Case Watch: Stopping Evictions of Roma in Bulgaria

The committee’s decision regarding the definition of “home” is significant because it extends the protections of Article 17 to individuals who do not necessarily have a legal right to the place where they reside.
In “Case Watch” reports, lawyers at the Open Society Justice Initiative provide analysis of notable court decisions and cases that relate to their work to advance human rights law around the world.

In the litany of hardships faced by Roma communities across Europe—displacement, profiling by police, lack of access to education—forced evictions take a particularly heavy toll. Not only do they disrupt lives and scatter communities, but a lack of alternative housing can carry brutal, even fatal, consequences.

The Open Society Justice Initiative is currently serving as counsel on Bagdonavichus v. Russia, a case brought to the European Court of Human Rights by 33 applicants from a settlement outside of Kaliningrad. There, a pregnant Roma woman who was forcibly evicted from her home contracted an infection while living in a tent and later died.

In its recent decision in Naidenova et al. v. Bulgaria, the UN Human Rights Committee took up the issue of forced evictions. While a less extreme scenario, Naidenova demonstrates the challenges that Roma communities continue to face in asserting their right to protect the homes they have created on the margins of both society and the legal system.

The Naidenova case began in Dobri Jeliazkov, an impoverished Roma settlement in Sofia, Bulgaria. Liliana Naidenova and her neighbors, Bulgarian nationals of Roma ethnicity, lived in the 70-year-old community. While the settlement is technically illegal, the government de facto recognizes it—providing mail service and registering residents’ addresses with the police. The residents, however, do not own the land. The land belongs to the municipal government which, in 2006, served the residents with an eviction and demolition order that would have displaced and destroyed the entire community.

The community members did not want to leave their homes, but, facing eviction, they asked for alternative housing. The local government refused, saying that they were not entitled to housing because they resided there illegally. Many community members gave in. But Naidenova and several of her neighbors brought a complaint before the UN Human Rights Committee—first to ask for interim measures staying the eviction notice, and second to ask for a declaration that the forced eviction was a racially discriminatory, unlawful, and arbitrary interference with their homes. (Articles 2, 17, and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights).

On July 8, 2011, for the first time in its history, the Human Rights Committee granted a request for interim measures to stay a forced eviction. Bulgaria respected the order and did not carry out the eviction. But, the local water utility cut the community’s access to water—allegedly at the request of the local government. In response, the community requested a second round of interim measures. The community argued that being deprived of running water was an indirect means of eviction. The committee agreed and on May 9, 2012, asked Bulgaria to restore water service. However, by the time the community made its final submissions to the committee water still had not been restored.

In its consideration of the merits of the case the committee reached two important conclusions. First, it found that the houses in the Dobri Jeliazkov settlement were the “homes” of Naidenova and her neighbors—even though they were not lawful owners of the plots of land. The committee affirmed that a “home” is simply where someone resides or carries out her usual occupation, not where she has a legal right to occupy. Because the committee found that the houses in Dobri Jeliazkov were residents’ “homes” they therefore deserved the protection from arbitrary or unlawful interference afforded by Article 17.

The committee next considered whether the eviction order violated the right against unlawful or arbitrary interference with a person’s home. The committee found that even if, in principle, Bulgaria was legally entitled to evict the community for unlawfully occupying municipal land, that the eviction order was still arbitrary. In so doing, the committee found that Bulgaria had not identified any urgent reason for forcibly evicting the community from their homes. It was also persuaded by the circumstances of the case that the evictions constituted a breach of community’s rights. It cited the community’s long undisturbed presence as well as the government’s failure to make satisfactory replacement housing immediately available and to consider the consequences of eviction, such as the applicants’ risk of becoming homeless. Because Bulgaria had not yet technically enforced the eviction order, the committee ruled that the state could only do so if it ensured the immediate availability of satisfactory replacement housing.

Finally, the committee found that the community’s claims regarding discrimination and equal protection were not sufficiently substantiated (Articles 2 and 26).

Naidenova is an important victory for Roma communities, in part because it shows the potential of procedural mechanisms before the UN Human Rights Committee. The community successfully asked for interim measures staying the eviction and—despite Bulgaria’s less than perfect compliance—Naidenova and her neighbors were able to litigate their case from a place of relative power. Unlike Bagdonavichus v. Russia, where the European Court of Human Rights did not grant interim measures staying the eviction, the community in Naidenova was able to remain relatively intact throughout the litigation process.

The committee’s decision regarding the definition of “home” is significant, too, because it extends the protections of Article 17 to individuals who do not necessarily have a legal right to the place where they reside. It also provides insight into the type of evidence that the committee finds convincing—such as de facto government recognition of addresses through utility and mail provision and a community’s history occupying the land. While the committee did not recognize the right of the community to stay where they were forever, it did affirm their right to not be summarily evicted and to be provided with alternative housing. An encouraging sign.

For more on this case and others, read our digest of the UN Human Rights Committee’s 106th session. 

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