Pandemic Policing and Roma: a case to answer
On 18 April 2020, while much of Europe was in emergency lockdown due to Covid-19, 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.
The victims – eight Romani men and one 13-year-old boy from Bolintin de Vale, Giurgiu – were beaten for about 30 minutes and threatened with repercussions if they made any complaints. One police officer can be heard using racial slurs and threatening the person filming the incident. The wife of one victim called an ambulance, and when it arrived, the police handcuffed her.
Days later, news of another incident surfaced, this time it involved an attack by a police officer in Slovakia, who beat five small Romani children, with his truncheon and threatened to shoot them. In tears, one of the girls from the group 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.
In response the Slovak Ombudswoman stated that “Any disproportionate methods used by police or excessive use of force deserves to be condemned. I consider it unacceptable that violence be committed against children. Moreover, it is unacceptable for police to use force against children. Not even the pandemic can be a reason to use disproportionate policing methods.”
‘Ethnicization of the pandemic’
Concerning police violence, in a submission to the European Commission, the ERRC warned in May 2020, “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.”
The ERRC report Roma rights in the time of Covid, which covered 12 countries from February to June 2020, found that a significant number of actions taken by law enforcement in ‘policing the pandemic’ clearly violated the principles of non-discrimination and equality, and constituted cruel and inhumane behaviour. In addition to incidents of police brutality, whole Romani neighbourhoods were subjected to discriminatory clampdowns by security forces.
In Bulgaria, while general restrictions on movement were introduced and widely perceived as a necessary response to contain the spread of the virus, the quarantine, curfew, and blockading of Romani neighbourhoods marked an ‘ethnicization of the pandemic’: the measures were deemed to be disproportionate, unrelated to actual infection rates, and later acknowledged to have been largely ineffective.
These measures provoked domestic protest and international criticism. The over-securitized and ethnic-specific approach was harshest in Yambol, which was fully quarantined and blockaded for 14 days. On the morning of the 14th May, a helicopter sprayed nearly 3,000 litres of detergent to ‘disinfect’ the Romani neighbourhood. In a statement, issued on the 13th May, two UN Special Rapporteurs on racism and minority issues expressed deep concern “at the discriminatory limitations imposed on Roma on an ethnic basis that are overtly supported by Bulgarian State officials as part of the broader measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
Police check in Bucharest.
Photo by EPA-EFE Robert Ghement
Pandemic policing: ‘business as usual’
The danger for marginalized Romani communities was highlighted by Marija Pejčinović Burić, Council of Europe Secretary General, who expressed concern at measures “that could result in further compromising the human rights of Roma and hampering their equitable access to the provision of basic public services, most importantly health care, sanitation, and even fresh water”; and her worry that “some politicians blame Roma for the spread of the virus”proved to be well-founded.
It is worth noting that the surge in anti-Roma racism and incidents of police brutality during the worst of the pandemic marked a continuity with, rather than a departure from ‘normal practice’. But emergency measures carry added perils. UN experts have warned of the dangers of executive overreach in a state of exception, and the tendency for extraordinary powers to become part of the ordinary, normal legal system, moves which render the protection of rights “increasingly fraught and difficult.”
The reports of police brutality, acts of discrimination and hate speech against Roma that ERRC receives week after week suggest that the situation has become even more fraught, difficult and downright dangerous. The death of the Stanislav Tomáš, while being restrained by police in the Czech town of Teplice provided a tragic reminder of just how dangerous. The death of this Romani man under the knee of a police officer must be a wake-up call to European and national authorities that they need to get serious about access to justice for Roma, that ‘Roma lives matter’ and law enforcement agencies across Europe must be held accountable for their racist misdeeds.
People waiting to get their results from free antibody and COVID-19 testing in the primarily Roma neighborhood of Fakulteta in Sofia, Bulgaria on April 23, 2020. They planned to test about 700 people Thursday. Fakulteta is one of two Roma neighborhoods quarantined since the previous week, when it was discovered that a cluster of COVID-19 cases was present there.
Photo by picture alliance / Jodi Hilton
Written by: Bernard Rorke