Police are using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to abuse Roma

The coronavirus pandemic exacerbated the ugly, systematic state violence against Romani people.

Roma police Reuters
A policewoman checks the papers of a woman at the biggest Roma-populated district amid the COVID-19 outbreak in Sofia, Bulgaria, April 17, 2020 [Dimitar Kyosemarliev/Reuters]

With coronavirus lockdowns in force across Europe, the continent’s largest and most marginalised minority – the Roma – is at the mercy of racist and violent police officers seemingly accountable to no one. 

Police officers from Slovakia to Ireland, who need little encouragement to terrorise the Roma even during normal times, are taking advantage of the unprecedented public health emergency we are currently facing to abuse, beat and harass vulnerable Roma men, women and even children with complete impunity.

It is no secret that Europe had a police brutality problem well before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year French gendarmes were criticised the world over for their violent treatment of the “yellow vest” protesters. The alarm was also sounded last year on the Greek riot police amid reports of police-led violence against students and journalists. In the United Kingdom, the London Metropolitan Police were accused in 2018 of institutional racism and disproportionate policing after statistics showed their use of force jumped 79 percent in one year, with ethnic minorities far more likely to be subjected to such tactics than anyone else.

While no community or group in Europe is completely immune to police brutality, marginalised communities, such as ethnic and religious minorities, refugees and the poor, have long been bearing the brunt of this chronic problem.

The Roma, the largest and arguably the most persecuted minority group in Europe, have been facing structural police violence and abuse in multiple countries across the continent for decades.

We at the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) receive reports of police misconduct and violence against Roma on a regular basis. In recent years, we have documented police forces colluding with far-right groups during ethnic pogroms, torturing Roma in custody, killing them in their own homes, and embarking on punitive raids on Roma-majority areas.

In the last few months, the lockdowns and social distancing measures imposed by governments to stem the spread of COVID-19 led to a new spike in police brutality cases across the world, and exacerbated the abuse the Roma had already been facing.

In the past month in Romania alone, we have recorded at least eight incidents where police officers used disproportionate force against the Roma. Video footage from one of these incidents, which took place in the town of Bolintin-Vale, shows police officers beating eight handcuffed Romani men and one 13-year-old boy for allegedly having a barbecue outside one of their houses. Several policemen and gendarmes, in and out of uniform, take part in the collective punishment. Two officers are seen holding the arms of a Romani man screaming in agony, as a third whips the bare soles of his feet. Another officer is heard using racial slurs and threatening anyone who dares to report the incident.

During the same period, we also recorded two cases of police violence against Roma in Serbia and three cases in Slovakia. In the latter, one of the cases involved a police officer beating and threatening to shoot a group of Romani children for allegedly breaking a military-imposed quarantine in the segregated Romani neighbourhood of Krompachy. “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,” one of the children told the media. “We stopped and he took us into a tunnel and beat us there”.

Unfortunately the reports of pandemic related police abuse against Roma in Eastern Europe are hardly surprising. In this region, institutional violence against Roma is widespread and has a long history. Only last year, the European Court of Human Rights found that Romani communities face institutionalised racism from law-enforcement in Romania. It was only a matter of time, therefore, before the police in this region began to use their newly-acquired emergency powers to crack down on Romani communities. 

The recent cases of police abuse against Roma, however, are not only confined to Eastern Europe. Incidents of disproportionate policing of Romani people and Travellers have also cropped up in Belgium, where an armed response team evicted families, including a pregnant woman and children, from their caravans; Ireland, where armed police have been present at funerals of Irish Travellers and military police have been brought in to control a community in Kildare; and the Netherlands, where officers used excessive force to arrest a Romani man and his two sons and pushed the mother of the family to the ground.

Today we are witnessing what happens when the structures that normally hold security forces accountable – the media, civil society, and judicial systems – are paralysed by a pandemic. With NGOs, activists, and journalists unable to work in the field because of state-imposed lockdowns and social distancing measures, the only resources we can rely on to bring abusive police officers to justice are witness accounts and a few videos secretly recorded by terrified people. 

While we have recorded and reported on many incidents of police abuse directed at Europe’s Romani communities since the beginning of the pandemic, it is likely that many more incidents remain unreported because victims and witnesses are too intimidated to come forward and talk about the violence carried out against themselves and their families.

With no one watching and witnesses easy to scare off, racist police officers have a rare opportunity during the lockdown to bully and brutalise Romani women, men, and children with impunity.

But this crisis can serve as a turning point for Europe. Videos of mothers choking on tear gas, handcuffed men being beaten and whipped by police officers in broad daylight, little boys with swollen bloody faces, and crying little girls with baton marks on their legs expose an uncomfortable truth for Europe. 

It shines a light on a system of racism and segregation which was always present, but was conveniently ignored by the majority. Police violence against Romani communities does not occur in a vacuum. It comes as part of a bigger package, alongside Roma-only ghettos, segregated education, discrimination in employment and healthcare, and a lack of basic utilities and infrastructure in places where poorest communities live. This system is maintained and perpetuated by society’s refusal to be confronted with the daily apartheid of Romani people, which is plain to see for anyone who just cares enough to look. 

As we collectively deal with the aftermath of this pandemic, much could change in our society. Many are optimistic in their aspirations for post-pandemic Europe. More and more people are agreeing that things cannot return to the way they were before, that this situation has shown us how we can build our society around community values, care for the vulnerable, and citizens’ rights over corporate profit. Whether this pandemic brings about such radical change in our society or not, the exposure it has brought to the ugly, systematic state violence against Romani people may hopefully be enough to force Europe to finally make efforts to consign it to history.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.