Is the Dutch travellers’ camps policy in violation of human rights?
Roma, Sinti, and travellers are not recognized as national minorities in the Netherlands. International organisations, including the European Court of Human Rights, have on multiple occasions emphasized that Roma and travellers are one of the most socially disadvantaged groups in Europe. Despite the fact that the travellers’ culture has been recognised as Immaterial Heritage in 2014, little protection has been provided by the Dutch government. Travellers in the Netherlands still face prejudice and discrimination, and there is a significant lack of travellers’ halting sites.
There are many organizations that recognize the need for better policy. The Netherlands Institute for Human Rights regards travellers as an ethnic group that should receive extra rights protections. Similarly, the National Ombudsman has started large scale research on the question of to what extent human rights of travellers are guaranteed in the Netherlands. Many other institutions from Europe and the United Nations have urged the Dutch authorities to protect Roma, Sinti and travellers’ communities and culture.
The Dutch travellers’ camps policy
Since the abolishment of the Caravan Act (‘Woonwagenwet’) in 1999, the Netherlands has not had a unified national policy concerning travellers’ camps. As a result, municipalities are responsible for ensuring the right for travellers to reside in caravans. For clarity, the government has put forward five possible policy options for municipalities. Two of these options are of particular importance here. The first policy option is the zero-option, better-known as the ‘extinction policy’, that intends to remove all camp sites. Municipalities can apply this policy by removing caravan sites when they become vacant, or by offering regular housing to travellers living in caravans. The second policy option is known as the ‘reduction policy’, which allows municipalities to reduce the number of halting sites for travellers’ caravans. We know, from numerous cases and decisions, that many municipalities have adopted one of these two policies. These have led to a significant decrease in the number of caravan sites available.
The PILP is of the opinion that both policy options are in violation of human rights standards as they discriminate against travellers and take no account of their culture and identity. The extinction policy has been held to be discriminatory by the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights in a decision against the municipality of Oss. The reduction policy does not account for growing requests for caravan sites in the Netherlands, also resulting in discrimination. This position is supported by, inter alia, the report of the European Committee against Racism and Intolerance of 2013, and the report of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination of 2015. Both committees criticise Dutch policy and advise the government to ensure that sufficient caravan sites are made available. So far, the government has not taken action and municipalities continue to apply the extinction and reduction policies.
What does the PILP do?
The goal of the PILP is to ensure structural protection of the human rights of Roma, Sinti and travellers in the Netherlands. Our focus is on the problems associated with the camps policy. By joining of forces with researchers, attorneys, experts and representatives of the Roma, Sinti and travellers community, the PILP is pushing for the rights of Roma, Sinti and travellers to their culture and identity.
To serve this goal, the PILP has been involved in litigation at the national courts and the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights. We have been researching and distributing information about the human rights of travellers, and advising travellers, attorneys, and civil servants in relation to travellers’ camps policy in the Netherlands.
Civil case against the municipality of Oss
The case against the municipality of Oss deserves particular mention. The municipality adopted an extinction policy, in this case meaning that it no longer rents vacant caravan sites to travellers. To gain more insight, the PILP organised two brainstorm meetings with travellers, experts and attorneys. The PILP also visited some travellers’ camps sites in Oss at the end of 2014 to see the results of this extinction policy first hand. With this knowledge, the PILP started civil litigation to compel the municipality to provide a caravan site to travellers. The PILP provided human rights arguments to the travellers’ attorneys, of Kennedy van der Laan, and, in an opinion letter, requested the court acknowledge the relevant human rights standards. In early 2016, the travellers won the case at the district court of Oost-Brabant. The municipality of Oss lodged an appeal.
Early November 2017, the Court of Appeal in Den Bosch decided that the traveller, who is supported by the PILP, is allowed to continue to reside in his caravan. The municipality is legally required to recognise him as a tenant and cannot remove him or his caravan from the terrain. Unfortunately, the court in first instance and the court of appeal did not address the extinction policy in general, nor the relevant human rights in this case. However, we are still happy with the achieved result. For the traveller, because he is allowed to continue to reside in his caravan, and for the travellers’ community, because the PILP was able to show that a legal procedure can be a tool to protect their (human) rights.
Supported by PILP, Roma, Sinti and Travellers communities decide not to start litigation against the Dutch central government
With reference to the judgement of the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights directed against the central government and the report of the Nationale Ombudsman, and by order of the Traveller’s organisations TUN and VSRWN, PILP-NJCM requested the government to change its policy. When the government would have rejected this request, PILP would have, most likely, started litigation against the government. However, it turned out that the government wanted to talk. The government law makers even appeared to be very open to input from the community on all issues and input on the human rights from PILP. The government and PILP organised several meetings with the communities to incorporate their ideas and input in the new policy as effectively as possible. This resulted in the new policy framework, presented on July 13, 2018.
Because of this new policy framework, the Roma, Sinti and Travellers communities, together with PILP-NJCM and Houthoff, decided not to start (civil) litigation against the Dutch central government. From a human rights perspective, the new policy looks good, at least on paper, and is also well received by the Roma, Sinti and Travellers communities. So since the new policy is suffice, litigation is not necessary anymore. The aim of litigation was, after all, to have a human rights proof policy: a result that now has been reached by close talks with the government.
Nevertheless, PILP and the NJCM will stay active and vigilant for the human and civil rights of the Roma, Sinti and Travellers communities. In cooperation with the communities, PILP will now focus on the municipalities’ implementation of the new policy.
The PILP at the Internationale Roma Pride 2015
On October 4, 2015, Jelle Klaas, coordinator of the PILP, received the Roma Pride Award for his work concerning the travellers’ camps policy. The PILP has made a short clip about the Roma Pride which includes interviews with Jelle Klaas, Leonie Huijbers, and representatives of the travellers and Roma community.
The PILP’s opinion letter on the Dutch policy
In a letter to the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights, the PILP sets out its concerns regarding the responsibility of the Dutch government in the protection of travellers’ human rights. This concern is in relation to the travellers’ camps policy in particular. According to the PILP, the government is not only passively, but actively responsible for the discrimination of travellers as a result of the camps policies applied by municipalities.
Article by L.M. Huijbers, ‘Het Nederlands woonwagenbeleid vanuit mensenrechtelijk perspectief’ [‘The Dutch travellers camps policy from a human rights perspective’] (NTM/NJCM-Bull. 2015, p. 387-417).
This legal article delves into the international, European and national human rights standards applicable to authorities in their application of travellers’ camps policies. It includes a discussion of the rights of respect of the home, private and family life, and the prohibition of discrimination.
Presentation about the work of the PILP
The file coordinator, Leonie Huijbers, gave a presentation to students of the International Institute for Social Studies in The Hague in February 2016. In this presentation, the work of the PILP and the case file on travellers’ camps policy was explained and discussed.
The PILP’s opinion letter regarding the municipality of Oss
In this letter to the district court Oost-Brabant, the PILP criticised the extinction policy of the municipality. The PILP’s position is that the municipality makes it impossible for travellers to live in accordance with their identity and culture. As such, the municipality of Oss is violating human rights of travellers.
The PILP’s handbook to municipalities
This handbook addresses what elements municipalities should consider in order to ensure their travellers’ camps policies meet human rights standards.
Research by Utrecht University student R.I. Dijkstra: ‘Uitsterfbeleid woonwagenkampen in Nederland legitiem?’ [‘Extinction policy in the Netherlands legitimate?’] (2014)
This research, commissioned by the PILP, looks at the extinction policy of travellers’ camps in the Netherlands and the relevant human rights standards. It has served as an important basis for the PILP to further develop this file and determine its strategy.
On 11 October 2018, Jelle Klaas of the PILP was interviewed on Radio 1. This was due to occupations by travellers with the goal of speeding up the process of the appointment of caravan sites. You can listen to the interview by clicking here.
Because of the new policy framework, the Roma, Sinti and Travellers communities, PILP-NJCM and Houthoff decided to not start (civil) litigation against the Dutch central government. In cooperation with the communities, PILP will now focus on the municipalities’ implementation of the new policy.
On July 13, 2018, the Dutch government presented their new national policy. With this policy the so-called ‘extinction policy’ has officially come to its end. In some municipalities it is still policy however, and in a lot of others the effects of the policy have to be reversed. The PILP and the NJCM will therefore stay active and vigilant for the human and civil rights of the Roma, Sinti and Travellers communities on this topic.
Early November 2017, the Court of Appeal in Den Bosch decided that the traveller, who is supported by the PILP, is allowed to continue to reside in his caravan. The municipality is legally required to recognise him as a tenant and cannot remove him or his caravan from the terrain.
In its judgment of May 1, 2017, the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights decided that the Dutch government discriminates against travellers. In this case, the PILP’s intervention played an important role.
On February 16, 2017, the PILP was at the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights hearing concerning the travellers’ camps policy in the municipality of Gouda and the role of the Dutch government. During this hearing, the Institute referred explicitly to the arguments set out in the PILP’s opinion letter.
On October 19, 2016, the PILP intervened in a case before the Netherlands Institute for Human Rights by way of an opinion letter. In this case, the travellers’ camps policy of the municipality of Gouda, as well as the policy of the national government was at issue. The PILP outlined the human rights standards applicable to the national policy.
On June 10, 2016, an article was published in the Volkskrant on the Dutch extinction policy. Anneke van de Pol of Travellers United Netherlands and Jelle Klaas discuss the policies that Dutch municipalities adopt to make travellers’ camps disappear.
On May 12, 2016, Sabina Achterberg, President of the Netherlands Association of Sinti, Roma and Travellers, and Jelle Klaas talked about the position of Roma, Sinti and travellers in the Netherlands at the Hague Talks.
On January 14, 2016, the district court Oost-Brabant delivered its judgment in the civil case against the municipality of Oss. The PILP described the importance of this case for travellers’ rights in a press release. In this case, the PILP intervened by way of opinion letter about the relevant human rights standards.
On May 31, 2015, Liberties.eu published a short article on the activities taken by the PILP against the extinction policy of travellers’ camps in the Netherlands.