'Feral humanoids': Europe's Roma community already faced discrimination; COVID-19 pandemic made it worse
A catchall term for several minorities, the Roma are descendants of people who left the Indian subcontinent about 1,500 years ago and later migrated in large numbers from Asia Minor to Europe during medieval times
Kyustendil, Bulgaria: At a checkpoint on the edge of a Roma neighbourhood, a police officer held up his hand, stopping Angel Iliev from leaving.
Water was running low at home, so Iliev, 49, had cycled down a bumpy, dusty track that connects the district with a wealthier part of town, hoping to fill two plastic jerrycans at a spring beyond the checkpoint.
But while the rest of the city — like the rest of Bulgaria — is emerging from a lockdown put in place because of the coronavirus pandemic, the 12,000 residents of this Roma suburb are not allowed to leave their segregated settlement. Although its lockdown is scheduled to end at the start of Wednesday, municipal officials have already extended it once and could decide to prolong it again.
Last week, the police officer was in no mind to bend the rules, sending Iliev back into the ghetto with his jerrycans empty.
“It’s pure prejudice,” Iliev said before cycling home. “The discrimination was already bad, but now it’s even worse because of the pandemic.”
Authorities in Kyustendil justify the lockdown as a medical response to a spike in coronavirus cases in the Roma suburb. But for many Roma, it is the latest example of centuries-old bigotry that has deepened in several parts of Europe since the start of the pandemic.
In Bulgaria, at least seven Roma settlements have been shut off from the rest of society at various points since March, despite low rates of confirmed infections in most of them. Officials in one town even sprayed disinfectant on a Roma settlement from a plane.
Five Roma towns were cordoned off in Slovakia, according to research by Amnesty International.
In Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, the Netherlands and North Macedonia, there have been 15 incidents of police violence against Roma since Europe’s lockdowns began, including against young children, according to research shared with The New York Times by the European Roma Rights Centre, a Brussels-based watchdog.
In Belgium, two groups of Roma were made homeless in April after police confiscated their four caravans on accusations of violating coronavirus restrictions.
“It’s a perfect storm,” said Jonathan Lee, a spokesperson for the European Roma Rights Centre. “The coronavirus measures have exacerbated the level of institutional racism that was already prevalent throughout institutions and police forces across Europe.”
A catchall term for several minorities, the Roma are descendants of people who left the Indian subcontinent about 1,500 years ago and later migrated in large numbers from Asia Minor to Europe during medieval times, just as the Ottoman Empire began expanding in that direction.
Settling across the continent, they have faced persecution and discrimination ever since. Sometimes known as Gypsies, Roma were targeted in medieval pogroms and enslaved until the 19th Century. Hundreds of thousands were killed in the Holocaust.
At least 10 million Roma people now live in Europe, many of them in overcrowded, segregated communities, often with limited access to health care, education and basic amenities like water and electricity.
In the Roma suburb in Kyustendil, most roads are unpaved and strewn with garbage. A wall separates part of the settlement from a nearby road, obscuring it from residents on the other side. With no access to computers and high-speed broadband during the pandemic, Roma children have struggled to take part in internet-based learning, falling even further behind.
Across Europe, more than 80 percent of Roma are at risk of poverty, nearly half do not finish school, roughly one-third lack running water and one-third are unemployed, according to research published by the European Union in 2016.
“Roma represent one of the most disadvantaged minorities in Europe,” said Jelena Sesar, a Balkans researcher for Amnesty International.
In some countries, they are not only neglected by prominent lawmakers, but also singled out for prejudice.
The leader of a junior party in Bulgaria’s governing coalition, Valeri Simeonov, once described Roma as “feral humanoids.” He later briefly led a State-run integration authority.
The deputy prime minister, Krasimir Karakachanov, called them “unsocialised gypsies,” a term that critics said echoed the Nazi term “asocial gypsies.”
In April, a member of the European Parliament from Karakachanov’s party, Angel Dzhambazki, said that the rest of the population needed to be protected from Roma people, who in 2011 formed about five percent of Bulgaria’s population of 7.4 million, according to a census that year. (Some researchers believe the Roma population is up to twice as big.)
The municipal authorities in Kyustendil, a city in western Bulgaria, locked down its Roma suburb on 17 June. Residents were barred from leaving unless they could convince police that they had a job to attend or an urgent medical emergency.
In reality, that meant that most residents have remained stuck inside, since few have formal employment contracts.
Kyustendil’s mayor, Petar Paunov, said the decision was straightforward.
After the national lockdown was lifted in early June, Roma residents returned home from elsewhere in Europe. To celebrate their homecoming, two men held a celebration in the neighbourhood. Some attendees are believed to have spread the virus, several residents said, leading to a surge of roughly 100 cases and prompting officials to act.
“Neither I nor the doctors want to shut down anyone,” Paunov said. But “the reality right now is that if the situation continues, then the doctors in the hospital won’t be able to cope.”
Yet for many residents and activists, the measure feels hypocritical and unfair. Elsewhere in the country, non-Roma areas with similar caseloads, like the town of Smolyan in southern Bulgaria, have not been subject to the same restrictions.
At the final of a national football competition last week, thousands of soccer fans were allowed to gather without social distancing. Even in Paunov’s City Hall, employees have walked around without masks, despite signs asking visitors to do so. Elsewhere in Kyustendil, high school proms continued as usual.
There is little doubt that the lockdown has inflicted added hardship on an already neglected Roma population.
“They don’t care about us,” said Vasil Todorov, a 26-year-old resident. “They’re just afraid they’ll get sick themselves.”
Since most residents are not allowed to leave the settlement, they can use only the shops and services within it, and that has driven up the cost of buying food. Products at the local grocers are about one-fifth more expensive than in town, residents say.
It is also harder to withdraw money (the ATM ran out of bank notes), pay utility bills (the shop that houses the billing system is shut), visit the bank (which is in the centre of the city) and buy medicine: The single local pharmacy lacks some prescription medicines and is hugely oversubscribed, leading to hour-long lines.
To get access to pharmacies beyond the police checkpoints, residents need a note from their doctor. But some doctors live outside the area and therefore cannot be reached. And one of the two resident doctors was himself sick for at least a week, putting him out of action.
Even the available doctor is not an option for about half the residents: Roughly 50 percent of Bulgarian Roma do not have State health insurance and therefore are unable to register with a general practitioner.
“The whole goal of shutting down a neighbourhood is to prevent the spread of the virus,” said Tsveta Petkova, a board member of a national network of health advisers who work within Roma communities.
Yet in lockdowns like the one in Kyustendil, Petkova added, “residents were left virtually without access to health care.”
In June, when one 72-year-old resident, Zafir Dimitrov, fell ill with coronavirus symptoms, his friends called for an ambulance. But the ambulance operators refused to come, telling them to contact the man’s general practitioner instead, according to a video of the telephone call seen by The Times.
Dimitrov’s doctor was unreachable, which delayed his treatment, said a community leader who was present for the call.
Within a few days, Dimitrov was dead.
Patrick Kingsley and Boryana Dzhambazova c.2020 The New York Times Company
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