Plight of Europe’s Roma further exacerbated by COVID-19 pandemic

The claim has been made by the Open Society Foundations’ Public Health Programme.
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By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

22 Feb 2021

The OSF Public Health Programme says that the conditions for minority groups such as Roma have deteriorated rapidly, with “many governments using the veil of the pandemic to take repressive action.”

The pandemic has hit hard people from black and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds who, research shows, are dying disproportionately from Coronavirus.

But the less publicised plight of Roma people in Europe is also something the EU and international community should urgently address, says Marek Szilvasi, of the Open Society Foundations’ Public Health Programme (PHP).

On Monday, Szilvasi told this website that governments are using the veil of COVID-19 to impose greater restrictions on their movements and rights.

“This is particularly important in view of the EU’s ambitions to ‘build back better’ in its response to the health pandemic.”

The Office highlights a speech by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, in her 2020 State of the Union address, where she noted the discrimination Roma people face on a daily basis.

Speaking to MEPs at the time, she said, “Where is the essence of humanity when every single day Roma people are excluded from society and others are held back simply because of the colour of their skin or their religious belief?”

“Many of Europe’s Roma lack basic human rights such as access to education, health and employment, and are often forced to live in in unsafe conditions, with scant recourse to state assistance” Marek Szilvasi, Open Society Foundations’ Public Health Programme

“I am proud to live in Europe, in this open society of values and diversity. But even here in this Union these stories are a daily reality for so many people. And this reminds us that progress on fighting racism and hate is fragile. It is hard won but very easily lost. So now is the moment to make change.”

“To build a truly anti-racist Union - that goes from condemnation to action.”

Szilvasi says that Roma “have long been subject to racist attack and discrimination.”

He said, “Ostracised in many EU Member States and the subject of high-profile assaults by figures such as Matteo Salvini and Viktor Orbán, many of Europe’s Roma lack basic human rights such as access to education, health and employment, and are often forced to live in in unsafe conditions, with scant recourse to state assistance.”

Since the outbreak of COVID-19, it is claimed that the conditions for such groups “have deteriorated rapidly.”

According to the European Commission, 30 percent of Roma still live without water within their dwellings, and 36 percent without a toilet, shower, or bathroom.

The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) has pointed out that there are disparities in access to essential services like safe drinking water and sanitation and in exposure to environmental pollution along ethnic lines in Europe.

“While it is true that the response of national governments, in response to COVID-19, has exposed some brutal disparities in society across Europe, the situation for marginalised groups, such as Roma, is desperate” Marek Szilvasi, Open Society Foundations’ Public Health Programme

Even though access to water and sanitation are fundamental human rights, as recognised by the UN, Europe’s Roma are, it is also claimed, being left to live in unsafe environments, detrimental to their health and wellbeing.

Several examples are cited, including a major report by the Slovak Academy of Science that found that large numbers of Roma are being forced to reside around toxic landfills and flood-prone areas, and lack fair access to potable water and public waste management systems.

The report’s authors found that in one particular area the unsanitary conditions had created a “hot bed” for COVID-19.

The conditions in western European countries, such as Spain, are also bleak.

For example, in Seville, several Roma families in Plaza del Platanero were critically exposed, last month, following heavy snow. Already deprived of regular access to electricity, the disruption caused by this weather left vulnerable Roma fearing for their health.

Szilvasi said, “While it is true that the response of national governments, in response to COVID-19, has exposed some brutal disparities in society across Europe, the situation for marginalised groups, such as Roma, is desperate.”

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