Alarming situation of Roma communities in the Western Balkans and Turkey through the COVID-19 pandemic

  • Roma in the Western Balkans and Turkey are seriously threatened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Poverty risks, famine and racist violence pose a serious danger to the Romani communities and to the overall societies as well.
  • We call upon the national governments in the Western Balkans and in Turkey, the European Union and individual EU Member States to urgently address the situation of the Roma.
Roma settlement in Zemun; Photo: Marko Miletić / Mašina

The impact and risks of the COVID-19 pandemic on Roma communities

Poverty and unemployment risks

Many Roma face extreme poverty risks as a result of previous precarious working conditions as well as lack of income and resources to rely on in this crisis situation. The large majority relied on precarious self-employment, irregular daily work, collecting recyclable material or on other sources of income which now due to crisis measures are not available anymore. Shutdowns and impediments to freedom of movement further deteriorate the situation. People were and are not in a position to build up stocks and often do not have possibilities to store supply at home. Thousands of families were already relying in the past on civil society or humanitarian organisations who were providing them (or the children) regularly with food. Social assistance in most countries is not sufficient to make a living or many Roma cannot access social benefits due to a lack of identity documents. Further we can anticipate an increase in the prices of food and basic needs articles. Already today we can find communities not having enough food. When humanitarian aid is distributed too late when larger communities are already starving, this can lead to severe consequences and violence.

Health risks

There is a high danger of spreading the virus with no possibilities to contain the virus due to the overcrowded living conditions of the vast majority of Roma, the limited access to water in the dwellings, to hygienic articles and to health services. The health status of Roma is in general already worse than within the majority population.

The risk of racist violence against Roma

So far we can observe only some cases of irresponsible media reporting (conventional and social media) on Roma in the COVID-19 crisis. In case of mass-scale infection within a Roma community, the virus would not only spread fast within the community, but other parts of the town could be infected which could lead to racist mob violence against Roma. However, with an overall more tensed situation we can expect an increase of scapegoating of Roma and probably even violence. Spreading rumours or fake news via social media can have a horrible impact. In the last 20-30 years, we saw massive violence against Roma already, including more recent cases when fake news spread via social media led to direct violence against individuals. In addition to violence we could experience lock-in situations of whole communities in case of infections in Romani settlements (which happened already that whole settlements were closed when a person returned recently from Western Europe), meaning that police or mobs will not allow Roma to leave neighbourhoods.

Educational risks

Due to the living conditions, children have difficulties to participate in distance-learning and home schooling. Overcrowded houses are not conducive to learning, many have no computers at home or parents are illiterate or attended only a few classes in school and cannot help the children. CSO-led educational centres are closed or require the necessary means for online education. We can anticipate tens of thousands of children losing track in schools and high drop-out rates in near future.

We call upon the national governments in the Western Balkans and in Turkey, the European Union and individual Member States of the European Union to urgently address the situation of the Roma.

Emergency and contingency

  • Urgently, authorities have to address the specific situation of Roma in any contingency and emergency planning at both national and local level. Authorities have to introduce measures which directly target Roma as marginalized groups as well as to secure all mainstream measures to reach Roma and their settlements.
  • National as well as local contingency and emergency response or crisis teams have to include Romani representatives.
  • Authorities in cooperation with civil society have to conduct needs assessments at community (neighbourhood) and municipal level, detailing the number of inhabitants of neighbourhoods according to gender, age and medical needs (online or via phone if necessary). The information has to be channelled to the national and local crisis response teamx
  • Authorities should urgently develop and secure economic measures during the crisis or provide financial aid to vulnerable groups working as informal market sellers or daily workers, as well as workers which will lose their job or income due to the crisis.
  • Authorities have to ensure equal treatment of Roma when adopting and applying preventive measures

Humanitarian Assistance and Security of Roma

  • Supply of food and hygienic articles: Taking into account that the majority of Roma is now without any income possibilities, a humanitarian assistance programme focusing on the most vulnerable people has to be implemented urgently across the region, involving all vulnerable Romani communities. This requires a regular and well organised distribution of humanitarian assistance (food and hygiene). A regular and scheduled distribution scheme can help to avoid violence during distribution.
  • Access to water, electricity and infrastructure: Urgently, all possibilities have to be explored to provide better access to hygiene. This means in particular providing access to water and needed infrastructure. This could be done via reconnecting families or settlements which have been cut off from water or electricity supply or via regular bringing water with lorries to the settlements. Romani settlements should be fully included in disinfection measures.
  • Access to health care system and medicine: A non-discriminatory, equal access to the health system and the supply with medicine have to be ensured for everybody.
  • Ensure security of Roma: Law enforcement has to ensure security of Roma from racism and violence. Neither state authorities and law enforcement nor local communities should be allowed to introduce measures of “collective punishment” against Romani communities.
  • Education: Alternative, creative ways of home-schooling have to be developed for children in vulnerable families.

Participation and contribution of civil society

  • Role of civil society: Authorities should be in charge, and should not leave the responsibility to the civil society, e.g. regarding humanitarian assistance. Civil society can assume other important tasks such as regular awareness-raising within the communities, assessing the needs in communities and informing authorities and donors, monitoring the equal inclusion of Roma in humanitarian assistance and their equal access to medical service (e.g. phone/online counselling).
  • Awareness-raising: Authorities in cooperation with Roma and pro-Roma civil society have to conduct awareness-raising programmes.
  • Safety and protection of community assistants: Roma health mediators, teaching assistants, coordinators or members of NGO working with communities have to be equipped with the necessary protective materials (masks, gloves, disinfectants). These persons should be provided with information on protective measures and assist people as much as security allows.
  • Detect fact news and hate speech: Civil society should set up close cooperation with law enforcement institutions and monitor social media in order to detect rumours and fake news to avoid violence against Roma.
  • Monitor equal treatment: Human-rights watchdogs have to monitor in order to ensure equal treatment of Roma, including in the field of freedom of movement, and in the distribution of humanitarian aid.
  • Psycho-social support programmes: As all other individuals Roma face the psycho-social consequences of the crisis which could create additional problems such as depression or domestic violence, in particular when considering the overcrowded living conditions and the lack of financial resources. Relevant institutions should reach out to Roma to include them into psycho-social assistance programmes. Civil society organisations could establish relevant counselling hotlines.

Post-pandemic time

  • Prepare for post-COVID 19 pandemic time: The crisis will not be over after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. Long-term measures in housing and infrastructure development, economic participation (employment and self-employment), access to education, etc. have to be developed already now. The post-crisis policies have to solve the most crucial problems of the Romani communities. In case, governments or the European Union start with the post-crisis planning, representatives of the Romani communities and civil society organizations should be involved.
  • Monitoring and assessment of the socio-economic impact: Support should be provided to the CSOs to monitor and assess the socio-economic impact of the pandemic on the Roma community during the pandemic itself, so that required disaggregated data (according to gender, age and vulnerability) would be available for post pandemic policy design. Monitoring and assessment exercise should mainstream gender. Special attention should be paid to possibility of growing gap between the Roma communities and society in general.

A joint statement of Roma Active Albania, Otaharin (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Voice of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians (Kosovo), Advancing Together (Kosovo), Phiren Amenca (Montenegro), RROMA (North Macedonia), Romalitico/Romaversitas (North Macedonia), Forum Roma Serbia (Serbia), Association of Coordinators for Roma Issues (Serbia), Zero Discrimination Association (Turkey), Central Council of German Sinti and Roma (Germany), ERGO Network (Belgium).

2020-03-31 CSO paper – alarming situation of Roma in Western Balkans and Turkey