The EU’s upcoming strategy for equality and inclusion of Romani people risks being ineffective unless it introduces mandatory objectives and includes targeted funding, say civil society groups.
Violence and police harassment against Romani people – Europe’s largest ethnic minority with six million people living in the EU – has been exacerbated by the health pandemic, rights organisations warn.
“Since April, during the COVID period, we’ve had at least eight [police violence] cases reported in Romania, three in Slovakia,” and more in Serbia, Jonathan Lee, a Romani activist working at the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) representing victims during litigation, told EURACTIV.
“Whereas we would normally see indiscriminate police raids on segregated settlements, it’s just been a little nastier during the lockdown.”
Lee said that the ERRC received reports of tear gas being used on women and children, and children being beaten with truncheons by local police.
Police brutality against Romani citizens across the EU is a long documented phenomenon.
In 2019, the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights ruled that in Romania the Romani community was confronted by institutionalised racism and authorities used disproportionate force during racially motivated raids.
According to Lee, the more severe character of police violence can be attributed to lesser accountability during the lockdown due to the paralysed judiciary and the inability of non-governmental organisations to be on the ground and record witness testimonies.
“It seems to me that this shows to us that it really didn’t take very long, – once they thought the world wasn’t watching, – for racist officers within institutionally racist police forces to start using this kind of violence targeted against Romani communities.”
The activist said that when organisations point out police violence or obvious discrimination in member states both from individual politicians and on a systemic level, the response from the European Commission tends to be that they condemn all forms of racism wherever they occur.
“To me this is a bit like saying ‘all lives matter’,” Lee said.
The Commission maintains that the EU already has the legally binding tools to combat discrimination.
“The Racial Equality Directive (RED) prohibits discrimination on grounds of racial or ethnic origin in key aspects of life,” equality Commissioner Helena Dalli recently told parliamentarians.
However, in a 2018 report the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) said that the “existing evidence of wide-spread discrimination against Roma suggests that the RED is not effective – at least with respect to that particular group.”
A spokesperson said the Commission “works closely with all member states to fight discrimination and advance the social and economic inclusion of Roma through financial support, policy advice and other tools”, when asked if the executive is considering introducing legislation.
‘Connecting the dots’
Rules governing Romani equality issues expire in 2020, so the Commission is set to present its new decade-long framework for inclusion and participation of the minority later this year.
Gabriela Hrabanova, the executive director at European Roma Grassroots Organizations (ERGO) network, said that the new strategy should be clearly linked with the next long-term EU budget and targeted in its implementation.
“What we are are doing now is connecting the dots,” said Hrabanova, whose organisation has been among those fighting for the recognition of anti-gypsyism as a specific form of racism.
“We are calling for a Roma-specific indicator to make sure [to know] where the allocations are going, to ensure a smart collection of ethnic data that would allow to us see if Roma are receiving this funding.”
Hrabanova said there needs to be a link between the national Roma integration strategies and EU development funding plans for the next seven-year period, which are being designed simultaneously.
“We need to find measures to make sure that the ‘hard to reach’ groups, one of which are Roma, are actually reached,” she said.
A 2016 EU survey showed that half of Roma between the ages of six and 24 do not attend school and every third Roma lives in housing without tap water.
Some member states, including Slovakia and Romania, locked down entire Roma settlements, and instituted checkpoints at the entrance, further encumbering access to healthcare for the spatially segregated communities.
While authorities in some member states, like Slovakia, began to supply clean water in containers to Roma communities, NGOs say one-time interventions are not enough.
“Even if the media coverage would lessen, we still want to see allocations from the regional development budget to build a water pipeline and sewage system to those communities,” Hrabanova told EURACTIV.
Radost Zaharieva, policy coordinator at the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), said that in the coming months we may see the aftermath of the COVID confinement in the health of Roma communities who already suffer from higher rates of chronic illnesses.
Roma settlements are often densely populated with overcrowded households that accommodate several generations of large families, and have limited to no access to basic public services, such as garbage collection.
“Garbage collection is a major issue in many Roma settlements as it creates a favourable environment for the proliferation of different infections and communicable diseases and during the confinement, it was extremely difficult to ensure these services,” Zaharieva said.
“So the Roma were confronted with COVID-19, but also with the spread of other communicable diseases.”
Binding objectives and targets
Romani MEP Romeo Franz has been working on a resolution to be voted on in September that will propose a directive with binding objectives and targets, as well as adequate funding for the implementation of national inclusion strategies.
“COVID-19 has shown us more than clearly the effects of antigypsyism and states’ neglect for the inclusion of Romani people, in the lives of many Romani women, children and men,” the green parliamentarian said in emailed comments.
“Policies for Romani inclusion must be binding, but not to be seen as a pressure on the shoulders of member states, but as an urgent need to balance the socio-economic situation among citizens.”
“I hope to achieve equality, equal treatment for my Romani people, nothing more and nothing less,” the German lawmaker said.
“We are EU citizens.”
[Edited by Sam Morgan]