Threats of demolition of Roma houses and modern defense practices

In October 2012 Russian media reports on threats to destroy three houses belonging to Roma people in the village of Topki (Kemerovo region). In 2008 the staff of ADC “Memorial” visited Roma settlement in Topki, spoke to the local dwellers and administration, sent petitions to the regional governor asking him to pay attention to the problems of the Roma settlement and assist people there to get proper documents for their allotments and houses. Back then people complained about the letters from the local administration, that they were receiving, which threatened with demolition of their homes. Similar threats are reported practically everywhere in Russia, where Roma settlements with unregistered houses exist. Local authorities often use the possibility to “legally” demolish houses, which are not properly registered, when they need an instrument to put pressure on the dwellers of Roma settlements.

For example, in Kalinichi (Tambov region), the district administration threatened with destruction of Roma houses when trying to force local women, who had made legal appeals to court concerning discrimination of Roma children in school, to retract their legal appeals from court. Fearing the prospect of finding themselves on the street, Roma families refused the services of a legal attorney and made a fictious “peace agreement” with authorities. As a result of that local administration managed to avoid “unnecessary” legal problems in court, but the local Roma children now continue to attend a segregated “school for Roma”, which is located in a building with collapsing ceiling, where children do not receive even minimal proper education.

In Peri settlement (Leningrad region) threats of demolition of Roma houses also started circulating in connection with the problem of segregation of Roma children in school. Following yet another attempt by parents to voice their dissatisfaction with such a discriminatory practice, rumors of a possible demolition of the whole Roma settlement started to circulate. And although the basis for the rumors was just a single careless statement made by a local official, neither the Roma people, nor the local administration doubted that the threat of destruction of houses was quite tangible. In order to calm people down a little, a joint meeting with the participation of local administration, Roma dwellers and the staff of ADC “Memorial” was organized.

It is noteworthy that during this meeting, when Roma dwellers complained about threats of demolition, the local mayor said: “Without my signature, no demolition of houses is possible, and although I could start demolition, I would not do this”. This is an illustration of what we usually describe as dependence of the local Roma dwellers on the loyalty of this or that particular official in the reports that ADC “Memorial”. Absence of proper registration documents for the houses (which legally means the “absence” of the houses themselves, because if there is no document – de jure the house doesn’t exist) significantly simplifies, for example, making house searches without warrant or, as was the case in Volgograd region, offering “empty lots of land” for sale, although everybody knows well that Roma houses were built there.

There is a wealth of cases like these, not to mention the problems with registration and receiving identification documents for children. Fortunately, in most of the Russian regions such threats of house demolitions, however unacceptable they are in the first place, remain just that – mere threats. But sometimes situation gets aggravated for some reason and local administration is in a position to use for their profit some “principled stand”, i.e. going ahead with demolition of “self-built housing”, implementing earlier court rulings or initiating new court rulings on eviction. In Topki the court ruling on demolition of Roma houses was made back in 2011 and was partially observed (Roma dwellers themselves demolished some houses), but implementation of this ruling regarding other houses was postponed. However, in October 2012, ahead of cold Siberian winter coming to the region, some of the local officials thought it would be proper to “restore justice” and push for implementation of the earlier court ruling.

Bulldozers arrived to the Roma settlement, demolished houses and left 30 people (including 17 children) homeless. That was done while the state officially declared various support measures for families with many children and adopted various programs to provide for housing for such families. But since not all families seem to be equally favored by the local legislators and law enforcement agencies, demolition of some particular houses using bulldozers should signify triumph of law and exemplary implementation of court rulings. This “implementation of court rulings” is often accompanied by anti-Roma publications and comments in mass media, approval of the local population and is often used by the local authorities for their own political purposes (as was the case recently with Arkhangelsk city mayor Mr. Dontsov, who chose to make demolition of Roma houses the prime point of his election campaign). In Topki journalists witnessed approving reactions of the local people, who watched Roma houses being demolished, and the grief of those, who were losing their only housing. In situations like this, Roma people are reminded of all their “sins” and demolition of their homes is portrayed as a “just reprisal” for this.

Such actions could and should be resisted, especially since there are legal means available. International legal principles, recommendations of international bodies concerning unacceptability of destruction of Roma settlements, even if the latter were not properly registered, are obviously higher than the type of “restoration of legality” practiced in Kemerovo region. As a rule, if information about the threat of demolition is available ahead of it, it is possible to avoid actual demolition. Any action or decision made by officials could be appealed in court, the same is also true about court’s rulings. But the dwellers of Roma settlements often lack the possibility to defend themselves in court or hire a qualified attorney. Often Roma people understand that the danger is real only when they see the actual bulldozers arriving to their settlement. But if the alarm bells start ringing beforehand, it is often possible to avoid physical destruction of homes through negotiations with local authorities:

Thus, when a situation similar to that one in Kemerovo region arose in Zatobolny settlement (Kurgan region), it was possible to deal with it without even resorting to court appeals. Lawyer of ADC “Memorial” was present at a working meeting, which dealt with the problems of Roma settlement in Kurgan. Owners of land, which bordered on the Roma settlement, who were dissatisfied with their neighbors and launched a campaign of legal appeals to court, were also invited to participate. It happens quite often that some neighbors of Roma settlements try to use lack of proper legal status of the latter to their own ends (i.e. expand their own allotments), while they receive full support from local authorities. Authorities, too, often use dissatisfied neighbors as a pretext and legal ground for their actions if they have intention of getting rid of Roma settlements.

It should be said that such actions are violating both Russian and international laws, and most of the officials understand this quite well. They do, however, try to refer to some legal norms, when they reply to criticism based on international legal norms in order to justify their own actions. For example, Schekino district administration (Tula region) responded to our letter by stating that “Schekino district guarantees the rights and basic freedoms of people and citizens in accordance with the standards of international law”. Moreover, administration also stated that human rights are “a natural part of people’s social activities, their social relations and individual being” and, finally, that “any repressive actions aimed against any groups or communities, especially ethnicity-based, are considered unacceptable”. At the same time they claimed that the issue of demolition of Roma houses is merely a civil court matter to be settled between the local administration and Roma community. Inconsistency of such purely formalistic position is clearly revealed in dealing with the problem of defending the right to education for Roma children. Children usually constitute more than half of victims of Roma houses’ demolitions, and that is why indifference on the part of the bodies of children custodianship in cases of threats or actual house demolitions is striking. But we haven’t registered a single case of children custodianship speaking out against demolitions throughout years of our experience in dealing with the problem of demolitions of Roma houses.

In Plekhanovo (Tula region) a court ruling had been made two years ago concerning a house, in which a Roma woman with two children (one of them disabled) lived. For a long time this court ruling was not put into effect, but recently bailiffs started demonstrating that they were eager to implement it. When making a legal appeal against this, lawyers of ADC “Memorial” referred to the fact that this house was the sole dwelling for minors, which should be a legal obstacle for its demolition. This corresponds to the legal statement made by the Constitutional Court of the Russian Federation dated June 8, 2010, which concerned the right of children to proper housing. When we put forward these arguments before the local administration, we were told that demolition of houses didn’t infringe on children’s rights in any way since they had been registered as living in another house. However, these children could not be registered in the house where they lived since the house lacked proper registration, same as many other similar houses, and all registrations had been made in other houses of this Roma settlement, which had proper registration documents. This situation, however, is a direct consequence of the existence of obligatory practice of residence registration in Russia. When dealing with the problems of minors, children custodianship agencies didn’t even try to check what was the actual housing situation of these children. But according to the logic of state officials, demolitions of unregistered houses do not violate anybody’s rights, because nobody could ever get registered in such houses. It is very difficult to deal with this situation and try to do something to resolve problems of Roma people given this merely bureaucratic concept of “legality” and outright indifference of state officials.

But in some cases it is possible to get legal resolution of the problem of houses threatened with demolition. In most cases, when this was done, it was due to participation of an experienced lawyer in court procedures. Appealing legal claims for demolition is not an easy legal matter, which requires really competent legal assistance. And the sooner such legal assistance is provided to people threatened with demolition of their houses, the better. In the particular situation in Plekhanovo, a Roma settler appealed to ADC “Memorial” for legal assistance only after bailiffs had visited her, although the period for legal appeal against an earlier court ruling on demolition of her house had expired by then and it was only possible to point out to the local authorities that this ruling had been incorrect.

Lawyer’s participation in legal procedures in a similar legal case in Volgograd region resulted in local administration dropping the legal claim and starting negotiations concerning provision of land allotments to Roma dwellers with further legal registration of their houses. In another Roma settlement in Tula region the court recently made a ruling in favor of the claim presented by local administration, which had asked for demolition , but this ruling was appealed in court by a lawyer representing Roma dwellers and the second-instance court may overrule this earlier decision soon.

In spite of the fact that there were cases of successful legal defense of the rights of Roma dwellers in courts and that local authorities understand impossibility of demolitions of Roma settlements other than following court rulings concerning particular unregistered houses, legal guarantees against demolitions of unregistered Roma settlements are still absent in Russia. And the only possibility to protect them from demolition is to go through a long and costly procedure of registering these houses in a proper manner.

by Anna Udyarova

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