Tuesday, 26th May 2020
Roma communities across Europe are particularly vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19. Already before the outbreak of COVID-19, people with Romani background suffered from extreme poverty, segregation and racism. In the current pandemic, Romani settlements with people living in confined spaces without access to clean water and medical care risk becoming hotspots for the pandemic. At the same time, Roma in several European countries are made scapegoats for the COVID-19 epidemic and are currently facing hate speech, ethnicized emergency measures and racist violence. This tense situation was the starting point that both the Alliance for Solidarity with the Sinti and Roma of Europe and the Observatory on Antigypsyism in Europe (in development) decided to offer a platform for activists and experts to exchange information and knowledge, to develop ideas for action and to gather resources within the online conference #Act4RomaLives. Human Rights of Roma in Times of COVID-19.
Alliance for Solidarity with the Sinti and Roma of Europe is a voluntary association of 25 German civil society organisations, including the organisations of Roma and Sinti. It was initiated by the Foundation Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and the German NGO RomaTrial. On the World Roma Day 2016, the Alliance made its first public appearance with a rally and a call for solidarity with the Sinti and Roma of Europe. Since then it has been organising events with partners in the context of Romaday and beyond. The Alliance draws attention to Antigypsyist structures and incidents through jointly prepared and implemented events and interventions and, in the spirit of a democratic understanding of the indivisibility of human rights, contribute in the long term to raising awareness of this specific form of exclusion and misanthropy.
Observatory on Antigypsyism in Europe (in development) collects and publishes with the help of a large network of local partners reliable information about Antigypsyist incidents, especially in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe and communicates it to politicians, the media and fellow combatants from different areas. It also researches the situation of Roma systematically and writes independent country reports with important contexts on the current situation. The Observatory is a project of the Foundation Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in cooperation with RomaTrial, the Hildegard Lagrenne Foundation and the Carmen association, funded by the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF), the Federal Anti-Discrimination Agency and the Freudenberg Foundation, with the support of the Alliance for Solidarity with the Sinti and Roma of Europe.
Opening and introduction
Uwe Neumärker, director of the foundation Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, who is also the co-initiator of the Alliance for Solidarity with the Sinti and Roma of Europe, opened the online conference with a short keynote, in which he highlighted the urgent need of this gathering.
Afterwards, the chairman of RomaTrial and also co-initiator of the Alliance for Solidarity with the Sinti and Roma of Europe, Hamze Bytyçi, reported briefly on the process from the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic to the decision to organize a conference with activists from more than 20 countries. He also underlined the aims of the conference: the exchange of knowledge and best practice examples and the creation of a stable network which will work together in long term in order to monitor the current situation of Romani people in different European countries. The Observatory on Antigypsyism in Europe is seeking for partners especially from Eastern and Southeastern Europe in order to extend its network of local partners.
Inputs and discussion: Situation of Romani People in Europe
Input 1: Access to Health Care and Basic Supplies
by Danilo Ćurčić, Programme coordinator of A11 Initiative for economic and social rights on the situation in Roma settlements in the Republic of Serbia during the Corona outbreak.
Danilo Ćurčić pointed out that EU strategies of Roma inclusion and the reality in Serbia are two completely different things: The State responded to the pandemic outbreak with a harsh course of action but failed at the same time to identify and address the most vulnerable Roma: Roma without IDs who are legally invisible or those living in informal settlements.
Serbia started its immediate harsh measures on March 15th and focused on two pillars: first, the special need of health care and second, the impact of the pandemic on the economy. The situation of Roma in settlements was not considered to be included in the course of action.
On the contrary, the situation was even aggravated: Roma who depend on income from informal economy were left without any means of subsidence, despite the State declared a state of emergency nationwide. Undocumented Roma are not only not able to apply for financial social assistance or other regular forms of support, they are also excluded from measures that were provided in order to fight the social impact of COVID-19. Roma, who did qualify for regular forms of support were prevented from applying for it. The only form of social assistance for Roma families means an offer for 150 Euro/month for four family members. Also, while schools are replaced by home schooling via internet platforms the State failed to ensure the access to teaching to Roma children.
Serbian activists reached out to public social services in order to provide resources to Roma settlements. They also tried to get in contact with the government to ensure protection of the most vulnerable. Until now, no indication of any willingness to take action has been seen. Afterwards, the activists decided to try to achieve measures from the Council of Europe: they called an action to the European Court of Human Rights and achieved a result within ten days. The European Court of Human Rights has initiated a procedure against Serbia for the lack of support for the most vulnerable in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
This entailed several media reports on the situation in the settlements and an intervention by the Minister of Labor and Minorities. Finally, the government started to cooperate. The combination of media reports, the engagement of local Roma organizations and of the European Court of Human Rights was the most efficient way to ensure the legal protection of the social rights of Romani people.
In the end, Danilo stressed that this procedure worked in this case indeed, but not as a long-term solution. Legally invisible Roma are not able to reach out for funds in the Republic of Serbia.
Input 2: Violence and Hate Speech against Roma
by Isabela Mihalache, Senior Policy Officer at ERGO network on the increasing number of cases of police violence and disinformation campaigns against Romani people during the COVID-19 crisis.
Isabela Mihalache reports that the number of cases of police violence against Roma has increased in Bulgaria, Slovakia, Serbia, North-Macedonia and Romania in the weeks of the lockdown-measures. The media do not only spread negative statements which contributed to create a stereotypical image of Roma but report also regularly on any incident involving Roma and are ethnicizing cases of failure to respect security measures or violent conflicts within communities.
Some local authorities have taken targeted measures to confine Roma by creating checkpoints and by employing additional police forces, gendarmery or military forces next to settlements which sometimes results in disproportionate racist violence against Roma.
In Bulgaria, authorities have introduced stricter measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Roma communities across the country. After ten cases of infection have been reported in the Fakulteta and Filipovtsi neighbourhoods, a police checkpoint was established on April 16th, 2020. The residents of Nova Zagora, Kazanlak and Sliven (where 50.000 Roma live) are confronted with temporary walls around the neighborhoods, that were built by the local authorities. The situation in Shesti near Nova Zagora is similar: The authorities argued that the residents did not have access to clean water and sanitation and therefore were not able to maintain the recommended level of hygiene to curb the spread of the virus. In Burgas for example, drones are used with thermal sensors to remotely take the temperatures of residents in exclusively Roma settlements. Armed military forces were deployed around settlements which shows that Roma communities are seen as a highly worrying “enemy”. The introduction of measures focused on Roma neighbourhoods has been accompanied by an increasingly hostile, anti-Roma rhetoric, frequently stoked by politicians, even by politicians of the government coalition.
In Romania, many cases of violent police abuse have happened around the country, particularly since Orthodox Easter. Several video evidences were piled up, for example of police officers in Bolintin-Vale beating up eight handcuffed Romani men and a 13-year-old boy for allegedly having a barbecue outside of their houses. In Hunedoara several Romani and non-Romani residents denounced that they were beaten by the police inside their buildings. The police entered many homes without explanation, used tear gas against women and minor children and beat up two men after they declared that they wanted to file a complaint against these abuses. In one case that was reported in Rahova, 37 persons were taken to the police station, were forced to face the wall for four hours without the possibility to drink or to go to a bathroom. Some of them who were taken abusively to the police station and who were beaten up went to the Forensic National Institute to obtain medical certificates. But despite the evidences they were afraid to file complaints. In additional, also in Romania politicians use an anti-Roma rhetoric and threaten Romani people.
In the same period, two cases of police violence against Roma in Serbia and three cases in Slovakia took place. In Slovakia, one of the cases involved a police officer beating and threatening to shoot five young Roma children for allegedly breaking a military-imposed quarantine in the segregated Romani neighbourhood of Krompachy.
After the input by Isabela Mihalache, several participants report on cases of police violence against Roma happening also in Italy, Spain, Serbia (Niš) and others. Partially, the incidents are recorded on video and it is possible to share them.
Breakout Rooms (30 minutes in three different discussion groups)
Breakout Room 1: Tools of political activism /media work: How to raise awareness?
Facilitator: Jochen Eisenburger (Employee of MEP Romeo Franz)
This short session focusing on tools of political activism was initiated to discuss the lack of attention Roma activists get for their demands and to collect ideas for actions to intensify the pressure on governments and local authorities. The current crisis is just aggravating the circumstances Romani people face in their everyday life, which is why the discussion in this breakout room didn’t focus on the current situation all the time but took also the room for basic discussions.
There were three key issues that emerged during the discussion.
First, some participants underlined the need of local activism. They pointed out that the mobilization of the local Romani population must go indeed hand in hand with a greater network of activists, but that local activism is the first and quickest step to obtain changes. It has a powerful and symbolic meaning that motivates the community to defend themselves.
Second, the group concluded that one of the most important tasks is to create services for Roma who do not know how to exercise their fundamental rights to vote or to participate. There is a need for support so that everybody is aware of his or her fundamental right and knows how to exercise them. Without this knowledge many Romani people can’t get involved in political debates and decisions.
Third, the participants underlined the importance of connecting basic demands with greater demands: So, if basic supplies are not secured, this also means that fundamental rights are limited or cannot be exercised. Therefore, the demand, for example for bread, must always be combined with greater demands: the demand for the implementation of human rights, the demand for freedom and equality.
Breakout Room 2: Information networks/ evidence-collection
Facilitator: Jana Mechelhoff-Herezi (Foundation Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe)
In this session, the four central questions to discuss were: What can be done to push politics to action? How can a structure of informing each other about incidents be built? Which possibilities do we have to collect racial incidents? And how can we support people to report incidents?
Isabela Mihalache from ERGO-network reported that ERGO is looking for cooperation partners to send a report on cases of hate speech and violence to institutions in Brussels. She underlined that any information ERGO can get is important for fundamental right agencies. The mapping project “Roma React” by ERGO allows everyone to publish information on incidents. Also, a free application for monitoring cases of discrimination or (police) violence could be developed whereby people are able to address courts and authorities directly throughout (comparable examples exist in the UK and Spain)
Observatories in several countries monitor and record acts of discrimination and racism. These observatories need to be contacted in order to connect their work internationally. In addition, the EU Fundamental Rights Agency currently also monitors the impact of COVID-19 on fundamental rights.
Isabela added the suggestion that several organizations (as A11 initiative, ERGO or ERRC+) could get involved in developing guidelines for NGOs to submit interim measures to the European Court of Human Rights on the inhuman conditions Romani people are facing currently. Also, it could be arranged that the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE committee) of the European Parliament writes a report on the impact of COVID-19.
The session participants saw an important task for the future in finding better ways to inform on the national level about the competencies of the EU institutions and the Council of Europe, whereby we could intensify the pressure on national governments.
Breakout Room 3: Experiences and Strategies for Local Support
Facilitator: Esther Spicker (Schwarzkopf Foundation Young Europe)
The objectives of the last breakout session were both to share experiences and strategies for local support and connecting and learning about best practice examples.
Christoph Leucht from the Hildegard Lagrenne Foundation presented a first example: In the beginning of the pandemic crisis, the foundation was approached by a Bulgarian organization asking about possibilities to raise funds in Dortmund for food supply. They found solutions on how to organize this support, how to raise money and how the delivery could take place. They decided to hand over donations and to set up a local committee for further decisions.
Another participant presented possibilities of local advocacy for communities that lack access to water or masks (purchase masks produced by other Roma communities and distribute them). Others launched a study on how the pandemic affects Roma communities in the area of employment and education in order to launch a pilot project to support Roma entrepreneurs in four different regions.
The participants discussed ways of connecting with other organizations, finding partners in other countries and bringing together Roma activists and other organizations. One way is to study the donor structures in the different countries, to partner with UN based agencies or the representation of the European commission.
Participants reported that it was challenging to change projects on empowerment into humanitarian aid because of COVID-19. Many people lost their jobs or have not been working for several months. Many families lack of basic needs such as food. This is a new, sometimes frustrating situation for many organizations.
In the session, several ideas for support structures came up: Building a lobby for local public support to make sure clean water is supplied to communities, raising data that give an overview on what is most needed, e.g. in schools.
Together the participants could find a foundation and funds to tackle this challenge. Partnership is crucial.
In his closing remarks, Romeo Franz, human rights activist and Member of the European Parliament since 2018, underlined the importance of equal participation and cooperation among activists who came together for this conference. Romeo also reported that he is preparing a resolution in the LIBE-Committee (civil liberties, justice and home affairs) which asks decision makers for binding, clear targets, objectives, progress and success indicators for Romani inclusion, for the promotion and protection of the identity, language, culture and for adequate budgets to implement policies.
At the end of the conference, Grattan Puxon, the co-Founder of the international Romani movement, found very warning words. He urged the participants of the conference to keep up the fight against inequality and injustice: “Because we are experiencing the greatest crisis since the end of World War II, we must not close our eyes and allow what is happening in Europe right now.” In his eyes, the mobilization is already there and the conference #Act4RomaLives is a new beginning to mobilization of the Romani communities. In the end, Grattan reminded of next year’s jubilee of Romaday, which plays an important role in the Roma movement. In 2021, it is 50 years from the First World Romani Congress in 1971 in London – and Grattan Puxon suggests to organize a great congress for Roma re-union in Berlin.
Recordings: Klaus Jetz (The Lesbian and Gay Federation in Germany – LSVD), Sarah Rosenau (Observatory on Antigypsyism in Europe/Alliance for Solidarity with the Sinti and Roma of Europe), Merle Stöver (Foundation Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe)
Moderation: Katja Wadewitz (Observatory on Antigypsyism in Europe)Alle News