The Roma are among most threatened by coronavirus in Europe

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Members of an ethnic Roma family walk in front of a party branch on the main commercial street in downtown Sibiu city, some 275km north of Bucharest, Romania, 08 May 2019, a day before the start of the Informal Summit of Heads of State or Government of the EU countries. In picture at left is seen a part of the EU Parliament elections campaign reading 'Together with us in Europe!', bearing the logo of the National Liberal Party (PNL), member of the EPP group; and at right a portrait of Romania's President Klaus Iohannis, former mayor of Sibiu city. [EPA-EFE/ROBERT GHEMENT]

Roma and Travellers have long been known to fall through the social net and their situation has worsened during the ongoing Covid-19 emergency, write Shannon Pfohman and Thomas Hackl.

Shannon Pfohman is Policy and Advocacy Director at Caritas Europa and Thomas Hackl is
Programme Director Humanitarian Aid of Caritas Romania.

For years, EU member states (Belgium, Bulgaria, Czechia, Greece, France, Ireland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, and the UK) have struggled to deliver effective results in the implementation of local measures to support their National Roma Integration Strategies in four key areas: access to education, employment, healthcare, and housing. In consequence, governments have regularly been reminded of the need to improve the living conditions of the many impoverished and marginalised Roma in Europe.

Vast evidence exists on this topic, alluding to the multitude of different challenges, both for the local communities and especially the Roma people themselves. Research conducted by Caritas Europa in 2016 identified the Roma people as one of the five population groups in Europe most impoverished. Further research in 2019 confirmed that five countries (Czechia, Greece, France, Slovakia, and Slovenia) identified the Roma people to be facing particular hurdles in accessing public services in the areas of employment, housing, and early childhood. Beyond these research findings, the Fundamental Rights Agency further confirmed in its 2018 research that anti-Gypsyism remains a persistent barrier to Roma inclusion and that “living in marginalised conditions and poverty affects young Roma’s employment opportunities in multiple ways”. In many cases, this has been attributed to a lack of commitment and political will on the part of national and/or local policy makers and/or to the misallocation of EU funding toward this priority. And this was the reality under normal circumstances, without the spread of the deadly corona virus.

But now, the Roma and Traveller community has been enormously affected by the economic and social fall-out provoked by Covid-19. Governments must take heed of the disastrous situation facing the Roma communities across Europe today, particularly in eastern and south-eastern Europe. Even the Council of Europe issued a press statement on 7 April reminding of the need for governments to ensure equal protection and care for Roma and Travellers during the Covid–19 crisis. This year on international Roma day, the call for protection should resonate louder than ever, since Roma people living in substandard housing and in segregated settlements across Europe are among the groups most vulnerable to the current Covid-19 pandemic.

In this current context, many Roma have lost their sources of daily income and face reduced access to social benefits, which have often been made more difficult by quarantine measures.

Their livelihoods traditionally depend on daily or occasional work in the informal sector, for instance, collecting and selling scrap materials, small trade, digging in landfills, as well as searching for food in garbage containers, or even begging. Whatever the source, this usual income is currently blocked at the moment due to social distancing measures

Meanwhile, social measures applied by some governments are focusing only on people losing formalised, regular jobs. But since the Roma people have mainly been active in the informal sector, they are completely excluded from these emerging corona-response related social protection measures. Without an income or social support, thousands are left without the means by which to purchase food. Despite this, public opinion in some countries is not in favour of spending money on food distributions to the Roma people.

Now in the fight against the coronavirus, the situation for the Roma people throughout Europe has become even worse and quite dire. Racism and scapegoating are rampant, made worse since many Roma people have returned to Eastern Europe from Western Europe, where they have lost their jobs due to corona virus-related lock downs. There is a further tendency in some places to erroneously blame them for having brought the virus home with them.

Recently Caritas Romania carried out phone interviews with more than 100 Roma families. Those contacted expressed deep worry about the best way to protect themselves and their children. 95% of the families interviewed consider Covid-19 to be “very dangerous” and 92% agreed that they have to take drastic measures within their own families in order to protect themselves. The implication being that some feel abandoned by their government. Amongst the Roma, there is a huge fear of Covid-19 infiltrating into their communities. This fear is further compounded by concerns whether the government authorities would react by protecting them or more likely just isolating entire Roma communities. In a positive move, the Slovakian government has meanwhile requested from local authorities that Roma settlements at least be provided with unlimited access to water.

Roma rights organisations and charitable organisations like Caritas appeal to EU and national governments to recognise that investment in preventative measures and support to the most vulnerable communities, among which is the Roma, is urgently needed.

With respect to EU values and commitments to the National Roma Strategies, EU and Member State governments as well as local and regional authorities desperately need to implement essential measures to ensure that Roma are able to access running water and basic sanitation. They must also ensure access to health care, even for those lacking identity documents and health insurance coverage. Measures should also be taken to ensure that those without bank accounts are able to collect their minimum income or other benefits from banks remaining open during the lockdown at the beginning of each month. For those Roma living in informal and segregated communities, solutions should be sought to ensure they have access to food. We cannot afford to let EU citizens perish of hunger as a result of poverty and government-imposed isolation measures. Caritas Europa thus urges political and humanitarian action and measures to support Roma communities during and after this Covid-19 emergency.

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