Environmental racism against Roma in the time of COVID-19

Released on International Romani Day, a new report highlights the severe and systemic environmental racism which Roma communities across Europe face.

Instead of recognising that this neglect leaves the Roma more vulnerable to COVID-19, communities are being blamed and punished for the pandemic.

On the occasion of International Romani Day on 8 April, the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) and European Roma Grassroots Organisations (ERGO) network released, in collaboration with ICTA-UAB, a landmark report on a long-neglected and under-studied issue: the environmentalism racism targeting Roma communities in Europe.

Pushed to the Wastelands’ – which partly draws on the Environmental Justice Atlas, the world’s largest database of ecological conflicts, and its map of cases of environmental racism against Roma communities – reveals how numerous Roma communities in Central and Eastern Europe experience systematic and systemic environmental racism.

Given the lockdowns and movement restrictions that have accompanied the COVID-19 pandemic, the report was launched via a virtual event. Despite this, the e-room was heaving, with around 75 participants, including researchers, campaigners, policymakers and journalists.

“People are more familiar with the social, cultural and political discrimination facing Roma communities in Europe. However, few are aware of the environmental racism these communities are confronted with,” explains one of the co-authors of the report, Patrizia Heidegger, the European Environmental Bureau’s Director of Global Policies and Sustainability.

The report seeks to rectify this lack of awareness by placing the issue of environmental racism against Roma communities clearly on the political map. Even before its official release, the report was discussed with MEPs at the European Parliament and was previewed in the Guardian newspaper.

The viral effects of racism

This too often pushes these communities out into marginal and polluted plots and neighbourhoods, and deprives them of access to basic environmental services and public utilities. “Having to live and work in degraded wastelands or danger zones where people are denied basic environmental services, such as water supply and waste management, has serious consequences for the wellbeing and health of Roma communities. We need strong European responses to make this end,” Heidegger emphasises.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed these underlying inequalities and exclusion, and their potentially dire health consequences. “Roma communities living in segregated settlements or neighbourhoods with limited access to clean water and adequate sanitation are already more vulnerable to diseases,” says the EEB’s Katy Wiese, co-author of the report.

This message is echoed by FRA, the EU’s agency for fundamental rights. “Roma are particularly at risk,” the organisation said in a statement. “Governments therefore have an important and urgent responsibility to develop comprehensive and inclusive plans of support – and make sure they are implemented.”

But this does not appear to be occurring. “Roma communities are facing stricter restrictions than other neighbourhoods,” observed Jamen Gabriela Hrabanova, Executive Director of ERGO. “They are also being blamed for the spread of the [COVID-19] disease.”

Authorities in Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria have imposed additional restrictions on Roma communities that do not apply to the wider population. Masked police are reportedly patrolling the streets of the Roma community of Tandarei, in southeastern Romania. In Slovakia, some Roma communities have been sealed off and military doctors, rather than civilian ones, are testing them for the coronavirus.

“We are worried to learn that the provision of food aid and the disbursement of welfare benefits are endangered, and that some politicians blame Roma for the spread of the virus,” stated Council of Europe Secretary-General Marija Pejčinović Burić.

New strategy urgently needed

The problems and challenges facing Europe’s Roma are compounded by the myths and misinformation spread about these vulnerable communities. Online hate speech and fake stories against Roma people are again on the rise. Many Roma in Europe continue to face anti-Gypsyism, discrimination and socio-economic exclusion in their daily lives, despite EU and national rules against discrimination,” noted European Commissioner for Equality Helena Dalli. “This is why the Commission will present a reinforced strategy for Roma equality and inclusion in European society.”

However, this new post-2020 strategy will be lacking if it does not include environmental racism, ‘Pushed to the Wastelands’ reiterates. “The European Commission is currently drafting a proposal for its post-2020 Roma inclusion policy,” the EEB’s Heidegger points out. “This means it is uniquely positioned to ensure that the EU’s new approach to tackling anti-Roma discrimination includes confronting environmental racism.”

In addition, the report recommends that EU member states implement the bloc’s robust environmental laws equally and equitably by extending them, without prejudice, to Roma communities.