Speech at the European Economic and Social Committee

Presentation of FRA's most recent work at the EECS Meeting, Brussels

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you here today.

In 2008 around one in six people in the EU were below the poverty line. As the economic crisis rolls on, falling GDP, job losses and social spending cuts have been taking their toll and poverty levels are rising.

The economic hardship is a reality, so we all have to be vigilant in ensuring that those people most in need continue to have a level of protection in conformity with fundamental social rights standards: right to health, right to education, right to housing and right to social security.

The European Economic and Social Committee, and particularly the Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship section, has a key role in creating a bridge between Europe and civil society.

The Agency has had several opportunities for dialogue with the Committee over the years, which we’ve greatly appreciated. More recently, we’ve exchanged views on issues such as Roma, homophobia and irregular migrants and you actively engaged in our Fundamental Rights Conference. In the near future I will meet your President Staffan Nilsson, where I look forward to continuing this dialogue and exploring synergies such as, for example, consulting with you on our annual work programme and the two-way flow of data and information to feed your opinions and our research.

The Economic and Social Committee and the FRA share many things in common. We are part of the EU institutional framework. We have a voice that gives informed input on fundamental rights to EU decision makers when they formulate the policies that may affect us all. We reach out and embrace civil society organisations across the EU to listen to their views on fundamental rights issues and ensure their voices are also heard. And lastly, we are committed to making Charter rights, which are legally binding, a reality for everyone in the EU. As you rightly mention in your opinion on a strategy for the Charter, we need to strengthen the culture of fundamental rights across the EU. Working together can best do this. It is timely that we meet here today, as our current multiannual framework expires by the end of this year and the discussion on our future work areas for 2013 to 2017 has been opened.

Under our current Multi Annual Framework and most likely also under the future we work on a number of common areas. Today, I will focus on just four:

•Roma

• Immigration and integration of migrants

•Disability

•Child rights

 

Firstly, the EU’s largest ethnic minority, the Roma

In 2008, the FRA revealed that the Roma suffered the highest levels of discrimination of all minority groups, in access to housing, education, employment, and healthcare. Our latest survey, which we will present in April, deepens our knowledge and insight by comparing Roma with non-Roma households. We have interviewed approx. 20.000 Roma and non-Roma households reaching app. 90.000 persons & family members in 11 countries. With these data we can identify better what are discriminatory patterns, and what are poverty related challenges that the majority population in the same area is also facing.

On top of that, we made interviews with representatives of approximately 300

municipalities inquiring into their initiatives and approaches addressing the

issues. The findings will contribute to the implementation of the European Commission’s Roma strategy and hopefully be useful for key actors directly working with Roma on the ground.

The Roma strategy from last April has provided a good framework for a stronger focus and better co-ordination between all the actors involved from international, national to local partners. Joined-up governance will be tested in this regard, since the somewhat scattered and not well-coordinated efforts hitherto have not provided the results the Roma population rightly could have expected. You have worked extensively on the intercultural dialogue and the Roma. By working together and directly involving Roma communities, we may have reached a turning point that will benefit Europe’s most excluded and disadvantaged ethnic group.

Secondly, migration

Irregular migrants, despite contributing to our economies, often face a closed door, or worse, deportation when they try to access healthcare, education or

 seek justice. Since they either arrive in the EU irregularly, or arrive legally but

 have outstayed their visas, they are often open to exploitation, particularly from

 unscrupulous employers. They are people that may be exposed to modern day slavery. And they are people whose rights are often not respected. With the current economic crisis we have indications – although vague – that such exploitation is getting worse. That’s why in 2013, the FRA will follow-up its work on irregular migration and conduct research into extreme labour exploitation.

Take just one example from last year. Migrants at an asparagus farm in an EU Member State were working 13 hours working days, seven days a week in dangerous, unhealthy and dirty living conditions. They suffered food shortages, warm water being cut off, systematic underpayment or no payment whatsoever and work regulations were being ignored.

In this particular case, the asparagus farmer has been brought to justice for the extreme labour exploitation and maltreatment of her employees. However, in most of these cases where migrants do experience exploitation or unfair treatment, there are barriers for them in getting access to justice. Irregular migrants are put off going to court for fear of being reported and then deported.

And because possible deportation is the price of access to justice, often those who grossly violate these fundamental rights go unpunished.

This may be happening in the restaurants where we eat, at a neighbour’s farm we visit, and in the hotels we stay at, yet we do not see it since the general awareness is still very low in Europe. Maybe the European Integration Forum Dialogue Platform, which the EESC hosts, can contribute to raising awareness on these issues.

On this we will also work together with other EU Agencies involved in different aspects such as Europol and Eurofound as well as with labour inspectors and civil society who is close to the issues on the ground.

Thirdly, disability

One in six people in the EU have a disability. They have the right to participate fully and equally in all aspects of life, but in practice continue to face barriers in everyday life, ranging from accessibility to attitude.

The EU and two thirds of its Member States have already ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In 2010, the Commission also adopted the European Disability Strategy 2010-2020. Yet, people with disabilities are being affected by the economic crisis.

 

The fear is that the progress made in recent years will be rolled back by austerity measures. We know from several Member States that with focussed initiatives many persons with disability can find their place at the labour market – narrowing

 

the gap in employment rates between people with and without disabilities. The danger is that these measures will be cut with the long-term effect that people with disabilities are not given the possibility they need to work and live independently.

Your 2011 opinion clearly voices your concerns about the current crisis and calls for action and adequate support to empower people with disabilities with their full rights. It calls for the need to develop disability indicators to collect consistent data and monitor progress. This year the FRA will begin its work to develop such indicators, looking at three key Europe 2020 targets: education, employment and poverty reduction.

Furthermore, the Agency will launch in June the results of a large survey on the treatment of persons with mental health problems and intellectual disabilities.

The focus will to a large extent be on independent living.

Finally, the FRA will take part in the monitoring framework established by the

Commission under the CRPD.

 

Lastly child rights

Before the economic crisis, 20 million children in the EU lived at risk of poverty.

Since the crisis accelerated, children are being affected by public service cuts in education, health and social services. Unemployment rates of young people are severely on the rise. In some countries the rate is now up to even more than 40%.

We need to be vigilant to ensure children in the EU can enjoy their lawful rights,

rights which need to be protected at all levels in society Despite the economic situation a number of Member States have undertaken reforms of their child protection systems recently. Even profound reforms are not necessarily costly. These reforms aim at addressing failures of the existing systems – and their harmful consequences for some children. The reforms have reviewed how social services deal with cases of children in need of protection. Let me give you one recent example.

Although violence against children within the family is often addressed in legislation and policies, the identification and support of child victims remains a challenge. The lack of coordination between municipal social services has been identified as an important weakness.

A court in a Member State found a man and his wife guilty on charges of child neglect that also included abuse, assault, incest and forcible restraint. Several municipalities where the family had lived throughout the years had been alerted about possible abuses taking place within the family. One municipality was ordered by a court to repay the costs of foster care of the children who were victims of the abuse. The court based his judgement on the fact that it had withheld information from the new municipality where the family had moved. This case illustrates the importance of the open line of communication between municipalities and that key information is passed on with due respect for data protection issues.

The Agency is in its work on joined-up governance alert to issues like these in order to strengthen the protection of children and other vulnerable groups. Too often we realise that the lack of coordination and collaboration between authorities, both horizontal and vertical, leads to violations of basic rights.

Over the years, your Committee has recognised the importance of the rights of the child in its opinions. You acknowledge the need for indicators to keep track on progress, which is also high on our agenda. Further, we will deepen ourresearch into child-friendly justice, which you highlighted as important in yourrecent opinion.

Finally, the FRA is working to ensure child rights are mainstreamed into all areas of our work, for example on Roma, irregular migrants and disability.

Ladies and gentleman, All of this confirms that we have much to talk about and to act on jointly.

Therefore, I am looking forward to continue regularly meetings with you to exchange information and lessons learned. We will continue to share with you our data and analysis. And of course we will continue to discuss our findings and listen to your views. We are confident that this will help us to better deliver the information you need to shape your important work.

Thank you for your attention.