The Hungarian law that came into force on 1 December 2011 and incriminates the homeless in the country has been really making the headlines. Some people have simply put it down to the excesses of the current Hungarian government. However, it turns out that similar laws are in force in other European countries and notably in France, meaning that this law is far from being an isolated case. Prefectural decrees banning people from going through dustbins were passed during the same period in Nogent-sur-Marne and Lille in France. The Lille decree also makes begging illegal and has only been translated into Romanian and Bulgarian. While these decrees may not directly seek to ban homelessness, this is what they actually do in practice. Banning social exclusion is the means being used to address the issue in Europe.
It is unclear whether the European Union’s highest authorities would feel that the Member States are satisfactorily complying with the best efforts obligation to ensure that victims of social exclusion can live dignified lives. The obligation is enshrined in the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights and is expressed as follows : “In order to combat social exclusion and poverty, the Union recognises and respects the right to social and housing assistance so as to ensure a decent existence for all those who lack sufficient resources” (article 34.3). The aim is to ensure that the socially excluded are given social assistance and housing, which is linked to the most basic fundamental human rights : dignity, physical integrity and the prohibition of inhumane and degrading treatment. Punishing the homeless is an aberration that will only conceal latent social problems and goes completely against the letter and spirit of human rights laws.
Emmaus Europe and other organisations, including FEANTSA, sent an open letter criticising the Hungarian law to the European Commission in December 2011. Commissioner Andor’s Head of Cabinet answered our questions in a letter in which she explained the action being considered by the Commission. A multi-sector approach is being proposed, accompanied by the creation of a European Platform against Poverty and Social Exclusion, which would encourage the Member States to implement national action plans to combat homelessness. We are duty bound to closely monitor these initiatives so that we can become fully involved in their implementation.
Emmaus’ aims motivate us to take action to protect the rights of the homeless and to inform European citizens about these trends. If, as Abbé Pierre once said, “the voice of the voiceless must prevent the powerful from sleeping at night”, Emmaus is duty bound to amplify their voice. This takes the form of denouncing unacceptable governmental practices.
Our daily involvement and work enables each individual to regain their dignity and we are contributing to developing a more socially responsible way of life. Companions, leaders, volunteers and staff, let’s make our voices heard in the struggle against the root causes of extreme poverty and social exclusion ! Our struggle will only be successful if it is based on sharing experiences : please do feel free to send us your ideas and initiatives in this area.