Interview with the Belgian Inter federal Center for Equal Opportunities (Unia).

Unia Inter federal Center for Equal Opportunities

Els and Patrick
Els and Patrick, Directors at Unia
  • Can you tell us a bit about Unia and the staff involved in ENNHRI’s Older Persons project?

Unia is an interfederal, independent public service specialising in policy on equal opportunity and non-discrimination. Founded on human rights, our mission breaks down into three major areas:

  1. Promoting equal opportunities and participation for all, in all areas of society (employment, housing, education, welfare, leisure, culture, citizenship, ...), irrespective of origin, age, disability, sexual orientation, religion or philosophy of life.
  2. Cooperating with the major actors in our society: political and public authorities, citizens, civil society, professions, social partners, academic world, international organisations, etc.
  3. Promoting knowledge and respect of constitutional rights, more particularly antidiscrimination law, to ensure that these rights are respected and applied in Belgium.

We fulfill these missions by advising and giving recommendations for governments and a variety of other organisations.
In many cases Unia’s role is essentially a supportive one. When a complaint is made, we inform the complainant or the parties in question about their rights and duties. We dedicate all further effort in cases of discrimination to reaching a constructive, out of court settlement. We will go to court if an amicable solution does not appear possible, if the case is highly relevant from a social point of view (to establish a legal precedent, for example, or clarify a point of law) or if the facts of the case are particularly serious (such as flagrant hate crime).

Unia organises also campaigns to inform and raise awareness, on which the Older Persons project is a perfect example. We offer support and training to anyone who wants to implement a diversity policy. We offer tools in the fight for equal opportunities and against discrimination and our local contact points in Flanders and Wallonia guarantee easy access to our services on a local and regional level.

There were several colleagues involved in the Older Persons project. Two staff members of the Support and Training Team worked on the monitoring, one staff member of the CRPD Team (Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities) focused on the situation of ageing people with disabilities in residential care centers and one staff member of the Policy and Society Team focused on the fundamental rights of elderly migrants in care and migrant care workers. This heterogeneous approach made it possible to tackle the key issues on the Human Rights situation of elderly in residential care.

  • How and why did it get involved in ENNHRI’s Older Persons project?

Unia is the successor of the Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism which had a type B-status as National Human Rights Institution (NHRI). It is our mission to promote equal opportunities en knowledge and respect of constitutional rights in Belgium. We do this for all, in all areas in society. That’s why we want to contribute to a coherent and informed regional, national and European policy with regard to a human rights-based approach to long-term care, and specifically to the residential care of older persons. The Older Persons project is a tool to promote knowledge of and respect for human rights in care in Belgium, with a particular attention for anti discrimination and equal opportunities.

  • How has the pilot monitoring activity?

Unia does not have the NPM mandate. This means that we could not enter care homes without permission, we relied on invitations from care homes. This was a barrier when the project started. Convincing stakeholders was a first step. Once they were convinced, they introduced us to the different care homes and into a variety of networks of relevant actors and care home management.

Our monitoring work conducted consisted of a review of legislation, policies and jurisprudence on a national and regional level. We monitored 9 care homes, selected according to the criteria of ownership (public/ private/ voluntary), size (small/ large), region (Brussels Region, Flanders and Walloon region) and location (urban/ rural). Interviews with relevant stakeholders completed our monitoring.

Overall, our monitoring went well. Care homes opened their doors to us, residents spoke freely and stakeholders participated in interviews and focus groups. They all helped us to identify the key elements of a human rights-based approach of elderly care in Belgium.

  • What are the main human rights issues in/facing the long-term care sector in Belgium?

The Belgian care sector is not in an era of change, but in a change of era. On the one hand accessible, affordable, but also high-quality care based on human rights is sought after. On the other hand, an attempt is being made to find an answer to the demographic evolution that can catapult the cost of care to new heights. These budgetary concerns and the developments in care supply and demand point to the importance of intra- and transmural collaborations, of a coordinated approach to high-quality care and assistance provision tailored to the individual (older) care recipient, this all with a particular attention for human rights. Some residential care centers have already taken steps toward this; others have yet to start.

To ensure a human-rights-based approach in Belgian residential care centres, we detect the following challenges on the basis of the monitoring:
Informing the citizen of his rights as a person in (residential) care: Present and future residents of care facilities should be thoroughly informed of their rights in care. This involves not only the ‘cure’ aspect, but also the ‘care’ aspect. The single-window principle for all aspects of residential care can be brought forward in this. It is primarily important that the implementation and observance of human rights is continuously monitored and that the public are informed of the results.

Countering a phased violation of rights: During care provision, the risk of - consciously or unconsciously - sliding into a (negative) spiral where the rights of care recipients are increasingly trampled underfoot can very quickly arise. These are often small ‘undesirable’ steps in care provision that increase the risk of a human rights violation. People (staff members) slip, as it were, into unacceptable behaviour. It forms a challenge to the entire facility to be attentive to this and to intervene as quickly as possible. A clear and frequently communicated framework is necessary, monitoring of employees essential.

Learning, teaching, training: It goes without saying that care and assistance providers must pay attention to human rights and must respect them. Providing high-quality care to the vulnerable elderly is however a profession. Gaining knowledge and learning skills with regard to human rights is therefore a basic condition (and basic right) for caregivers. An inclusive approach to human rights in basic care and assistance provision training is a necessary starting point. Additional education and training for caregivers and care participants who are already active in the sector is essential.