In Bulgaria, Roma communities were this spring sprayed with disinfectant from crop dusters as COVID-19 cases surged in the country. In the Slovak Republic, their villages were the only ones where the army conducted testing. Across central and eastern Europe, reports of police using excessive force against Roma spiked as officers were deployed to enforce lockdowns in their towns.
Human rights advocates and regional experts have said that local officials in several countries with sizeable Roma populations have used the pandemic to unlawfully target the minority group, which is Europe’s largest and has faced centuries of severe discrimination.
With COVID-19 cases resurging across the continent, some experts have said that the repression is also likely to return.
To make matters worse, rights advocates have said that such discrimination often draws little opposition from other Europeans and Roma are reluctant to speak about it, fearing repercussions.
One afternoon, Azime Ali Topchu, 48, said that a police-enforced lockdown in her village in Burgas, on Bulgaria’s Black Sea Coast, made her family “really sad.”
“It was hard, hard for my whole family to go to work. For my husband and son — they had to go fill in papers, so they could go through the police checks,” she said, as her three grandchildren played near piles of neatly stacked wood.
The streets of their village were sprayed with disinfectant — although not from the sky — several months earlier, but Topchu said that she considered the disinfecting “something that had to be done.”
However, other Roma villages — in Yambol, Kyustendil and elsewhere in Bulgaria — were showered with thousands of liters of disinfectant from helicopters or airplanes normally used to fertilize crops in March and April, local authorities and Bulgarian Roma advocates said.
“That was clearly racist, because it was only done in Roma neighborhoods,” said Radoslov Stoyanov of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights group. “The broader message that was sent to the non-Roma population was that Roma are dangerous.”
The Roma are descended from tribes in northern India, and centuries of persecution and marginalization have left them some of the poorest and least educated people in Europe.
Known pejoratively as “gypsies,” many live in segregated neighborhoods, often with limited access to electricity, running water and healthcare. Many face discrimination in getting jobs, getting medical care and have a shorter average lifespan than non-Roma.
The stringent measures used against Roma communities come even though no big outbreak was ever reported among them — and echo the way that some governments have used the pandemic as cover for repressive tactics.
Many European countries do not track COVID-19 cases among Roma, but Slovak officials reported at the end of the summer that there had been 179 cases in Roma districts, out of a population of more than 500,000.
In May, two UN human rights advocates issued an open letter calling on the Bulgarian government to suspend its pandemic-related police operations in Roma neighborhoods and to “stop hate speech” against the group after one nationalist party leader described the communities as “nests of infection.”
Officials in other European countries have also targeted Roma: A mayor in northern Moldova blamed their communities for spreading the virus, while a Ukrainian city official in Ivano-Frankivst instructed police to evict all Roma from the town.
This has not been limited to eastern Europe: The mayor of a village outside Paris called on residents to contact the French government “as soon as you see a caravan circulating,” referring to Roma.
In a recent report, the European Roma Rights Centre documented 20 instances of what it called disproportionate force by police against Roma in five countries, saying that the figure was an unusually high number.
In a video on social media, a Romanian officer appeared to repeatedly press a knee into a handcuffed man as he was dragged, following the arrest of several people for flouting virus restrictions.
Elsewhere in the country, the group reported that police used tear gas and pepper spray to disperse a group of Roma, including children, who had climbed on top of an apartment block during the lockdown.
Slovak authorities are investigating allegations that an officer beat five Roma children with a baton and threatened to shoot them after they were found playing outside their village, breaching the national quarantine.
“It is unacceptable for the police to use force against children,” said Maria Patakyova, a public defender of rights in the Slovak Republic for the International Ombudsman Institute, an independent body that aims to uphold human rights. “Not even the pandemic can be a reason to use disproportionate policing methods.”
Last month, Patykova’s office concluded that quarantines in three Roma communities unfairly infringed their right to free movement, although the regional leaders who imposed the measures have dismissed the findings.
Numerous Roma advocates and others raised concerns when Slovak soldiers were brought in to conduct COVID-19 testing in some Roma villages and patrolled neighborhoods armed with automatic rifles.
Juraj Jando, who also works for the International Ombudsman Institute, said that despite this show of force, the government failed to help communities meaningfully fight the virus.
For example, people who came into contact with someone who was infected and wanted to stay in a government-run isolation facility had to pay 13 euros (US$15.23) per day to cover their food expenses — a sum that would be beyond many in Roma communities.
Authorities were also often quick to seal off entire Roma neighborhoods even when case numbers were below the threshold that they had set for such actions.
Slovakian Ministry of the Interior spokesman Petar Lazarov said that all actions taken were in accordance with the country’s public health laws.
In Bulgaria, the authorities’ use of thermal drones to measure the temperatures of entire Roma neighborhoods has raised surveillance concerns.
“This wouldn’t have happened in a white, middle-class neighborhood, and it shouldn’t have happened to Roma either,” Jonathan Lee of the European Roma Rights Centre said.
Krassimir Brumbarov, a Roma health worker in Burgas, where thermal drones were used, said that people were also angered by the nearly constant police presence in the village.
The Burgas City Government declined to respond to repeated questions about why such measures were taken.
As in the Slovak Republic, Lee said that Bulgarian authorities did little to help Roma protect themselves from the virus, adding that at the height of the epidemic in April, about 500 Roma in Tsarevo were left without water for 10 days.
Ognyan Isaev, a Roma advocate in Sofia, the Bulgarian capital, said that he fears discriminatory measures might be reintroduced if the pandemic worsens, adding that the local authorities who implemented them have faced little pushback.
“Next time, it could be even worse,” Isaev said.
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