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Portugal: Austerity measures pose a serious threat to human rights

Lisbon, 09/05/2012 – "Fiscal austerity measures implemented so far in Portugal have disproportionately affected the human rights of the most vulnerable social groups, especially children, the elderly and Roma. I welcome the government's efforts at cushioning the impact of the financial crisis, notably through the ‘social emergency' programme which started to be implemented late last year. Much more and systematic work though is necessary in order to fully protect and respect the social and economic right standards by which Portugal is bound", said the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Nils Muižnieks, upon conclusion of his three-day visit to Lisbon."

During his visit, the Commissioner noted with concern information indicating that more than 20% of the children and the elderly have been considered to be at risk of poverty. At the same time, the official unemployment rate in the country last year was estimated at 14% while in early 2012 youth unemployment reportedly reached 34%. "This is a situation that has jeopardized the laudable human rights achievements and social cohesion of the country. Portugal is a state party to the European Social Charter under which it has undertaken to effectively protect all persons who live or risk living in a situation of social exclusion or poverty. Employment, housing, education and social and medical assistance are vital social rights that may not be ignored even in times of economic crisis".

Commissioner Muižnieks was informed that an increasing number of children in Portugal drop out of school in order to find employment and support their families and themselves. "Measures adopted have led to a drastic decrease of reported cases of child labour. I urge the government to take all necessary measures and ensure through competent institutions, like the National Commission for the Protection of Children and Young People at Risk, that child labour and exploitation do not re-emerge".

"Discussions I had with a number of interlocutors, including the Ombudsman, confirmed the plight of the elderly this period. Pensions have been frozen, while hospital fees and costs of public transportation have risen. I noted with satisfaction that the Minister of Solidarity and Social Security is fully cognizant of this situation. The 2011 ‘social emergency' measures adopted in order to alleviate the adverse effects of the crisis on vulnerable social groups, such as the elderly, are steps in the right direction. Social protection of these groups should be clearly prioritised and based on a comprehensive data collection system able to provide reliable impact assessments and social safety nets safeguarding the human rights and dignity of all persons in need".

The Commissioner took note of the 2012 national strategy for Roma. "I urge the government to promptly adopt it and to give flesh to this initiative by providing the necessary human and financial resources for its implementation. I remain very worried by information showing that a large part of the Roma in Portugal continues to suffer from institutionalised discrimination, segregation and substandard living conditions. I call on the authorities to fully redress the serious violations concerning housing rights of the Roma that the European Committee of Social Rights identified last year in its decision in the case of ERRC v. Portugal". The Commissioner also stressed the need to continue and reinforce the programme of Roma mediators and complement it with targeted efforts to eliminate discrimination in all sectors.

Lastly, Commissioner Muižnieks lauded the authorities' decision not to reduce the budget of the Ombudsman's office. "This is a clear recognition of the invaluable work and contribution to human rights and the protection of the rule of law that independent National Human Rights Institutions carry out. Such national structures are indispensable during crisis as well as prosperity".

The Commissioner's report following his visit to Portugal is forthcoming.