The right to live independently and to be included in the community, which is set out in Article 19 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), means that disabled people must be able to choose how, where, and with whom to live. It also means people have the right to support services, such as personal assistance, that allow them to participate in mainstream society. But in Europe, hundreds of thousands of disabled people remain trapped in residential institutions, in violation of both the CRPD and the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Shockingly, many of these institutions were built or renovated with funding provided by the European Union (EU). Over the past decade, Slovakia alone has spent more than 150 million euros to increase the capacity of institutions, instead of building alternatives that support independent living. Large amounts of EU structural and investment funding have also been used to build or renovate institutions in Bulgaria, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, the Czech Republic, Estonia and Poland. Serious human rights violations have been documented in some of these institutions. Institutionalisation not only increases the risk of abuses, it also limits people’s ability to seek education, employment, and other services, and contributes to their marginalisation.

In 2014, the EU adopted new regulations for structural and investment funds, including requirements to support the “transition from institutional to community-based care” for disabled people. The decision to stop funding large institutions was a welcome step towards greater inclusion. However, the lack of effective monitoring processes and the barriers to lodging complaints make it difficult to ensure that this policy is being translated into practice.

The European Network on Independent Living (ENIL) is leading a campaign, “EU Funds for Our Rights”, calling on the European Commission and EU member states to ensure that structural funds are used to support the rights of people with disabilities, rather than restrict them.

Our campaign comes at a key moment: the European Commission is now discussing the next programming period 2021-2028, which creates an important window to build in better oversight of the EU funding. The campaign builds on the recommendations the UN’s CRPD Committee made to the EU in 2015, which stated that the EU must improve its monitoring of structural funds and act to interrupt or suspend payments to Member States that violate the Convention. The need for a better monitoring and complaints system was also echoed in the guidelines the European Ombudsman issued to the European Commission in 2015, on how to ensure that investments comply with the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. Without these reforms, it is all too likely that EU funds will keep flowing into institutions that violate the rights of people with disabilities.

ENIL’s report on the use of EU Funds for Independent Living, published earlier this month, shows that the Member States are still far from complying with their European and international human rights obligations. Having collected data from 18 countries, the report highlights numerous problems in the way they use EU funds. These range from investing into services that perpetuate the segregation and isolation of disabled people, to significant delays in launching calls to develop community-based alternatives to institutional care. One example of this is Hungary, where ENIL, the Validity Foundation and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union are calling for the suspension of an EU funded process that will see 2,500 people with disabilities moved into smaller institutions across the country.

If the EU is serious about upholding the rights of people with disabilities, it is time it puts its money where its mouth is. ENIL and its partner organisations active in the EU Funds for Our Rights campaign are therefore calling on the European Commission and the Member States to use EU funds to support genuine independent living services, rather than perpetuate the segregation and exclusion of this group of EU citizens.

To support ENIL’s campaign, please visit our Facebook page or our website.