2020 has been a difficult year for the Roma community. Central and Eastern Europe have long had a contentious relationship with the Romani communities who live within their borders. Slovakia is no exception to this.
COVID19 has exacerbated the discrimination and challenges faced by the Roma community in Slovakia. Their precarious living conditions and safety need to be addressed by the Government. More accountability and action needs to be provided by the Government to alleviate the struggles they face. This is essential before unity can be achieved between Slovakia and the Roma community.
Discrimination against the Roma community is not a new phenomenon. The history of the Roma community is filled with tragedy. In August, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine, and Croatia all attended and witnessed the Roma Genocide Remembrance Day. Yet, this important day is relatively unknown internationally. The date, August 2nd, commemorates those from the Roma community who lost their lives in the ‘Greater German Reich’ under the Nazi Regime, particularly in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in 1944. During this time, a quarter of the European Roma population lost their lives in the Holocaust, or “Porajmos, the ‘Devouring’” as it is known in the Roma language, Romani.
During the 20th century, the Roma community faced persecution as they were seen as outsiders, not belonging in Slovakia and other European nations. Roma Genocide Remembrance Day ensures people do not forget about this European community, their place in Europe, and their historic struggles.
Despite the horrific tragedies suffered and witnessed by the community last century, their integration and belonging is still questioned today. The Roma community continues to be marginalized in modern Slovak society, and antigypsyism persists.
What’s New in 2020?
A new Slovak Government was formed in March 2020. It is led by firebrand politician, Prime Minister Igor Matovič, who ran a bold political campaign on anti-corruption and promised change for Slovakia. His campaign aimed to highlight the systemic failures under the previous Government.
Under the previous Government, corruption was widespread, political clientelism was normalized, and media freedom was restricted. This culminated in the assassinations of Ján Kuciak, an investigative journalist, and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová in February 2018. Matovič’s new coalition Government arrived into office as COVID19 swept the country.
Matovič was publicly supportive of the Roma Genocide Remembrance Day. He acknowledged the past tragedies and expressed determination to tackle extremism and hate in contemporary society. Peter Pollák, a member of Matovič’s party and the first Roma MEP of Slovakia, stated, “We cannot divide people on the basis of what ethnic group or community they belong to”.
People from the Roma community are the third largest ethnic group in Slovakia. According to the latest Government census, they make up around 2% of the population. However, Minority Rights Group International stresses that “the number of Roma is commonly under reported” and that other reports suggest the community make up “between 7 and 11 percent of Slovakia’s population”. In 2019, it was reported that most Roma live in eastern Slovakia in one of 1043 settlements.
Life in the Settlements
Many Roma settlements are overcrowded. The Atlas of Roma communities defined a settlement “as a concentration of a minimum of 30 people or five houses, which provide sub-standard quality of living and are inhabited by people who are considered Roma by majority”.
Due to systemic ostracism, many Roma families live in these marginalized settlements. Often families reside in buildings with a questionable legal and safety status, some are even scheduled for demolition, or in shanty towns (around 90,000 people).
According to the 2020 report by the Central European Labour Studies Institute, a non-profit based in Bratislava, around 48% of the Roma community live in settlements on the peripheries of towns and civilization; a further 18% of settlements are rural or remote. For 17 settlements, “there is no road or walkway leading” there.
Compounding the geographic problems is the question of ownership. Few Roma living in the settlements are able to own their own land or buildings. Properties typically belong to individuals or corporations outside the community, making it harder to implement vital investment and regeneration projects in the settlements.
In these settlements, drinking water is not guaranteed. In “13% of the settlements, more than 50% of the population gets water from a public tap on the street, and in 5% of the settlements (56 settlements), more than 50% of the population of the settlement uses non-standard water sources such as a river or puddles.” Sanitation and sewer systems are not always readily available or used.
Such poor sanitation facilitates the spread of infections and viruses. Infectious diseases have higher rates in these settlements than in other regions of Slovakia. Living, and raising families in these conditions is fraught with danger.
The current pandemic has stressed the necessity of having good hygiene, careful disinfection, and adequate social distancing. Slovakia, alongside its Visegrád group neighbours, Hungary, Czechia, and Poland, was part of the first wave of EU countries to close borders and to enforce measures internally to tackle the virus. These fundamental guidelines of ensuring the virus is kept under control cannot be feasibly implemented in many Roma settlements, due to poor housing and living conditions. As COVID19 spread, individuals returning to Slovakia from abroad were mandated to quarantine for 14 days.
However, in April, targeted testing of entire Roma settlements began when one individual, returning from the UK, failed to comply with mandatory quarantine measures. Slovak authorities started testing residents for COVID in 33 settlements. These particular settlements were allegedly tested because of the proportion of residents who had returned from abroad, particularly from Czechia and the UK.
Five entire settlements in eastern Slovakia, housing around 6000 people, were quarantined for 16 days. This response did not appear to happen in other regions of Slovakia, in ethnically Slavic or Hungarian communities.
Some in the Roma settlements were grateful for the COVID measures, given the gravity of the pandemic and that testing was carried out professionally. PM Matovič stated that those citizens quarantined in the settlements were exemplary and he commended their response to the lock-downs.
For the mandatory quarantines, army medics were deployed to carry out testing. Helicopters as well as army and police personnel were stationed around the settlements, creating alarm. At the same time, there were widespread concerns in the settlements about insufficient food and medical supplies before the lock-downs began.
As Ed Holt, a researcher for the medical journal The Lancet highlighted, the quarantining of entire settlements “were putting healthy people at risk as those with infections were not being removed from the community”. The Government did not make provisions available nor give suitable advanced warning before these measures came into force, many claim.
The fear of increased stigmatization against the Roma community began to spread as targeted procedures were only introduced in Roma settlements. The measures drew criticism from Amnesty International who reiterated that targeted testing “will only add to the stigmatization and prejudice they already face”.
Antigypsyism, defined by The European Roma Grassroots Organisations (ERGO) Network as “the specific racism towards Roma, Sinti, Travelers and others who are stigmatized as ‘gypsies’ in the public imagination” is a widespread problem. ERGO Network emphasizes that antigypsyism “gives rise to a much wider spectrum of discriminatory expressions and practices, including many implicit or hidden manifestations.”
Ill-treatment at the hands of Government and police, poor employment opportunities, and racism are issues frequently faced by the community. During the settlement lock-downs there were several reports of police harassment. In April, a police officer was reported after beating five Roma children and allegedly threatening to shoot them.
The current pandemic has emphasized Slovakia’s shortcomings when addressing its Roma community. Targeted testing and targeted community lock-downs are drops in the ocean. A holistic approach is needed to help its Roma settlements. Quality housing, safety, and water are basic necessities that would help the community tackle the spread of COVID19 and elevate their living standards.
COVID19 is an excellent opportunity for Matovič’s Government to acknowledge the crisis in Slovakia’s treatment of the Roma community; so far, this opportunity has been missed.
However, there is hope. President Zuzana Čaputová, the first elected female President in Slovak history, is a defender of Roma rights. During the presidential race she maintained communication with the Roma community and addressed them in Romani, and she continues to do this in office. She has used her Presidency to give a voice to the young Roma community, and to improve relations with the community and the Government.
Since June, Čaputová’s former political party, Progresívne Slovensko (Progressive Slovakia), has been led by Irena Bihariová as its new chair. She is the first Roma woman to lead a political party in Slovakia and was the former chair of the People Against Racism association.
Progresívne Slovensko is the outspoken social-liberal and progressive political party in contemporary Slovakia. Bihariová’s election, and the political goals of Progresívne Slovensko, spell promise for more Roma representation and more support for the community in politics.
Bihariová and Čaputová, together, can help to encourage the current Government to critically assess the reality of living as Roma in Slovakia. This encouragement may promote real change for the lives of those in the settlements during COVID19 and in future years.
The pandemic has shone a light on some of the most serious deficiencies in support for the Roma community in Slovakia, but there is still time for change.
The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and do not reflect the views of Conversationally Speaking Magazine.
Phoebe is an International Master’s student of Central and East European, Russian and Eurasian studies between the University of Glasgow, Tartu University, and Jagiellonian University. Her Master’s dissertation, is about Slovakia’s President Zuzana Čaputová and women’s participation in Slovak politics. Phoebe's research interests include modern Native faiths, women’s rights and women in politics, and Central and Eastern Europe. Currently, she is based in Scotland.