Monday

18th Jan 2021

Feature

Pandemic: Roma at receiving end of racist policing

  • A police check in Bucharest (Photo: EPA-EFE/Robert Ghement)

More and more cases of police brutality against Roma are surfacing amidst quarantines, lockdowns and emergency measures across central and eastern Europe.

The latest incident involved an attack by a police officer on five small Romani children in Slovakia last month.

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The kids, four girls and a boy, aged between seven and eleven, from the quarantined Romani settlement of Krompachy, were beaten with a truncheon by the officer.

In tears, one of the girls told a reporter: "We went for wood and the cop began to chase us and shouted at us that if we didn't stop, he would shoot us. We stopped and he took us into a tunnel and beat us there."

According to the report in Romea.cz, military physicians treated the children for their injuries.

This latest scandal came just days after shocking video surfaced on social media of Romanian police beating and abusing Roma as they lay face down in the dirt with their hands bound behind their backs.

The screams of one victim were clearly audible, as four officers set about him, two striking him all over his body, and two others beating the soles of his bare feet.

In an open letter to the president of Romania, rights organisations Romani CRISS and the Civic Union of Young Roma in Romania (UCTRR) called for the dismissal of the minister of internal affairs and his chief of staff.

In the letter, the rights organisations described a number of incidents which included officers entering homes without warrants, beating women and children and using tear gas indoors.

Following one such attack, when two men tried to file a complaint about police abuse, they were beaten by special forces.

In a newspaper interview, Romani Criss director, Marian Mandache, condemned the "violent cowboy approach" of the chief of staff and reminded him that in an EU member state, it is the rule of law, and not summary justice "with a fist or guns" that should prevail when it comes to enforcement.

These are just some of the latest in a series of incidents across central and eastern Europe.

The reports we have received at the European Roma Rights Centre of extreme hardship, police violence, ethnic profiling and hate speech against Roma since the pandemic hit Europe, highlight the need for extra vigilance to protect the human rights of racialised minorities when governments adopt emergency powers.

The latest synthesis report from the Roma Civil Monitor (RCM) show that the "patchy progress" on Roma inclusion over the past decade, compounded by persistent discrimination has left Roma dangerously vulnerable.

The Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights, Dunja Mijatović recently warned against excessive policing of Roma in the context of this pandemic, and with particular reference to Bulgaria, she condemned the selective application of confinement measures on the basis of ethnicity.

Her concern about politicians and media describing Roma "as a threat to public health" was shared by Helena Dalli, European commissioner for equality, who condemned the rise of "online hate speech and fake stories against Roma" and called on member states to "do their utmost to prevent national or ethnic minorities, in particular Roma, from becoming scapegoats in the current crisis."

At the ERRC, we have monitored police violence against Roma for over a decade.

Rough policing, and 'under-policing'

Week in, week out, we routinely receive reports of police misconduct concerning Roma: testimonies of collusion between law enforcement and far-right paramilitaries; ethnic profiling and over-policing in one district, and under-policing by deliberate failures "to serve and protect" in another when the neo-Nazis come patrolling; mass violent raids by special units on Romani neighbourhoods; and serious injuries, even deaths, resulting from beatings in custody or during arrest.

RCM researchers covering the newer EU member states with significant Roma populations, found that despite the Race Equality Directive and other EU legislation "there are no effective mechanisms to protect victims of police violence, little reliable information or data to give a precise account of the scale of the problem, and a low success rate in cases investigated."

If racist violence and misconduct against Roma is routinised in normal times in countries such as Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria, where police operate with a sense of impunity, there is a high probability that under cover of the Covid-19, emergency measures could spell open season for racist members of law enforcement in these countries.

In a recent statement, UN experts warned that emergency declarations must not be used as a basis to target particular groups or minorities, function as a cover for repressive action, or be used to silence human rights defenders; and that state responses must be proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory.

Executive overreach in a state of exception, and the tendency for extraordinary powers to become part of the ordinary, normal legal system, render the protection of rights "increasingly fraught and difficult."

These latest reports of police brutality suggest that for Roma the situation has become fraught, difficult and downright dangerous.

In addition to the humanitarian crisis facing vulnerable Roma communities, there is a grave danger in these fearful times that nativist, far-right politicians will further incite racial hatred by labelling Roma as an existential threat and a source of contagion.

All responsible bodies must double-down and be vigilant to protect the rights of Roma and all racialised and vulnerable minorities. In light of the extreme vulnerability and catastrophe facing marginalised Roma communities, news reports that the EU is contemplating postponement of its post-2020 Roma inclusion initiative are alarming.

If this report is unfounded, the commission should come out and say so publicly, for any such delay would send a message to authoritarian political leaders who place a high premium on national sovereignty, that Europe won't be poking its nose into 'internal matters' about minorities for the duration of the emergency and beyond.

The situation concerning police brutality against Roma makes it clear that now is emphatically not the moment for the EU to put human rights on hold.

Author bio

Bernard Rorke is an editor at the European Roma Rights Centre.

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