A CHURCH aid network has spoken of “distressed conditions” facing the large Roma minority in Europe as a result of anti-coronavirus measures, and urged governments to make “concrete commitments” to improve their access to education and social protection.
“Roma people have disproportionately suffered from the Covid-19 pandemic and the associated lockdowns and national restrictions across Europe,” the Brussels-based Eurodiaconia, a network of 52 Churches and Christian NGOs, has said.
“Many Roma living in segregated settlements lack access to adequate sanitation, safe housing, and basic public infrastructure. Perhaps most disturbingly, Roma have been perceived in many cases as a public-health threat by local authorities and communities, and have been scapegoated and subjected to anti-Roma rhetoric and violence.”
The statement, issued for International Roma Day this month, said that 2021 marked the 50th anniversary of the First Roma Congress, co-funded by the World Council of Churches, at Orpington, Kent, which had set out to defend Roma culture and rights internationally.
It should, however, also be a year for raising awareness of continued unequal treatment, Eurodiaconia said, and for urging EU member-states to do more to ensure active Roma participation in civil society.
“As many Roma work in irregular and precarious employment, the loss of jobs has not been mitigated by social protection”, the aid network continued. “Eurodiaconia strongly believes exclusion and anti-gypsyism are harmful for all of society, and that everyone benefits from equality. It is therefore vital that Roma inclusion is prioritised in the process of recovery and building resilience.”
The ten to 12 million Roma in Europe make up one third of the world’s total, and are the continent’s least organised and represented minority: up to four-fifths live in poverty, and 30 per cent lack running water and basic facilities.
Up to half of all Roma, who reached Europe from the Punjab in the tenth century, were killed by Nazis during the Holocaust — an outrage not publicly commemorated until the 1990s — and Roma life expectancy currently remains ten years below the European average.
In October, the EU Commission launched a ten-year Roma Strategic Framework, aimed at combating discrimination, poverty, and social exclusion, and improving Roma access to education, employment, health, and housing.
A European Roma and Travellers Forum, however, set up in 2004 by the Council of Europe, with elected delegates from 40 countries, has regularly reported aggression and intimidation, while human-rights organisations have condemned the forced eviction of Roma from unofficial settlements, including shanty towns in France, and warned that anti-Roma declarations by politicians could fuel violence in countries such as Hungary and Slovakia, where some demographic experts have forecast that Roma could become the majority population by 2050.
In a separate statement for International Roma Day, the EU Commission’s Vice-president for Values and Transparency, Vera Jourová, said that the EU Framework had “sent a clear and strong signal” that member-states were determined to “unlock the huge potential of Roma”, whose needs would feature in EU enlargement negotiations.
Eurodiaconia said that job losses and school closures during the pandemic had damaged Roma prospects, and that Roma children lacked access to digital resources needed for continuing studies and had also been “highly affected by the loss of school meals”.
“Social protection and assistance are essential to achieving the goals of the Framework”, the aid group said. “These will remain hollow without concrete commitments by member-states to achieve these goals, and adequate funding allocated towards Roma inclusion through national recovery and resilience plans.”
Church organisations, including the Conference of European Churches and the Council of Catholic Episcopates of Europe, have long urged greater protection and integration of Roma, many of whom belong to predominantly Christian denominations in their countries of residence.
The Roman Catholic Church published its first Guidelines for the Pastoral Care of Gypsies in 2005, and runs Roma ministries in several countries, co-ordinated by the Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People, at the Vatican.
In June 2019, during a visit to Romania, where Roma make up about eight per cent of the population and were enslaved until the 19th century, Pope Francis asked forgiveness for past discrimination and mistreatment.
In Austria, where Roma were first recognised as an ethnic group in 1993, plans for a national monument to 9000 Roma murdered under Nazi rule were unveiled at a commemoration in the Vienna parliament on 8 April.
In Britain, where an ecumenical Churches Network for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma was set up in the late 1990s, the General Synod endorsed calls in February 2019 for the Church of England to speak out on anti-Roma racism and hate crime, as well as for every diocese to appoint a specialist chaplain (News, 1 March 2019).