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Enable Roma communities to recover from the Pandemic, say Human Rights Heads

All societies still feel the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the challenges for Roma are particularly acute, say the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) and the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) on International Roma Day.

From education to employment, from poverty to poor living conditions, Roma have long been Europe’s most marginalized group. FRA surveys repeatedly show widespread discrimination, antigypsyism and social exclusion.

“COVID and related restrictions triggered a perfect storm of exclusion for Roma across Europe. Already shoved to the margins of society they experienced still further deprivation, discrimination and harassment,” said FRA Director Michael O’Flaherty. “Our governments must put Roma front and centre in efforts to build our ‘new normal’.”

The coronavirus pandemic further highlights how long-standing disparities have placed many Roma in an even more vulnerable position and increased prejudices. ODIHR’s monitoring of the media portrayal of Roma in 2020 showed that hate speech increased sharply, with misinformation about Roma communities and their role during the pandemic also rising.

“This is the time to pay more attention to vulnerable communities such as the Roma and Sinti, whom have yet again been targeted and made scapegoats for a situation in which they have suffered so much themselves,” said ODIHR Director Matteo Mecacci. “I call on governments to increase efforts to counter prejudice against Roma and Sinti and support communities that the pandemic continues to hit hard.”

Roma communities particularly suffered under the public health measures, as FRA’s COVID-19 bulletins outline.

In many countries, Roma children lack smart devices and internet access. This prevents them from participating in online learning and risks leaving them even further behind.

Governments need to help Roma children to access remote learning and materials, as recommended by ODIHR in its report on the impact of COVID-19 on human rights.

Even before the pandemic, many Roma and Travellers were without jobs or worked under precarious conditions. For example in 2019, 1 in 2 young Roma or Travellers aged 16–24 were not in employment, education or training in the six countries FRA surveyed.

As governments restricted movement to stop the spread of the virus, many Roma, such as street vendors and travelling traders, could not work. In addition, working informally restricted access to social benefits.

Successful engagement with Roma communities needs a twofold approach: on the one hand working to reduce poverty and combat racism and discrimination, while on the other hand supporting Roma empowerment and enabling members of the community to participate fully in public life.

ODIHR’s annual ‘Nicolae Gheorghe’ Roma Leadership Academy is one such initiative. It works closely with the Roma to increase their know-how and skills and maximize their policy and decision-making influence and impact.

Nationally, governments need greater investments to address prejudices and antigypsyism, especially within public administrations. Countries need to engage directly and locally with Roma and Traveller communities making sure to also include Roma in elected positions as well as Roma civil society organizations. This would provide governments with reliable information, and enable the development of measures to end, or at least soften, the negative impact of lockdowns.

The coronavirus pandemic placed many Roma in an even more vulnerable position than they were already in. Roma societies therefore need immediate and urgent assistance to quickly and effectively recover from the pandemic.

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