ECMI Minorities Blog. The Spanish Roma community in the time of coronavirus. A narrative perspective.


Author: Dr. Sergiusz Bober

The idea of the present blog piece is to provide a reader with a snapshot of the narratives concerning the Spanish Roma community produced during the coronavirus pandemic in Spain. It is important to scrutinize the situation of this community because of two main reasons. Firstly, demographically the Spanish Roma community belongs to the largest in Europe, therefore social attitudes and actions concerning that community affect a relatively large sector of Spain’s population. Secondly, not infrequently Spain is considered a positive example when it comes to policies focusing on Roma integration. It is important, consequently, to analyse a wider narrative context within which such policies are implemented. The blog piece is structured along three sub-topics, focusing on the examples of: (1) Popular narratives spreading anti-Roma prejudices as reported by the mainstream media and non-governmental organizations representing the Spanish Roma community; (2) Narratives stigmatizing the Spanish Roma community produced by the mainstream media; (3) Narratives intending to counter anti-Roma sentiments and content. Since the coronavirus crisis in Spain is still unfolding, its ultimate economic, social as well as political consequences remain to be seen. The same caveat applies to all kinds of narratives produced during this time and concerning, for example, communities affected by the crisis. Consequently, the interpretative layer of this analysis together with its concluding remarks need to be treated as being of a provisional nature. In addition, it needs to be taken into consideration that significant sectors of the Spanish Roma community are facing not only poverty and social exclusion, but also persistent antigypsyist attitudes preceding the coronavirus crisis.

(1) Popular narratives spreading anti-Roma prejudices.

During the coronavirus outbreak, several anti-Roma incidents had been reported in Spain. For instance, on March 7, the El País newspaper informed that audio messages distributed widely via WhatsApp in the town of Haro (La Rioja Autonomous Community) claimed the police were unable to enforce quarantine measures in the areas inhabited by the Roma community, due to the general lack of discipline there. At the same time, a police source quoted in the same article confirmed only a very limited number of quarantine-violating acts in such neighbourhoods.

During the following week, in the neighbouring Basque Autonomous Community, another audio message was widely circulated on social media, this time claiming that members of the Roma community intentionally tried to spread the coronavirus at the premises of Txagorritxu Hospital in Vitoria-Gasteiz, including by spitting in hospital rooms and waiting rooms. On March 10, the management of the Hospital responded by publishing an official statement on the Hospital´s website informing that the claims of the author of the audio message were manipulative, false and had resulted in the increase of hatred and stigmatization.

At the end of March, anti-Roma audio messages with content similar to the ones discussed above were disseminated in Santoña (Cantabria Autonomous Community). This time, the local Roma community was described as being infected in its entirety with the coronavirus, and responsible for further infections due to a generalized lack of respect for precautionary measures when visiting supermarkets or pharmacies, as well as through hospitalized members of the community returning to their homesteads without permission.

On April 6, the civil society organization (hereafter CSO) La Federación de Asociaciones de Mujeres Gitanas – FAKALI informed on another case of audio messages targeting the Spanish Roma community, this time from the Andalusian city of La Línea de la Concepción.

Although epidemics do not always result in the increase of hatred and scapegoating of minority communities, the current situation in Spain clearly shows some symptoms of such tendencies: a particular and vulnerable community is flagged; the link between that community and a potentially fatal disease is over-emphasized; negative perceptions are present in different parts of the national territory. Even though there is often a large distance between hateful pronouncements and physical violence, the authorities and civil society should act quickly in order to supress and, ideally, eliminate such narratives. The potential damage is too significant to be ignored.   

(2) Narratives stigmatizing the Spanish Roma community produced by the mainstream media.

Regrettably, mainstream media outlets also contribute to the proliferation of anti-Roma stereotypes during the coronavirus crisis. The most telling example is the front page of the Seville (Andalusian Autonomous Community) edition of the ABC newspaper published on March 20, featuring a page-size picture of the inhabitants of Tres Mil Viviendas neighbourhood, presumably insulting security staff instructing residents to stay indoors. Other graphic material published by ABC on the same day, both in print and online editions, contains further stigmatizing images, presenting inhabitants of the neighbourhoods of Tres Mil Viviendas, Los Pajaritos and Vacie. The accompanying texts describing and interpreting the situation in the aforementioned areas are characterized by very divisive language, although without directly referring to Roma community or its individual members. They are structured around the concept of a divided city featuring responsible Seville staying indoors in order to contain the spread of the virus, whilst the other – and every reader is supposed to know exactly which one - brazenly ignores the measures introduced by the authorities. Similarly, the Seville that obeys the rules by staying in self-isolation needs to be cordoned off from the contaminating destitution of the other. To make this point even more clear, the author explicitly refers to them-and-us rhetoric: “the other side” is to blame not “ours”, whereas “the truth can never be held hostage by the political correctness”.

Equally disturbing is the content created in response to a criminal incident that occurred in Polígono de Almanjayar neighbourhood in Granada (Andalusian Autonomous Community) on March 27. In this case, the forces of law and order monitoring confinement measures introduced by the authorities are juxtaposed with the chaos of a crime-infested area, commonly associated with a strong Roma presence. The narrative, delivered in a colourful language blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction, was constructed along the lines of a crime drama. The “spectators” belonging to the world outside of Polígono de Almanjayar follow the developments there with the level of excitement similar to that accompanying popular TV-series, while being completely detached from the harsh social and economic reality on the ground.

There are also cases of well-intentioned newspaper texts critically reporting on the anti-Roma incidents, with their authors still being unable to avoid stigmatizing descriptions of the affected individuals: when interviewed by El País about the hateful audio messages, a Roma resident of Santoña was “gesticulating with his hands with golden rings”.

A sceptical reader can see the three situations presented above as isolated cases of no real importance. On the other hand, all three come from influential newspapers with a significant readership, therefore the risk of contributing to the promotion of a public hostility towards Roma community cannot be dismissed. At the same time, such narratives expose the need for counternarratives and unbiased reporting on the Roma community.   

(3) Narratives intending to counter anti-Roma sentiments and content.

Crucially, opinions like those discussed above are not left unanswered, as Roma CSOs actively fight back against antigypsyism. For instance, FAKALI CSO filed a formal complaint concerning the case from Santoña with the public prosecutor of Cantabria. Similar steps with regard to the same case were announced by another CSO, Fundación Secretariado Gitano. Furthermore, the second of the ABC texts mentioned above was characterized as classist, racist and antigypsyist in a statement published on FAKALI’s website; while Kale Amenge CSO interpreted it as hateful, racist and insulting in a Facebook post. Unión Romaní CSO, on the other hand, strongly condemned the language of La Razón’s publication concerning the events in Polígono de Almanjayar.

It needs to be acknowledged that the mainstream media are also publishing content produced by members of the Roma community or providing a balanced account of the challenges faced by that community during the crisis. For example, a regional newspaper La Rioja opened its pages to a Romani perspective on the coronavirus outbreak. On March 25, it published a diary documenting the daily life of a community faced with unfounded rumours, threats and racist insults, while suffering from health- and economic consequences of the coronavirus. The latter approach can be illustrated with the article published on March 22 in Diario de Sevilla, discussing the situation in the underprivileged Polígono Sur district of Seville, where inhabitants – also of Roma descent – lost overnight the source of their already precarious income coming from street vending, due to the introduction of confinement measures. Importantly, local residents and activists are extensively quoted in the text.

Importantly, Spanish authorities are not idle on the narrative front either. During the recently observed International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (21 March), the Ministry of Equality in Madrid published on its Twitter account a condemnation of the coronavirus-motivated racist acts targeting mostly Romani and Chinese communities. Furthermore, at the beginning of April  Spanish media informed about Queen Letizia’s particular interest in the current situation of the most vulnerable sectors of the Roma community.

In the context of the preceding paragraph it should be noted that such initiatives are in line with the recently published recommendations of the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, encouraging relevant authorities not only to combat instances of discrimination during the coronavirus pandemics, but also promote social cohesion and inclusiveness.

Due to the ongoing nature of the coronavirus crisis in Spain, it is too early to conclusively discuss its impact on the social perceptions of the Roma community. Nevertheless, sources analysed in this piece allow a claim that conspiracy theories and anti-Roma stereotypes are not absent in coronavirus-hit Spain. Such narratives are produced mostly spontaneously by prejudiced individuals (e.g. audio messages), while in certain cases also the mainstream media are contributing to the promotion of the antigypsyist views. It is hard to assess whether these developments make anti-Roma stereotypes more widespread in Spain. At the same time, it can be rather safely assumed that the situation concerning the persistence of hateful narratives targeting Roma community is not improving. It is important to recognise that counternarratives are also being produced. However, a clear difference is obvious when it comes to the outreach potential between a major national newspaper or social media, and a website of a CSO, in favour of the former. Therefore, engagement from the side of the authorities gains strategic importance during the periods characterized by the intensified production of the anti-Roma narratives such as during the coronavirus pandemic. It is beyond doubt that spreading of antigypsyist views can be successfully contained only through the coordinated efforts involving governmental, civil society and media actors. In a Spain currently embroiled in the coronavirus crisis, the result of such efforts remains to be seen.    

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If you wish to write a commentary on this blog post, please contact the ECMI Minorities Blog editor Dr. Marika Djolai.

Read a commentary by Ismael Cortés

Unveiling anti-Roma sentiments in Spain. What’s next after Covid19?

The European Union put at the core of its foundations the principles of human dignity and equal treatment irrespective of racial or ethnic origin. Upholding this commitment, the European Commissioner for Equality, Helena Dalli recently called EU member states to “do their utmost to prevent national or ethnic minorities, in particular Roma, from becoming scapegoats in the current crisis.” Yet, the Covid-19 pandemic had already unveiled anti-Roma sentiments across Europe, and thus, it opens up a necessary debate on today’s racism.

As soon as the state of emergency was declared, the Spanish government recognized the vulnerability of Roma to Covid-19, in the context of preexisting structural inequalities. And indeed, the government mapped almost a thousand neighborhoods mostly populated by Roma living in a situation either of poverty or extreme poverty. Consequently, it deployed a plan to provide essential goods to poor families during the pandemic and to guarantee on permanent basis basic income, as well as water and electricity supply. Nevertheless, social and economic measures are not being enough to protect Roma rights in these times. Since the start of the pandemic, Spanish Roma organizations, such as Khetane and Union Romani, have repeatedly denounced the use of a racist language that portrays Roma communities as a threat to public health.

But I have been shaken about the level of hatred spread by highly influential newspapers, insulting, ridiculing, and slandering Roma communities. It was also striking to see cases when big media calling for the use of police or military violence against the Roma. And such messages of hatred have immediate consequences: there have been people encouraging trough social media a massive lynching and burning of Roma suspicious of skipping confinement. No measure was adopted nor to condemn neither to prosecute these cases yet.

The EU Race Equality Directive provides to its member states an adequate instrument to fight against harassment and hate speech. The social climate of panic that prevails in times of Covid-19 is crucial to assess the significance and possible effects of racist narratives. They may serve the purpose of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating, and offensive environment for the Roma communities. The Spanish law also protects its citizens and specific minority groups against threats, crimes against moral integrity and hate speech, protections guaranteed and typified in the penal code.

During the Covid-19 crisis, we are taking urgent measures to strengthen the public health system and to provide medical and social care to those who need it. But it is not enough. Our country must be also vigilant to prevent any violation of fundamental rights. Deeply rooted racism manifests in contexts of crisis, when social anxiety and discontent search for available channels of expression. And the Roma have historically proved to be an easy target, due to a sense of impunity linked to a wide accepted form of racism.

All socio-economic policies directed to Roma will prove fruitless if they are not backed-up by a commitment to stop racism and its manifestations, including discrimination. In December this year, the EU framework for Roma inclusion will come to its end; and I’m sure there will be many lessons to be taken on inequality from the Covid-19 crisis. One of them should be the need to prioritize anti-racism in the national and EU´s programs. To me, Roma inclusion - understood as equal participation in all areas of society – seems quite improbable to happen, when harsh stigmatization of and hatred against Roma communities continues being allowed.

The construction of social fear embodied into the ‘Roma threat’ is the biggest barrier for accessing rental housing, quality jobs, or democratic structures of representation. These three areas of inclusion, as different as they are, require the quality of reliability to participate in; and this is precisely what has been undermined to the Roma people. They have been deprived from the most elemental social capital: trust. The misrepresentation of Roma by racist narratives has three main effects: damaging the reputation of an entire group of people; creating a fear-based public opinion; and ultimately legitimizing the social and economic gap.

Such stigma is not new. Some say that has long historical roots, drawing parallels to Europe´s infamous history of anti-Semitism. ISpain and other EU member states should enforce anti-discrimination law for Roma and protect victims from such mistreatment. It is necessary to sanction hate speech in any format, be it in the traditional media, online media or social media. In modern democracies, public institutions do not only mirror society’s values, they lead to societal transformations. They have a responsibility to educate the public and to stand up to protect everybody.

I trust Spain can lead the way to a new paradigm of inclusion and justice. Roma equality in European societies is more than a social inclusion issue; it is a human dignity issue. This requires committed and anti-racist politicians and public servants ensuring that Roma are equally treated with respect to their fundamental rights.

*Ismael Cortés is a Member of Parliament in Spain

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