People & Power

Europe’s Recurring Shame

People & Power investigates the shocking abuse of disabled people at EU-funded care homes across Eastern Europe.

In 2014, in a truly disturbing episode of People & Power, we revealed the shocking mistreatment of disabled people in state-run care homes in Romania. That film, which we called Europe’s Hidden Shame, also raised very troubling questions about how and why some of those institutions were in receipt of funding from the European Union.

We took our evidence to the relevant ministry in Romania’s capital Bucharest and then to EU headquarters in Brussels. The authorities in Romania promised to halt the abuses, the EU said that they would give the matter appropriate attention.

Now, five years on we’ve heard fresh allegations about the neglect and abuse of disabled people – and not just in Romania, but elsewhere in Eastern Europe. We’ve also heard some of the same troubling questions about where EU taxpayers’ money is going.

So we asked filmmakers Sarah Spiller, Callum Macrae and Mark Williams to investigate.

They came back with this two-part report: Europe’s Recurring Shame


By Sarah Spiller

It’s a bright October morning and we’re in Brussels where hundreds of people with disabilities are protesting on the streets. One of their claims is that European countries are ignoring international conventions designed to end the segregation of disabled people in state institutions – and, in some cases, their mistreatment, neglect and abuse.

There’s a strong sense of deja vu. I first reported on abuses against people with disabilities in state institutions in Romania for People & Power five years ago. When I confronted a Romanian minister with the shocking evidence we’d gathered, he said he was “outraged” and vowed to take action to protect vulnerable citizens.

But what’s happened since? As you’ll see in this first episode of what turned into a two-part investigation, we’ve been back to Romania in search of answers. I’m sad to say that what we found is deeply dispiriting.

P&P  - Europe's Recurring shame
Institution, Maramures Romania, September 2019 [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

My journey began in the county of Maramures with human rights lawyer Georgiana Pascu, who’s monitored conditions inside Romania’s state institutions for disabled people since 2003. She’d contacted me about a discovery she’d made in September 2019.

At a state institution for residents with intellectual disabilities, she’d found people locked in chambers made of plexiglass around 2.5 metres high. Three were tied to beds.

The authorities maintained that disabled people were put in these “isolators” on the recommendation of a doctor, when they were “agitated”, “self-destructive” or posed a serious threat to themselves or others. Pascu described the constructions as cages and made an urgent complaint.

During our visit, we saw that the constructions had been dismantled, and heard residents had been relocated. But then we learned that isolation chambers could still be used for disabled people in the future here.

P&P  - Europe's Recurring shame
An institution for disabled adults near the village of Talmaciu, Romania [screengrab/Al Jazeera]

When Romania joined the EU in 2007, the country promised to improve the treatment of people with disabilities here. So, why were there still allegations of neglect and abuse?

Our inquiries took us next to the county of Sibiu, to an institution for disabled adults near the village of Talmaciu. Footage we obtained from this place showed a youngster wandering the grounds with arms strapped beneath a jumper. In a building where more than 40 severely disabled residents live, conditions were bleak and spartan.

There was also a vicious attack last year. Thirty-two-year-old Vasile Sitzer was brutally assaulted by another resident. When his sister saw him in intensive care, she was told his eyes had been gouged out.

Among the questions raised in the aftermath were allegations that there had been previous “serious incidents” of violence here between residents – and suggestions Vasile was tied to a bed when he was attacked. The authorities insisted to us that Vasile was not tied up (or under restraint) during the assault and say they took all necessary measures to resolve the incident.

However, for Mugur Fratila, an independent psychologist, brought in to investigate what happened here, the case raised far wider questions about institutionalised state care in this country. He told us bluntly: “These people are considered citizens of no value.”

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Elisabeta Moldovan has written a personal account of growing up in Romania’s state homes [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

The Romanian government didn’t supply a statement in response to our inquiries over the abuse of disabled people in the country. But for many, the question is why state institutions for disabled people here continue to exist at all?

In the city of Timisoara we met an extraordinary survivor of institutional state care. Elisabeta Moldovan – Eli to her friends – has written a deeply personal account of growing up in the country’s state homes.

She now lives in her own flat and is working with a local charity to refurbish apartments to help those move out of state institutions. Every individual, she told us, should have the freedom to live outside state homes, to live in the community.

In fact, the right of disabled people to live independently is a key policy of the EU, and like other EU member countries, Romania has received millions in aid from the EU for its disabled citizens.

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Tophaz Institution for youngsters and adults with disabilities, Hungary [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

In 2014, I revealed how some of this money had been spent. Not on closing institutions but renovating them. And that EU money had also gone into Romanian institutions where there were allegations of serious human rights violations.

During our investigation this time around, we heard further allegations about the mistreatment of disabled people in state institutions in receipt of EU money – and it wasn’t just in Romania.

Our investigation took us over the border to Hungary and to an institution for youngsters and adults with disabilities called Tophaz, around half an hours’ drive from Hungary’s capital Budapest.

Footage and photographs taken inside this institution in 2017 show a disabled boy strapped beneath his clothes, a young man tied to a radiator, among other distressing images. The NGO who reported this said what made the case even more alarming was that the institution had received EU funding.

Steven Allen from the Validity Foundation told us they began a lengthy correspondence with the European Commission, but that the Commission failed, in his view, to take responsibility for what had happened at the state home. This, he says, is morally unacceptable when EU taxpayers’ money is at stake.

We asked the Hungarian Government for a response to allegations about human rights violations at Tophaz but received no reply.

Europe's Recurring shame - People & Power
Disability campaigners in Brussels, October 2019 [Screengrab/Al Jazeera]

Back in Brussels, disability campaigners had mounted a symbolic protest near the offices of the European Commission. It was a cage with the banner: ‘This Project is funded by the European Union.’

We then spotted an EU Commission official coming down the road to find out what it was all about.

The official, EU Commission Director Katarina Ivankovic-Knezevic, joined a protester in the cage and I took the opportunity to ask her about human rights abuses. The director said that they tried to ensure that wherever EU money is in question, abuses don’t happen.

But evidence we were to gather in Part 2 of our investigation (the next episode of People & Power) raised yet further questions about just this – and in another EU member state held up as a model when it comes to using EU aid to close state institutions and reform care for disabled children, youngsters and adults.