Blogpost on inequalities for the Roma during the Covid-19 pandemic by Camilla Ida Ravnbøl, University of Copenhagen, Denmark
I did not go to the shelter to sleep; I only slept in our car, because I am afraid of this virus. I understood that those with diabetes, they die if they get the virus – and I have diabetes. They explained to us at the shelter to avoid crowded places and to disinfect our hands. So I stayed away from crowded places.
These are the words of Susanna; a Roma women from Romania who lives in homelessness in Copenhagen together with her husband Suraj. The couple forms part of a heterogeneous group of homeless and unregistered migrants in Denmark who experience immense difficulties during the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, this contribution will show and argue how the pandemic serves as a magnifying glass that enhances inequalities between the rich and the poor as well as racism against Roma communities in Europe. This contribution builds on ongoing fieldwork that started in 2014 with Romanian Roma who live in homelessness in Copenhagen.
Homeless migrants in the COVID-19 pandemic lock down
Susanna and Suraj come from Romania and therefore have legal rights to reside in Denmark for up to three months because they are EU co-citizens. However, Danish regulations limit their rights to access social services and benefits since they do not fulfil criteria to register as EU workers or students, nor do they have the economic means to support themselves. Together with other Roma who come from conditions of racialized poverty, Susanna and Suraj now live an informal livelihood in the streets of Copenhagen. They sleep rough in the dark side streets around the city and earn a meagre income from refundable beverage containers, which they send home to their families in Romania.
During the initial stages of the pandemic, Denmark closed its borders and installed massive social restrictions. Public and private institutions as well as the restauration industry went into lock down in mid-March and all large summer events were cancelled. People were advised to remain home and in case of illness, they could be tested for Corona virus through referrals from their general practitioner. Businesses could apply for financial compensation for lost income. Thereby, the pandemic serves as a magnifying glass that enhances the privileges of being a citizen in Denmark with access to social assistance, economic support and public health care. Vice versa, it magnifies the inequalities of the homeless and unregistered migrants. Their income from refundable beverage containers dropped to a minimum with the cancellation of public events and shutting down of the city’s nightclubs. The sale of homeless magazines equally dropped since everyone stayed home and avoided social contact. Importantly, the shelters and other social organisations who offer food, showers, laundry, toilet facilities, and care, had to limit their activities or lock down entirely for several months. Many public toilets closed down temporarily, thereby making it even more difficult for the homeless to follow the COVID-19 hygienic guidelines.
The right to health is more challenged than ever before for unregistered and homeless migrants, like Susanna and Suraj. They only have free access to emergency health care treatment, which means that non-acute diseases cannot be treated in the public health care system. While they are entitled to emergency health care if they get severely ill with COVID-19, they do not as of yet have rights for follow up treatment such as rehabilitation through physiotherapy or long-term treatment for potential lung damages.
When Danish society locked down in March, several organisations and institutions openly criticised the lack of facilities for quarantine of unregistered migrants who were COVID-19 infected (or suspected of infection). After several weeks, the Government finally announced that COVID-19 testing should be available to unregistered migrants and allocated quarantine facilities. Yet it was underlined that unregistered migrants without legal status would face eviction after the quarantine. Consequently, many organisations worry that unregistered migrants will avoid contacting social authorities if they get ill because they risk subsequent prosecution and eviction.
Homeless strategies for self-protection in times of COVID-19
Susanna’s opening quote shows us how she fears COVID-19 because she has diabetes. She follows public advice of social distancing and washing and disinfecting her hands, to such an extent that she even stays away from the homeless shelters. Studies show that many unregistered migrants have chronic illness such as KOL/asthma, heart diseases, diabetes and high blood pressure, which place them at high risk of falling severely ill with COVID-19. Many of these chronic diseases acerbate by the homeless livelihood conditions, with limited access to shelter, sanitation, proper alimentation and high levels of stress and anxiety.
Susanna is not alone in her attempts for seeking health care information and means to protect herself. Other homeless persons we spoke with now wear disposable gloves when they search through garbage bins for recyclable materials. One homeless man that we spoke with is convinced that the COVID-19 pandemic is a political strategy to finally eliminate the homeless from the city. Albeit being misinformed, the man’s anxiety and distrust stems from a structural problem, where homeless migrants are increasingly targeted by national legislation in order to limit their rights to stay in Denmark. In 2017, amendments to the legislation criminalized camping in public space and allowed for prohibition of entry into city-zones of persons convicted for camping in public space. National and international institutions and organisations heavily reacted against the legal measures that in effect criminalise homelessness. Evidence also suggests that the legislation is primarily implemented against homeless migrant people with a significant overrepresentation of arrested Romanian citizens.
In the current pandemic, the migrants are therefore even more at risk. They fear to sleep outside due to the risks of arrests for camping in public. They are afraid to sleep inside the shelters due to risk of COVID-19 infection. If they seek quarantine when they feel ill, then they risk deportation.
When being home in Romania is worse than homelessness abroad
What are then the options available to homeless migrant persons such as Susanna and her husband Suraj? One strategy could be to return home to Romania, which many of our interlocutors did with the global lock down. However, Susanna is hesitant towards returning home as is also her friend Florin, who joins our conversation:
It’s tough back home; the police comes every hour to check on people in the mahala [neighbourhood], to make sure they don’t go outside. People are starving and they regret that they went back, because now they can’t enter Denmark anymore. (Florin, April 2020)
We have no allowances, no social benefits, no income sources. The flea markets are closed and you can’t make any money at home. I’m happier to be in Denmark where I can sit on the grass freely, because at home people can’t even do that. (Susanna, April 2020).
Susanna and Florin’s quotes illuminate yet again how the COVID-19 pandemic serves as a magnifying glass that enhances structural inequalities. Poor Romani communities in Romania have become more impoverished when low-paid daily labour jobs in agriculture, construction and the restauration industry across Europe have shut down. Their debt has augmented since families had to take out new loans with moneylenders to cover basic expenditures that previously were paid for with income from employment abroad. With the border closures, these Roma who are EU-co-citizens cannot no longer move freely since they do not have employment contracts or other officially legitimate grounds necessary to cross the borders into the European member states. Instead, some of our interlocutors explain how they now have to resort to irregular border crossings by paying 1000 DKK [app. 110 euro] to people with connections and false documents. Indeed, concerns over hunger, poverty and other health risks for many of these poor families, outweigh the fear of COVID-19. As one man called Zabar noted with an ironic laughter: “what is this Corona-thing even about? We will die of so many other causes before we die of Corona?”
Magnifying racism and violence against Roma
The fear of police harassment that Susanna and Florin mention are common among the Roma we talk with and recent events show how Roma communities experience increased racism during the pandemic. In fact, human rights organisations and EU commissioners express concern over the increase in violence against Roma communities in Romania. Disseminated video material showcase police officers who violently beat several Roma men and a 14 year old boy. The army and police patrol the Roma communities to control that people remain indoors. At the same time, social media posts and writings on walls across Romania target Roma who are returning home from other EU member states with racist statements such as: “I suggest accommodation at Auschwitz!”, “Die, gypsy!”, “Death to the crows!” (“crows” here used as racist slur for Roma) and “Until we are able to gas them like the Nazis, the Roma will infect the nation”.
The list of hate-speech examples is extensive and constantly growing – and unfortunately not only in Romania. Rather, we are now witnessing increased reporting of collective blaming, hate speech and violence against Roma communities across Europe in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, for example in Bulgaria and Slovakia. Even during our fieldwork in Copenhagen, we personally witnessed how a bypassing Danish man unprovoked yelled “COVID-bitch” straight into the face of the Roma woman we were interviewing.
The Romanian government has given little response to the growing anti-Roma racism in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic. For several European states, it goes that instead of protecting marginalised Roma communities from health risks associated with COVID-19 they are instead subject to over-policing using the pandemic as an excuse for the crack-down.
For poor Roma families, such as Susanna and Suraj and their children, the situation looks dire. In the sharp reflection from the pandemic’s magnifying glass, their economic inequality is worsening and their health is increasingly at risk. In many ways, the pandemic sets a question mark to the European goals for ensuring universal human rights, justice and non-discrimination when the most adversely affected are populations struggling inequalities including the poor, people of colour, and minorities. Susanna in her final words of our conversation concludes that she will pray in hope of receiving God’s protection. As she heads back into the streets of Copenhagen, we are left with the thought that as a society we need to do better than to await a divine intervention.
As a minimum, we should guarantee the rights to health and protection from violence for our Roma co-citizens, who constitute the largest ethnic minority population in Europe. We should ensure the de-facto implementation of activities for Roma inclusion. Health care treatment for COVID-19 should be anonymous and accessible to all and we must not criminalise persons for their homelessness. Finally, we must ensure that COVID-19 measures are not used as an excuse for racist and violent crackdowns on ethnic communities and other marginalised populations in society. The rights to health and non-discrimination are universal standards also in the times of a pandemic.
This is a series of updates regarding the Coronavirus from Human Rights Experts – read more here
 The article builds on ongoing fieldwork that started in 2014 with Romanian Roma who live in homelessness in Copenhagen carried out by the author and research assistant Simona Barbu. We have followed 30 Roma women and men closely and spoken with more than 150 migrants who live and/or work in the streets of Copenhagen. We have also made several travels to Romania to visit their families at home. I thank Simona Barbu and Margareta Matache for valuable comments to this piece.
 Ravnbøl, C. Bottle Hunters: an ethnography of law and life among homeless Roma in Copenhagen. PhD Thesis, published December 2018 by the University of Copenhagen; see also footnote 4 for more references.
 Council of Europe, The Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, Fifth Opinion on Denmark, (2020), Secretariat of the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, Strasbourg. Available online at https://rm.coe.int/5th-op-denmark-en/1680996202?fbclid=IwAR234KnPK6rYC1iVBxhfbj1waZjx_OCMl2LBa9vUt765ComaX9ACjRcRo64;
 Ravnbøl C.I. (2019) Patchwork Economies in Europe: Economic Strategies Among Homeless Romanian Roma in Copenhagen. In: Magazzini T., Piemontese S. (eds) Constructing Roma Migrants. IMISCOE Research Series. Springer. For other studies on usury and Roma see: Hrustič, Tomáš 2015. ”Usury among the Slovak Roma” in Gypsy Economy: Romani Livelihoods and Notions of Worth in the 21st Century edited by Micol Brazzabeni, Manuela I. Cunha, and Martin Fotta. 31-49. Berghahn Books.
OSCE, Persistent Roma Inequality Increases COVID-19 Risk, Human Rights Heads Say, April 7, 2020. Available at https://www.osce.org/odihr/449668?fbclid=IwAR1lSy5oHshRKVhvR8VDf2wz9npwp1ZTTM0v1-3cZAqE6Do9jQEpoCCc5IA; Council of Europe, Statement by Dunja Mijatović,Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Governments must ensure equal protection and care for Roma and Travellers during the COVID-19 crisis, April 7, 2020. Available at https://www.coe.int/en/web/commissioner/-/governments-must-ensure-equal-protection-and-care-for-roma-and-travellers-during-the-covid-19-crisis.
 See analysis of hate-speech against the Roma at: https://www.dor.ro/roma-and-the-ethnicization-of-covid-19-in-romania/
 Matache, M. and Bhaba J. (2020) Anti-Roma racism is spiraling during COVID19 Pandemic , Health and Human Rights Journal, 7 April available at: https://www.hhrjournal.org/2020/04/anti-roma-racism-is-spiraling-during-covid-19-pandemic/ See also report by Amnesty International (2020) Stigmatizing qurantines of Roma settlements in Slovakia and Bulgaria (17 April), available at: https://www.amnesty.org/en/documents/eur01/2156/2020/en/ See also article in the EU-Oberver available at: https://euobserver.com/coronavirus/147970 See also Thrilling, Daniel, (5 May 2020), ”Asocial distancing: the mistreatment of Roma and homeless people in the corona crisis”, news article on Eurozine available at: https://www.eurozine.com/asocial-distancing/