ATD Europe meet with the EU Fundamental Rights Agency

On 20th February members of the team along with community activist Lorraine travelled to Vienna, Austria to meet with other ATD Europe groups and prepare for a meeting with the EU Fundamental Rights Organisation held on the 23rd February about institutional maltreatment and socio- economic discrimination.

The Fundamental rights Agency work to promote and protect rights within the EU.  They do this through actions such as collecting and analysing law and data and providing independent, evidence- based advice on rights. 

After arriving to our hostel in Vienna Monday night we began preparing together on Tuesday morning.  This preparation began last September with a larger group of ATD teams and community activists in Mery- Sur- Oise, France.  This meeting in Vienna included a smaller group of delegates from Ireland, France, Belgium and the Bulgaria.  The European team had done a job of collating all the work done during this September meeting and identifying some key examples representative of the group.  The group first had a chance to each pick an example which was meaningful to them.  This sparked off several insightful discussions surrounding discrimination based on addiction, poor housing conditions, issues surrounding identity cards and increased use of online systems to access rights.  Particularly poignant were the moments of solidarity between the community activists who could resonate with each other’s experiences.  It was important to share this time of both mutual empathy and learning.  

Later, on Tuesday we met with the EAPN (European Anti-Poverty Network) Austria.  We shared with them what we had been working on and the purpose of our meeting with the FRA.  It was also very interesting to learn about the work the EAPN carry out in policy and campaigning, in particular their work surrounding ‘classism’.  We also heard how they support people directly- such as through the ‘come along’ project.  Further, we learned about the activism carried out by those experiencing poverty and social exclusion within the regional social rights network.  ATD often works closely with EAPN here in Ireland who are a key member of the #Addthe10th alliance.

The time in Vienna was also an important opportunity to raise further awareness of the Irish #Addthe10th campaign – the importance of it and some of the work we have done to date.  We shared some of the main learnings from our 2019 report ‘Does it only happen to me? Living in the shadows of socio- economic discrimination’, and introduced out new project ‘Breaking Barriers: A Participatory Approach to defining socio- economic discrimination’.

On Wednesday morning we did some final preparations together, and each group put a lot of hard work and effort in preparing their statements to share with the FRA. 

Upon reaching the building of the Fundamental Rights Agency we were given some history of the building and had some time to mingle with FRA workers before our meeting. 

The European team first introduced ATD Fourth World and our work with people facing poverty and discrimination.  They spoke on the Hidden Dimensions of Poverty report, before introducing the community activists.

Lorraine began with a statement outlining how many experience socio- economic discrimination while receiving healthcare.  This is often related to the stigma attached to drug users or those in recovery.  Assumptions can be made about patients based on, for example, their accent or how they are dressed.  Many feel this can often impact on the quality of care they receive.  Through our ‘Does it only happen to me?’ report we found that some people have experienced left a long time in waiting rooms, being discharged before they are ready, being labelled and made to feel guilty for their condition. 

People especially young people with a history of past drug use and trauma are mostly treated unfairly.  They don’t want to look into the trauma, they just look into the addiction.  I personally feel like I’ve been labelled and there is nothing I can do about it.  I feel it will always follow me, and many others feel the same.  This makes us feel hopeless.”

Pepi from Bulgaria spoke about problems regarding lack of ID cards and address registration.  He shared about living in a Roma ghetto in Sofia with his family, and 2, 500 Roma people.  This ghetto was demolished but they were promised that they would be placed in new housing.   Three years later, they were still being moved between different crisis centres.  After the buildings were destroyed so were the address registration.  This impacts on a family’s ability to enrol their kids in school, receive any public and health services and can also lead to issues with the police.  According to a study, in 2021, 150,000 Bulgarian citizens were dealing with problems relating to lack of ID cards and address registration.

We cannot access our basic human rights because we cannot prove who we are because we do not have IDs”.  

Phillipe then spoke from France about how public supports, such as healthcare, education, pensions, etc., must be accessed electronically.  This is a form of indirect discrimination.  This leads to a digital divide disproportionately impacting older people and those experiencing poverty.  This further intersects with issues of illiteracy.

FRA director Michael O’ Flaherty then reacted to these testimonies.  He first showed interest in the hidden dimensions of poverty report. He then expressed gratitude to the community activists for sharing their life experiences and assured the group that he was aware of these issues and the far- reaching impacts they can have.  He set out the work currently undertaken at the FRA which relates to these topics.

Isabel and Odile then spoke on the causes and consequences of discrimination. 

We were grateful for the chance to discuss with officials from the FRA.   Particularly those who we had individual conversations with afterward.  However, it is necessary to say that many from the group came away from this meeting dissatisfied with some of the responses.   Some had expected a greater commitment from the FRA to practically support us in our fight for change and so were somewhat disheartened with the reality of the discussion.  We had hoped that the meeting would in some way bring about tangible change to the struggles faced daily by some present at the meeting.  We did not get the impression that what was shared would have an immediate impact on the work carried out by the FRA.

We later heard more in depth about the projects which are currently undertaken by the FRA and its work on data collection. 

We then had a Q & A portion of the meeting, and share our thoughts on how the FRA can improve its research on poverty and social exclusion.

The FRA panel spoke about their research regarding socio- economic grounds in anti- discrimination legislation.  They stated that grounds need to reflect real life and need to be based on words people use in their everyday life.  This is an important to consider in Ireland as we work on our new Breaking Barriers project looking at how to define socio- economic discrimination.

One of the principle asks from ATD Europe was to conduct a study on socio- economic discrimination, which did not seem to be possible at this time.

Despite not leaving the meeting feeling as though we had not fully achieved what we had set out to, this was still a significant moment in creating more awareness of lived experiences of institutional maltreatment and socio- economic discrimination.  Further, we appreciated that the Fundamental Rights Agency understood the necessity of listening to those with direct lived experiences of poverty and giving them a platform to share their knowledge.  We also understand that they have limitations in what they have the capacity to undertake as an organisation also.

The next day we had the opportunity to meet with the French ambassador to Austria Gilles Pécout at the French embassy.  We spoke with him about our meeting with the FRA as our reason for being in Vienna.  We spoke on the work of ATD Fourth World and more specifically our examination of institutional maltreatment and socio- economic discrimination.  The Irish delegates set out the #Addthe10th campaign and the lived experience example we had prepared.  The French delegates then spoke in depth on their work.  We touched on many topics including the role of civil society in policy making.  Thank you to the French ambassador for this engaging discussion and for his encouragement.

Also, on this day we had some time for exploring Vienna and we saw impressive architecture, beautiful parks and sampled some delicious cakes and coffees.

Thank you very much to the Fundamental Rights Agency for this opportunity and for the time they dedicated to this meeting.  We hope that this relationship will continue to grow and the FRA are open to ATD playing a role in their important work in the future.  Through good co – operation and willingness from both sides we can learn how best to communicate with each other and work together to achieve our shared goals.  Further, we will continue to work alongside those struggling the most with poverty and social exclusion in ensuring that their expertise is not only consulted in policy and decision- making but also that they are active part of creating solutions.  Thank you to ATD Europe team for organising this event.  Thank you especially to Lorraine for her important contributions- we are very proud of her and the role she played during this meeting.