Imagine a young man whose mother just passed away. Then imagine that he receives a letter from the mayor, stating that the city will demolish the mother’s home and replace it with a concrete block. The mayor says he wants to put an end to the young man’s way of life. For Roma, Sinti and Traveler families in the Netherlands, this is not a story that is hard to imagine. It is their reality.

The Netherlands, just like other northern and western European countries, is host to several Roma, Sinti and Traveler communities. Although these groups now mainly live in permanent or semi-permanent mobile homes, their traveling lifestyle is an important part of their heritage.

This is not the space for a deep analysis of the human rights situation of Roma, Sinti and Travelers. A comprehensive report by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights can be found here. It paints a picture of prejudice, stereotype, discrimination and violence.

Local conflicts over housing

Local Dutch authorities, including the city of Utrecht, have a history of conflict with Roma, Sinti and Traveler communities, often revolving around housing. These conflicts, which have escalated in recent years, take place at the local level. 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 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 are a 'phasing out' policy, integrating Travelers’ housing into conventional housing policies, a 'demand-oriented' policy and a 'neutral policy.' The national government does not ask local authorities to consider human rights when they make their policy choice or when they apply it in individual cases.

Many local authorities have interpreted 'normalization' and the 'zero option' to mean what they term 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, including the public prosecution service. The public prosecution service did not start a criminal investigation after a formal incitement to hatred complaint against the mayor of Waalre. In its view, mobile home inhabitants, who are Roma, Sinti and Travelers, cannot be considered a racial or ethnic group.

The legitimacy of extinction policies

This view, which potentially contradicts numerous judgments of the European Court of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR), is likely to be challenged, as are the local extinction policies. The extinction policies have recently become the topic of a public interest litigation project (PILP), following similar projects throughout Europe that have challenged policies against Travelers.

In February 2015, PILP commissioned a study into the legitimacy of extinction policies for mobile home sites throughout the Netherlands. This study was done by University of Utrecht legal research master student Rachel Dijkstra under the supervison of Jessy Emaus, researcher at the Utrecht Center for Accountability and Liability Law. 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.

The first local authority that was addressed by PILP on this issue was the city of Oss. According to the extinction policy of the city of Oss, when an inhabitant of a mobile home passes away, their Traveler site is scheduled to be dismantled. Children of the diseased person are not allowed to live in their parents' mobile home. Concrete blocks are placed to make sure that no new mobile homes are built on the site. The expressly stated purpose of this policy is the 'extinction' of Roma, Sinti and Traveler culture.

In December 2014, the Dutch National Institute for Human Rights (NHRI) ruled that this policy was discriminatory. According to the NHRI, the policy violates Dutch equal treatment legislation and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

Because the city of Oss still holds on to its extinction policy, further litigation is to be expected. Jelle Klaas, coordinator of PILP, explains: "As a minimum, we want Oss to consider the policy’s human rights implications in individual cases. This is the minimum standard according to the ECHR. We are preparing our case with this aim, in cooperation with a large Amsterdam-based law firm."

Just like Oss, the city of Utrecht also has an extinction policy, even if it 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 same policy paper that the waiting list should be integrated with the conventional waiting list for housing in Utrecht. There is no reference to a human rights impact assessment in the policy paper.

According to representatives of the Roma, Sinti and Traveler community, this policy means that mobile home sites will become available to people who are not from the Roma, Sinti and Traveler community, which will inevitably result in ending the Roma, Sinti and Traveler lifestyle in Utrecht.

The city of Utrecht is proud to be the first human rights city of the Netherlands. And it should be. As the case of Roma, Sinti and Travelers illustrates, this is by no means an easy task, especially when the human rights at stake are close to home.

In light of the recent NHRI ruling, the PILP study and litigation against Oss, the city of Utrecht has good reasons to reassess the compatibility of its Roma, Sinti and Traveler policy with its position as a human rights city. If Utrecht manages to implement a human rights based policy on this topic, it can further establish its leadership role as the first human rights city in the Netherlands.

Contributor: Friederycke Haijer