Europe’s Roma already faced discrimination. The pandemic made it worse.
By Patrick Kingsley and Boryana Dzhambazova
At a checkpoint on the edge of a Roma neighborhood, 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 Center, 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 Center. “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% 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.
The municipal authorities in Kyustendil, a city in western Bulgaria, locked down its Roma suburb on June 17. 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.
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.”
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.