ECMI Minorities Blog. The Impact of COVID-19 on Roma Communities in Non-EU Countries in Eastern Europe
*** Preliminary results of the project 'Marginality on the Margins of Europe. The Impact of COVID-19 on Roma Communities in Non-EU Countries in Eastern Europe' ***
Authors: Andreea Cârstocea (ECMI); Raul Cârstocea (University of Leicester); Craig Willis (ECMI)
* Andreea Cârstocea is a Senior Researcher at the ECMI.
* Raul Cârstocea is Lecturer in Modern European History at the University of Leicester. He has previously worked as Lecturer in European Studies at the Europa Universität Flensburg, Senior Research Associate at the European Centre for Minority Issues, Flensburg, and as Teaching Fellow at University College London. He held research fellowships at the Imre Kértesz Kolleg Jena, the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies in Regensburg, and the Vienna Wiesenthal Institute for Holocaust Studies. His research interests focus on anti-Semitism, Jewish history, nationalism, fascism, and the Holocaust, and more broadly on state formation and nation-building processes in 19th and 20th century Central and Eastern Europe and their consequences for minority groups.
* Craig Willis is a Researcher at the ECMI.
The ECMI and the University of Leicester implemented the joint research project ‘Marginality on the Margins of Europe – The Impact of COVID-19 on Roma Communities in Non-EU Countries in Eastern Europe’, with funding from the University of Leicester’s QR Global Challenges Research Fund (Research England). The project is seeking to assess the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Roma communities in seven non-EU countries in Eastern Europe -- Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Ukraine; the data was collected through interviews with Roma stakeholders, a survey, and desk research, and involved a total number of 493 respondents .
Our enquiry addressed the perceived impact of the pandemic and the related restrictions on Roma communities in the areas of education, healthcare, employment, and housing; an additional area of enquiry was whether there were cases of hate speech, discrimination, and racist incidents emerging in relation to the pandemic. Based on the preliminary data analysis, the early results indicate several trends.
Concerning the pandemic’s impact on the education of Roma pupils, two major difficulties emerged, common to all countries researched. The lockdowns meant that from March 2020 there was a switch from in-person teaching to remote learning. The most problematic aspect related to this type of education – and one mentioned by virtually all interviewees – was the lack of adequate information technology (computers, laptops, tablets etc) within Roma families, as well as the lack of an adequate internet connection. A second aggravating factor was the higher percentage of illiteracy of Roma parents, who could only provide limited assistance with school lessons and homework. These findings were reinforced by the survey results, as follows:
- Of the respondents with children who were offered the possibility to study remotely, 55% had no computer and 43% had an inadequate internet connection
- 37% of these had no private place to study
- Just over 50% agreed that they could help their children with homework and 59% agreed that teachers had helped motivate children to attend school remotely
- 34% felt that remote learning increased costs for the household
- 18% felt their children were not treated the same as non-Roma pupils.
In terms of access to healthcare, the first important issue is that Roma communities already experienced higher rates of chronic disease and substantially lower life expectancy compared to non-Roma before the pandemic. The pandemic and the associated measures adopted to contain it therefore impacted a population already suffering from a worse health status as compared to the general population. In this context, while disruptions of essential health services were reported by nearly all countries and affected entire populations, in several countries Roma communities appear to have been disproportionately impacted (in particular in Bosnia and Herzegovina). In addition, stakeholder interviews often mention cases where persons of Roma background were refused medical assistance due to their ethnicity. The survey results indicate that:
- 53% of respondents stated that they avoided medical attention due to fear of infection of COVID-19
- Around 31% felt their general health had declined during the lockdown period
- 19% stated they faced discrimination when accessing medical services and 13% felt blamed by others for spreading the virus.
It has been well-documented that Roma have long faced challenges in the labour market/s across Europe. EU level statistics show that the share of Roma in paid work is just 43% – a number which declines to 29% for women. Consequently, going into the pandemic and the lockdown period, Roma were already at risk compared to majority populations due to their engagement in the informal sector. Reports from civil society organisations quickly began to specifically mention that Roma communities were being hard hit by soaring unemployment and a loss of income as a result of COVID-19 induced lockdown measures. Moreover, it is recognised that Roma are often not reached through mainstream inclusion measures or income support. Our primary data shows an over-reliance on informal work (just 22% of our respondents were in permanent regular employment) as well as reporting reduced income due to an inability to work. As a result, the ability to afford essential items declined drastically and the necessity to borrow money or apply for government assistance grew. The main takeaway from our data on employment and income is that Roma were greatly affected financially by the COVID-19 induced lockdown measures, with already existing precarities accentuated and compounded.
- 71% of respondents agreed that the lockdown had an impact on their ability to work, whilst 73% agreed that their income had been reduced
- In terms of knock-on impact, 32% of survey respondents felt that they could not afford food and household essentials – the figures were highest in Albania (48%) and Ukraine (45%)
- Only 27% stated that they did not need to borrow money and thus, by implication, 73% did. Of these, the primary sources were family (42%) and friends (37%), with just 11% borrowing money from banks. 26% did not have anyone or any institution to borrow from
- Regarding government assistance, only 36% were aware of any such schemes and only 24% of total respondents applied to them.
The issue of quality of housing and settlements in which Roma reside is also present in the specific concerns expressed relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. In their joint statement on International Roma Day 2020, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights remarked upon the difficulty of physical distancing and the issue of a lack of clean tap water. Our research found that 31% of respondents felt they did not have enough room to obey lockdown rules, but just 14% felt they had not managed to maintain adequate hygiene standards. Issues around overcrowded conditions can also lead to internal tension and raised anxiety. Furthermore, Roma have been shown to be more at risk of eviction and homelessness across Europe, particularly during the COVID-19 crisis. Our research found that just under 4% had been threatened with eviction at the time of research in June 2020, with 1.5% having been evicted since lockdown began.
- 65% of respondents agreed that the atmosphere in their house had become more tense, whilst nearly 73% have experienced higher levels of anxiety
- 8.5% had been cut off from a utility service for non-payment. The incidence was highest in Ukraine (26%) and Albania (17%)
- just under 7% had applied for housing benefits.
Hate speech and racist incidents
In addition to the structural racism affecting the Roma, which rendered communities particularly vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic and the prevention measures adopted in response to it, our research provides evidence of intensified hate speech and racially-motivated incidents in all countries covered by the project. These vary widely in intensity and type, with the most serious such incidents recorded in Serbia and Ukraine. Across the seven countries, interviews revealed a spike in hate speech in social media, with typical stereotypes about poor hygiene repurposed to identify Roma as potential disease carriers and spreaders. Identifications of members of the Roma community as ‘dirty’ ranges from racist jokes and memes shared online (e.g. Bosnia and Herzegovina) to instigations to violence (“let's burn Roma settlements so that they do not spread the disease to us”) and even attacks in Ukraine. In one such attack that took place in Kiev, a family of four Roma who had moved to the capital from the Zakarpattyia region were attacked with tear gas by two young men, who then burned down their tent.
Analysis of print and online media shows some reporting of racially-motivated incidents, but also pervasive racism in reproducing stereotypes about members of Roma communities, racial profiling, and explicit references to Roma ethnicity in coverage of criminal activities – the latter particularly notable in Ukraine. The existing prejudices and animosity of the majority population toward the Roma were fuelled by media reports claiming that localities or regions with large Roma communities were the ones where the state of emergency measures were least respected, or drawing attention to cases of coronavirus infection in Roma settlements.
Police violence was recorded in Albania against Roma involved in recycling, and in Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Ukraine for alleged violations of the lockdown rules. In some instances in Moldova and Ukraine, local authorities imposed quarantine measures for towns and villages with significant Roma populations. Other cases of selective racial profiling include the quarantine in army barracks of nine Roma musicians entering North Macedonia, the only ones to be forcefully quarantined in a group of 200 persons returning from Austria and Italy, with the non-Roma allowed to self-isolate at their homes. In Ukraine, authorities carried out illegal fingerprinting of Roma in Nizhyn, or publicly named and provided the addresses of Roma diagnosed with COVID-19. The worst incident occurred in Ivano-Frankivsk, where the mayor Ruslan Martsinkiv, a member of the far-right Svoboda party, called for the forced eviction of Roma residents and their deportation to Zakarpattya, under the pretext of violating the quarantine.
An interesting observation that comes across from the interviews is the attempt by many respondents (often Roma activists and mediators) to minimise the gravity of racist incidents. Some of the interviewees mentioned that Roma who witnessed abuse or even violent attacks were afraid to report it to the authorities, fearing pressure or even further violence from the police – in the context of the aforementioned cases of police brutality, this is entirely understandable. However, the lack of trust in police forces and other state institutions, grounded in long-term, structural racism, reproduces a pattern whereby such incidents are considerably under-reported. More worrying perhaps, a certain normalisation of racism can be noted among the respondents, with some of the interviewed Roma activists claiming to be ‘used to’ and resigned to the pervasiveness of racism in their societies.
To conclude, our project has revealed a disproportionate negative impact on Roma communities in all major areas of life (education, healthcare, employment, and housing) throughout the seven countries analysed. This impact was accompanied by an increase in hate speech and racially motivated incidents, thus aggravating the already difficult situation these communities face. With renewed lockdowns in the coming seasons now in sight, it remains to be seen whether governments will be able to alleviate the impact of such measures and stem the rise of hate speech and racist attacks – or whether the Roma will continue to bear the brunt of the effects of the pandemic.