A paradigm shift in national and EU Roma strategies is more urgent than ever.
In these times of Covid-19, solidarity between neighbours and families, among communities and across borders, is of the essence, because in an interconnected world our health and support systems are only as strong as their weakest link.
Roma communities are showing their solidarity by sewing face masks and distributing food packages. Yet, overall, states risk leaving Roma and Travellers behind.
Indeed, the pandemic has exacerbated the already critical condition of inequality many Roma, Sinti and Travellers face. It also shows how far removed we still are from ‘ending Roma discrimination and exclusion’—the stated policy objective of the European Union, in line with article 2 of the Treaty of the European Union and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
For decades, international and regional bodies monitoring human rights have drawn attention to egregious violations of the civil, cultural, economic, political, and social rights of Roma. While efforts are being made—albeit by some governments more than others—the vast majority of Roma, Sinti and Travellers in Europe remain at the margins of society. Fully 80 per cent of Roma women, men and children in the EU live below their country’s at-risk-of-poverty threshold.
Yet, had priority been given by national and local officials to implementing the concrete and actionable human-rights recommendations arising from United Nations bodies, the Council of Europe, the EU Framework for Roma Inclusion and the wider Sustainable Development Agenda, would Roma, Sinti and Travellers find themselves in such dire straits today?
As quarantine and lockdown measures are being enforced, one in three Roma children in the EU has no access to running water or health care, as many Roma live in segregated and overcrowded settlements. The simplest instruction—‘wash your hands’—becomes meaningless without access to clean water. Traveller caravans have been confiscated. Poor living conditions prevent social distancing and affect the immune systems of young and old.
In the absence of a computer, internet and sometimes even electricity, many Roma children find themselves excluded from distance learning. Often not benefiting from social protection, extreme poverty looms large for many families relying on temporary, insecure or informal employment. At the same time, the UN Human Rights Office receives reports of increasing manifestations of hatred against the Roma.
More positively, there are instances where Covid-19 has given rise to co-operation between grassroots organisations and authorities, often at municipal level: to disseminate information in Slovakia, put in place multilingual helplines in Ireland or provide medical supplies and equipment to Roma settlements in Greece.
The pivotal role of Roma organisations in this crisis further illustrates why Europe needs a vibrant civil society. Activists are mobilising transnational support for the most affected Roma communities in Europe, providing food, water and disinfectant. They are engaging in dialogue with national and local authorities to prevent the worst.
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Where there are computers and internet access, Roma educational assistants help children with distance learning through online chats and video support. Roma mediators collect information about the situation in settlements to ensure that the guidance is being followed and to identify the needs of the most vulnerable families.
States have a responsibility to protect the human rights of Roma in the public-health response to Covid-19 and in the recovery. Tailored assistance should include water, soap and sanitiser, food and medicine for communities in deficit, a moratorium on forced evictions, income support for those in need, affordable and equitable access to internet services, and protective equipment for those who continue to work.
Looking ahead, national Roma strategies and public perceptions need to shift fundamentally away from considering the Roma as ‘a problem to be solved’. Alternative policies should uphold the human rights of Roma and tackle the prejudice, stereotypes and discrimination that hold them back.
A new EU Roma Framework post-2020 represents an opportunity to remedy the weaknesses of the current framework, to hold states to account for making tangible progress and to embed the human-rights principles of participation, transparency and non-discrimination.
The Roma have been left behind for too long. Covid-19 does not discriminate; neither should we.
Birgit Van Hout is regional representative for Europe of the United Nations Human Rights Office (OHCHR). Previously, she worked to advance human rights, the rule of law and democracy in Guatemala, Timor Leste, Bosnia, central Asia, Palestine, Venezuela and Togo with various departments of the United Nations, the European Union and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.