a precedent in favor of Roma rights, and in particular – Roma housing rights.
At the same time, the Court has not pronounced any compensation for the evicted Roma, and has summarized its decision as follows:
"In today's Chamber judgment in the case Yordanova and Others v. Bulgaria (application no. 25446/06), which is not final, the European Court of Human Rights held, unanimously, that in the event of any future enforcement of the removal order against the applicants, there would be: A violation of Article 8 (right to private and family life) of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The case concerned the Bulgarian authorities' plan to evict Roma from a settlement situated on municipal land in an area of Sofia called Batalova Vodenitsa. The Court found that the removal order had been based on a law, and reviewed under a decision-making procedure, neither of which required the authorities to balance the different interests involved."
The ECHR has found that the Sofia Municipality and the other Bulgarian authorities have tolerated the illegal Roma settlement in Batalova Vodenitsa for a long time before they attempt to evict the Roma, first in 2005-2006, and then in 2008. The second attempt was undertaken by then Sofia Mayor and current Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, who terminated the eviction after he received a letter from Bulgarian MEPs.
Subsequently, however, some of the Roma squatters at Batalova Vodenitsa were evicted and settled in other Roma ghettos in Sofia.
"This ruling is a European-wide precedent for Roma rights. It obliges states to terminate the arbitrary evictions of Roma who have no other home," stated Bulgarian Helsinki Committee lawyer Margarita Ilieva, as cited by Mediapool.
The ECHR justifies its ruling as follows:
"The Court observed that as the applicants had lived with their families in the makeshift houses for many years, those houses had become their homes, irrespective of whether they occupied the houses lawfully or not. If the applicants were expelled from their settlement and community, their home as well as their private and family lives, would therefore be negatively affected.
The Court considered that it was legitimate for the authorities, for the purposes of urban development, to try to recover land from people who occupied it unlawfully. There was no doubt that the authorities were in principle entitled to remove the applicants who occupied municipal land unlawfully.
However, for several decades the authorities had tolerated the unlawful Roma settlements in Batalova Vodenitsa. That had allowed the applicants to develop strong links with the place and to build a community life there.
Notwithstanding the above, there was no obligation under the Convention to provide housing to the applicants. However, an obligation to secure shelter to particularly vulnerable individuals might flow from Article 8 in exceptional cases.
The Court noted, that under the relevant law at the time, the municipal authorities had not been required to consider the proportionality of a possible removal of the people who lived at the settlement, or the various interests involved. The Court found that approach in itself problematic as it failed to comply with the principle of proportionality.
In the applicants' case, it was undisputed that their houses did not meet basic sanitary and building requirements, which entailed safety and health concerns. The Court noted, however, that the Government had not shown that alternative methods for dealing with those problems, such as legalizing buildings where possible, constructing public sewage and water-supply facilities and providing assistance to find alternative housing where eviction was necessary, had been studied seriously by the relevant authorities.
Therefore, the Government's assertion that the applicants' removal was the appropriate solution was weakened.
In addition, before issuing the removal order, the authorities had not considered the risk of the applicants becoming homeless if removed, and had instead declared that that risk was irrelevant.
The Court also emphasized that, in the context of Article 8, the applicants' specificity as a socially disadvantaged group, as well as their particular needs, had to be considered in the proportionality assessment which the national authorities were obliged to undertake, but had not done.
Finally, as regards the Government's argument that the applicants' neighbours had complained against them, the Court noted that some of the complaints, such as those about health risks and offenses allegedly committed by Roma, could have justified appropriate measures if the principle of proportionality had been observed. The authorities had not investigated allegations about such offenses. Other complaints, however, contained illegitimate demands.
The Court concluded that the 2005 removal order had been based on a law, and reviewed under a decision-making procedure, neither of which required that the order be proportionate to the aim it pursued. There would, therefore, be a violation of Article 8, if the removal order were enforced."