Combating endemic racism against Europe’s Roma

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen a spike in discrimination against Europe’s already marginalised Roma communities. This is costing lives.

Will the European Commission’s new framework for integrating Roma communities help improve their situation in the EU and Western Balkans? Fintan McKenna reports.

In the Kochani municipality in North Macedonia, a community of 24 Roma families are living in an abandoned military barracks called ‘ASNOM’, where they have limited access to clean running water, a severe electricity hazard which causes up to six fires a year, as well as a poor sewage system.

The families are being evicted in order to build student housing on the property, yet the families are yet to be told where they are being relocated to. Cases of environmental racism against Roma communities such as this are all too common across Europe.

One of the goals of the EU is to create a Union of equality. This means equality for all genders, backgrounds and abilities. Although the EU has been on this journey for decades, we have yet to arrive at our final destination.

A prime example of this is ‘antigypsyism’. This refers to discrimination against the Roma community, and it exists in EU countries in many shapes and forms. These manifestations include hate speech and hate crimes, as well as institutional racism and structural exclusion from education, housing and basic human needs.

The emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic has changed living as we once knew it. Fortunately, many of us have access to basic human needs such as access to clean water, enough space to keep isolate and distance ourselves from one another, and most importantly sanitation.

Washing our hands of the Roma

Unfortunately, Roma communities across Europe do not enjoy many of these basic rights. Even prior to the pandemic, people from Roma communities had an average life expectancy of 10-15 years less than that of the majority population of similar economic status, which was largely due to their lack of access to medical care and vaccinations.

One of the most important measures recommended by the WHO to battle COVID-19 was to wash your hands with soap in warm water for 20 seconds frequently throughout the day. This simple but effective measure is not possible for 30% of Europe’s Roma communities because they do not even have access to tap water. In addition, as many as 40% do not have sanitary facilities in their homes, and across the EU, up to 80% of Roma live in cramped, overcrowded ghettos.

In some countries, such as Bulgaria and Slovakia, there has been a stronger military than medical presence in Roma neighbourhoods. “When cases were identified in Romani communities, we saw entire neighborhoods quarantined, police and military checkpoints on Roma-majority areas, violent police actions and even crop dusters spraying disinfectant over the homes of Roma,” says Jonathan Lee, advocacy and communications manager at the European Roma Rights Centre (ERCC). “These things simply would not happen in white, middle-class areas.”

Moving towards greater inclusion

In 2011, the Commission called on national governments to form and implement strategies for Roma inclusion. In 2012, these strategies were accessed by the Commission and the first step towards Roma integration were made.

Last year, the current Commission announced a new strategic framework for 2020-2030. This is a 10 year strategy which aims to help reduce antigypsyism in member states and to improve living standards and access to basic needs for Roma communities.

The Roma strategic framework is part of the Commission’s 2021-2025 plan against racism, and a key pillar of European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen’s commitment to a Union of equality.

At the Western Balkans Sofia Summit in November 2020, the accession countries voluntarily aligned to the Commission’s new strategic framework to help integrate Roma communities into their general population. While the aim is full equality, the Commission has proposed minimum targets for 2030, building on progress made under the previous framework, this includes ensuring that at least 95% of Roma have access to tap water.

Member states are being asked to draft their national strategies to follow the framework before September 2021, and report on their implementation and progress every two years. The Commission will carry out a midterm review evaluating progress in 2025. 

“The pandemic calls for both immediate and long-term policy measures targeting Roma.” says Mustafa Asanovski of the European Roma Rights Centre. “The immediate measures should offset the challenges that these communities face in all sectors. It is important that all initiatives intending to address the implications of the pandemic also include Roma.”

Toothless plans

Last year, on International Romani Day, the EEB released the first report of its kind outlining cases of environmental racism against the Roma community in both EU and accession countries. The report titled ‘Pushed to the wastelands: Environmental racism against Roma communities in Central and Eastern Europe” exposes, in great detail, how Roma communities are continuously pushed to the margins of society, cut off and put in danger with environmental hazards.

A recent META article by MEP Marie Toussaint highlighted how this kind of environmental racism is not just an issue limited to eastern EU member states and the Western Balkans, but Europe as a whole. Despite its good intentions, one failing of the strategic framework is its lack of teeth, activists warn.

Even if a council recommendation accompanies it, this will not pose any obligation on the member states to actually implement effective national Romani inclusion strategies with adequate funding from national budgets, progress and success indicators, and a robust monitoring mechanism.” says Romeo Franz from the EU Observer. “It misses the binding character of a legislative act.

What Franz warns of is a realistic possibility. Antigypsyism has a long history in Europe, and there have already been numerous past strategies for integrating the Roma communities, none of which carried consequences for lack of progress.

With the COVID-19 pandemic widening the divide between Roma communities and the general public, will nations have the drive to achieve these voluntary goals?

It is high time that we find a binding mechanism for holding governments accountable for their treatment of Europe’s Roma communities.