Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Roma

Impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Roma and how to be prepared for the next crisis

Presentation during the High-level Conference launching the EU Roma Strategic Framework for Equality, Inclusion and Participation until 2030 by Adriatik Hasantari, Roma Active Albania, Vice-chair ERGO Network (12 October 2020)

During August and September 2020, ERGO Network and its members conducted a survey on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on Roma in seven EU Member States, and together with Roma Active Albania in six enlargement countries. Preliminary findings show that during the first wave of Covid-19, entire Roma and Traveller communities in all selected countries (Belgium, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Ireland, Romania, Slovakia, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey) were deeply affected in all areas of life, including regarding basic needs, housing and accommodation, education, health care, employment, poverty, and freedom from discrimination and antigypsyism. Roma women were disproportionately affected, particularly pregnant women, mothers with young children and the elderly.

Our study confirms that in the early stages of the pandemic, many governments implemented unequal and unfair lockdowns of Roma communities in Bulgaria, Slovakia, Romania and Hungary, despite not having any confirmed cases in these communities. Across all surveyed countries, Roma were faced with starvation after losing their income and the possibility to leave their houses to buy food. Our respondents reported that in general authorities did not provide them with masks, disinfectants and food while in lockdown or confinement.

In Hungary, children did not any longer receive previously offered free school meals, and had difficulties to learn at distance in the absence of school materials, digital equipment, electricity, or internet access. Because of overcrowding and inadequate housing conditions, many Roma families living in settlements were crammed in one single room with no means to follow preventive and sanitary measures. Our study confirmed that many Roma throughout the EU, Western Balkans and Turkey lost their jobs because of the lockdown, especially those working abroad who had to return home and did not benefit from state aid. Roma felt discriminated by the lack of action from state officials and service providers in the areas of education, healthcare, employment and state aid.

What lessons can be drawn to be better prepared for future crises?

The data collected by ERGO Network and other NGOs so far confirms without a doubt that the pandemic affected Roma and Travellers disproportionally, particularly those living in socially excluded and marginalised settings both within the EU and Enlargement countries. COVID-19 is an additional challenge to the daily exclusion and discrimination that they had already faced on a daily basis previous to the pandemic.

The pandemic revealed gaps in the approach of local authorities and governments to deal with vulnerable groups and with Roma. Exceptional cases may exist in some countries when it comes to humanitarian aid provided as one off measures. It was, however, mostly NGOs who stepped in to provide support on a regular basis.

If we learnt something from the first wave of Covid-19, it is that we simply cannot afford to be unprepared and to allow EU Member States and Enlargement countries to enter into a new crisis unscrutinised and without any concrete plans, measures and funding in place. Now more than even we need to think preventively and not reactively to what is in front of us. The EU and its Presidency have to put aside an investment package dedicated to vulnerable groups to support poor families, small and medium sized enterprises, and solo workers. The Directive for universal minimum income must be prioritised and accelerated.

The 2020 “EU Strategic Framework for Roma must be accompanied by a strong EU Council Recommendation demanding Member States to put a specific focus on humanitarian aid and a 10-year plan to fight structural racism and inequality at the centre of their policies and strategies, delivering basic services and infrastructure in Roma communities, viable solutions in the areas of education, employment, health, social protection and poverty, putting an end to forced evictions, segregation in education and housing, homelessness, hate speech, racist crime and police brutality – in order to guarantee a level playing field in the access to basic rights and services. It is clear that if we are to overcome this upcoming crisis, governments have to set higher targets and increase the scope of interventions beyond what it is in the new EU Framework, for all the countries.

The Fundamental Rights Agency has reported many times that Roma are the only European population living in absolutely inhumane conditions, in appalling and total housing deprivation. This resonates 10 times more during the  Covid-19 pandemic. There should be no pretense that all governments must put their efforts into putting an end to segregation in housing, into providing running water, electricity and garbage collection. Governments must invest in safe and green housing, including social housing for all those living in shacks, shanty towns, unsafe and inhumane conditions.

All supposedly good intentions by the EU did so far not translate into specific funding for vulnerable groups under major post 2020 EU funding and programmes. This is a failure for the human rights agenda, as the coming decade could be the most challenging for all livelihood throughout Europe and across the world. Competing interests and challenges will yet again leave those vulnerable overlooked and at the margins. This needs to change. The EU needs to change its approach towards governments and lead Europe towards substantive equality where no Roma is left behind. All EU funding, with no exception, should by default target vulnerable groups and Roma, in line with the EU’s own principles and standards.

Anti-Roma rhetoric increased significantly during the pandemic, even blaming Roma for spreading the coronavirus. NGOs tried to warn policy-makers about the dangers of antigypsyism going unrecognised and unpunished. Instead of taking these warnings seriously, many governments curtail human rights of minorities during this crisis. The EU proved to be weak and powerless with its tools and enforcement mechanisms against discrimination and racial violence.

Going forward, the EU has to set a better example for governments and their duties to uphold the rule of law and human rights and be quicker and firmer in sanctioning racist governments.


Case studies: Experiences of Roma individuals and communities during the pandemic.



Romaversitas response to the Covid-19 pandemic

Romaversitas response to the Covid-19 pandemic

On March 13, 2020, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán announced through Facebook that as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, just a few short weeks before the term-end exams and high school graduation tests, schools and dormitories were to be closed nationwide and education was to be completely transferred to the online space. The measures forced a fair share of our students to move back to their childhood homes, where they were cut off from the infrastructures of their educational institutions and they had to prepare for the approaching exams in overcrowded houses, without personal space, quality IT equipment or broadband internet.

The pandemic made an already bad situation worse for the Roma in Hungary. According to data released by the Roma Education Fund, a significant share of Romani high school students and their families who reside in rural areas or settlements had no access to internet or to IT equipment which data is especially appalling from the perspective that the transfer of education to the online space and dormitory closures were carried out instantly and without any plans to ensure the participation of students belonging to marginalized communities in educational activities.

In this context, we contacted all of our students and we saw that in many cases, if we can’t provide them with additional scholarships, they wouldn’t be able to finish their school years or university terms. We set the goal of not allowing the effects of the crisis to take a toll on our students’ ability to finish the academic year. As providing additional scholarships exceeded the financial possibilities of our organization, we launched a crowdfunding campaign titled “Finish Line – Crisis Fund for Romani Students” to collect the necessary funds for providing additional scholarships to students in need.

The short-term impact of the activity was that we could provide cca. 150 EUR monthly scholarships for 12 students in April, 12 students in May, 14 students in June and 6 students in July. In personal interviews following the campaign, we saw that many of the recipients spent this amount directly related to the mitigation of the impact of the crisis on their ability to finish the academic year, like purchasing a good internet connection to the place where they were forced to move because of the closure of the dormitories.

As dormitories closed in mid-March, many of our students had to move back to overcrowded family homes. “When I need some space to attend online classes, I sit outside of our home in my family’s car,” wrote one of our students when sending this photo. We love this picture because it exemplifies the resilience of our student body.

A long-term impact on our students and Romaversitas was that our crowdfunding campaign received national attention via the press, and by reaching new donors, our coalition to carry out our mission broadened. During our crowdfunding campaign we collected cca. 8K EUR which is more than four times the average of the previous 3 crowdfunding campaigns of the organization. We also reached 70 percent more donors than in previous campaigns and the value of average donations more than doubled.

We managed to detach the messaging of the campaign from the usual socio-narrative which mostly dominates Romani issues in the media. Our campaign was centered around education and positive achievements which resonated well with our audience.

As soon as the pandemic situation got better in June, we organized an open-air event to close the academic year. The event was attended by several students, our staff, our founder and some key donors. It was encouraging to experience how much our community evolved during the pandemic.

Training ambassadors to rise above antigypsyism in Kosovo

Training ambassadors to rise above antigypsyism in Kosovo

In the last couple of months, ERGO Network was contracted by VoRAE (Voice of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians) to train various members of organizations working on the topic of antigypsyism. The purpose of the training course “Ambassadors rising above antigypsyism” (ARAA) was:

  • To raise awareness and deepen the recognition and understanding of antigypsyism and its implications in relation to empowering grassroots communities to stand up to discrimination
  • To support the exchange of experiences and good practices addressing issues of discrimination of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians in Kosovo
  • To develop the competences of 10 participants in raising understanding and awareness about antigypsyism, its implication and advocacy to promote positive narratives and inclusive policies.
  • To support regional cooperation and networking among Roma and pro-Roma activists
  • To drive policy change in recognizing antigypsyism as a primarycourse of inequalities for Roma

The overall expected outcome of the course was to motivate participants to become ambassadors in fighting against antigypsyism by raising awareness and addressing the phenomena, as well as leading the policy change through proactive advocacy.

The training course included a combination of online methods, using Zoom for group meetings, emails and worksheets. It was conducted by ERGO Network staff Gabriela Hrabranova, Isabela Mihalache and Mustafa Jakupov.

The training modules introduced the theoretical background of antigypsyism, mapped antigypsyism in the region, discussed how to act and re-act against antigypsyism through a human rights framework, as well as on learning different methods and developing trainers skills that will be further used by the participants to conduct workshops for and working with governmental and local officials. As final product of the course, ERGO Network is developing a Training of Trainers manual that will be used further by the participants trained as ambassadors.

It is important to mention that this course was the first of its kind in Kosovo where not only capacities and knowledge were being developed, but participants were able to share and analyse the realities of RAE communities and understand the political context in which they will operate.

From the 29-30 September, VORAE furthermore organized a Summit on antigypsyism in Prishtina, bringing together important stakeholders from Kosovo and abroad, including ERGO Network Director Gabriela Hrabanova, representatives of UN offices, embassies and other civil society organisations. The summit explored ways to combat antigypsyism in Kosovo and at European level and put a special emphasis on the role of women.

News from the Centre de Mediations des Gens de Voyage et des Roms

Centre de Médiation des Gens du Voyage et des Roms, Belgium:

Since 2001, the CMGVR has been active with both the Roma and the Traveller communities, providing daily social and administrative help, as well as support for their professional integration.  As a mediation body, it makes the relation with authorities, institutions and services easier and more effective for Roma families. The CMGVR proposes frequent supervisions for local authorities, and trainings for Roma mediators and social, educative, administrative and health workers. Our NGO also tries to support the effective participation of Roma and Travellers at the discussion tables on national, regional and local levels and ensures that Roma and Travellers’ claims reach the political level.

New local projects of integration through housing

For a number of years, the CMGVR has drawn attention to an alarming observation: the number of Roma families in situation of homelessness is increasing, not only in Brussels but also in other Belgian cities. To this day, there is hardly any humanitarian (and even emergency) answer to the worrisome situation of these families and children. Recently, the difficulties they face have even worsened with the introduction of the “anti-squat law”.

Beyond to the lack of infrastructure and regulation, an additional difficulty lies in the family dimension of homelessness faced by Roma, as most of the existing initiatives meant to tackle homelessness or develop housing insertion are conceived for individuals, not for families. This observation holds for the most basic housing support like emergency night shelters, the great majority of which are not accessible to children. Beyond short term emergency sheltering, Roma people face numerous obstacles on the rental market and in accessing social housing.

In the face of this significant lack of perspectives for families living in precarious housing conditions, the CMGVR has decided to innovate and launch local projects of insertion through housing. At this time, two families have been provided with temporary housing (6 months to a year). These projects are developed in partnerships with local authorities and with the social housing public and private agencies. They are inspired by the method of “Housing First”[1] and have the ambition of bringing marginalized families back into regular social and administrative rights. The CMGVRW thus follows up on the accompaniment of these families with social, educational, administrative and health support.

This experience has shown that housing insertion comes with an increased ability for families to cope and stabilize other areas of life, which they could not address while living in the streets. The numerous positive outcomes of these local projects illustrate that while there are no ready-made solutions, some successful operational practices do exist and should be developed on a wider scale.

Working in the context of a sanitary crisis

In 2020, the CMGVR has had to adjust its projects and services to the global pandemic of COVID-19, particularly during the lockdown period.

From the very beginning of the healthcare crisis, the CMGVR became aware that communicating about COVID-19 would be a major challenge, particularly for the most “vulnerable” groups, for whom language barriers or situations of socio-economic poverty might hinder access to information or health care. All through the confinement period, the CMGVR team thus made sure to maintain optimal communication and follow-up with Roma and Traveller families.  As early as March 2020, the CMGVR launched a wide information campaign about the COVID-19 crisis and the sanitary measures recommended by the government. As the government decisions and confinement phases evolved, the information was regularly updated and made available on social networks, as well as through mails and texts translated into several Eastern European languages (including romanes). The objective was to respond to the many fears and questions raised by the pandemic, and to ensure that the sanitary measures were understood and applied by all.

The CMGVR also sought to support health care professionals by offering translation services to hospitals, medical houses and general practitioners in order to facilitate communication with Roma individuals and families. Similar services of translation and mediation were also offered to schoolteachers and other educational actors as schools reopened, both in June and in September 2020.

Now that the lockdown period is over, the CMGVR has resumed its on-site projects and accompaniment, notably its mobile school support project, which provides complementary learning support to Traveller families and children with a focus on reading, writing and calculation. The CMGVR also offers school support to Roma children who face language or learning difficulties.

[1]    “Housing First” is the name of a method meant to tackle homelessness, based on the idea that any effective inclusion process starts with a decent place to live. In this logic, providing homeless people with an individual and permanent housing is a prerequisite for durable inclusion.

National Training Course on Human Rights Education

National Training Course on Human Rights Education in Spain

From 6-10 July 2020 FAGiC (the Federation of Roma Associations in Catalonia) together with Plataforma Khetané organized a National Training Course on Human Rights Education funded by the Youth Department of the Council of Europe.

The NTC “Training4Roma, Human Rights Training for Roma and non Roma youth activists” was held in the Library Font de La Mina, in the La Mina neighbourhood of Barcelona. The course targeted Roma and non Roma youth from different backgrounds who work with other young people to become multipliers of Human Rights education.

From the first moment, the environment was very good among the 13 participants willing to learn more and from each other. 4 young Roma participants were from the La Mina neighbourhood itself, stigmatized in the media as a “dangerous” place and criminalising the Roma inhabitants as potential drug traffickers.

In this way, the 4 young Roma students broke with the stereotypes not only of Roma, but also of the neighbourhood. Asked by the non-Roma participants, we organised a “guided tour” of the neighbourhood, explaining the historical construction from the exclusion perspective and how this has affected to the lives of the people living there.

The NTC was based on the COMPASS manual on Human Rights Education of the Council of Europe and also targeted Antigypsyism from the perspective of Human Rights. The training consisted of 3 parts:

  1. Introduction to the topic of Human Rights through activities and methods from the manual and by sharing participants’ experiences. Following on, we went deeper into the topic of Antigypsyism and how to develop educational responses to it.
  2. Providing space and time to participants to develop their facilitation skills. Participants did not only use activities from Mirrors or Compass, they also adapted them perfectly to the situation and to the goal they really wanted to achieve.
  3. Evaluation and planning concrete follow-up activities

During the training, we received the visits from OND (Oficina per a la NO Discriminació) – Non Discrimination Office from the Council of Barcelona, from Catalan Human Rights Institute and also some local Roma initiatives fighting for Human Rights.

We thank the Municipality of Sant Adrià del Besòs, to which the neighbourhood belongs, for letting us use the whole library space in this difficult time due to Covid 19.