EU anti-racial policy should align with the EU Roma inclusion policy

The first EU Anti-racism summit is taking place today (19 March). It is a new EU platform that is going to unite and amplify the voice of racial justice movements in Europe, including the Roma rights movement, writes Marek Szilvasi, Team Manager with the Public Health Program of the Open Society Foundations.

This is welcome move, however, the EU Anti-Racist Action Plan contains only one reference to environmental justice and one to climate chance. This, I believe, is inadequate for our times and we should address it. The EU anti-racial policy should align with the EU Roma inclusion policy and we must tackle environmental racism.

I remember the Mayor of Prašník, Emil Škodáček, in a small town in Slovakia, while addressing a journalist on why the municipality assembly would not approve the extension of public water supply to their neighbourhood, said, “because Roma would then reproduce more” and “there would be twice as many of them”.

Shocked, I remember walking along a path through the forest and a meandering local creek as the local Roma took me to their only source of water – a stream spitting out of a metal pipe on the ground. The place is known among local residents as a “gypsy well”. I could, immediately see that it was a health hazard.

The Roma of Prašník took action. They mobilized and filed a court case against the municipality and are now negotiating settlement conditions. Even though the rights to water and sanitation are rights recognised by the UN, European Roma are being left to live in unsafe environments, detrimental to their health and wellbeing. According to the European Commission, some 30% of Roma in nine EU Member States with the largest Roma populations still live without water within their dwellings, 36% without a toilet, shower, or bathroom.

In October 2020, the European Commission published the EU Roma strategic framework for equality, inclusion, and participation. While the new document reaffirms the central role of structural discrimination in four priority policy areas of housing, education, health, and employment, it also introduces a new priority of environmental justice. This is the first time that a major EU policy document recognizes environmental justice as an important area of intervention.

The new strategy documents introduce environmental discrimination as “long neglected reality […], which saw marginalised communities more vulnerable to contamination and other associated health issues.” The Commission urges the national governments to tackle environmental discrimination against Roma in access to water, adequate sanitation, waste collection and tackle the health impact of exposure to pollution, contamination and spatial segregation. The Commission has also mandated the FRA to collect brand new indicators of “Fighting environmental deprivation, promoting environmental justice”.

This happened as a rest of Roma rights advocates having built the case for this major policy opening over the past two years. It was featured in the Roma inclusion statements of commissioners and MEPs. I would like to highlight that it was due to the paramount work the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) and the European Roma Grassroots Organizations Network (ERGO), the OSF grantees, the report became the main reference on environmental justice in Brussels. The report, based on the entries in the Atlas of Environmental Justice, is the first research report and the very first Europe-wide initiative on the environmental racism endured by Roma.

The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) has also pointed out that there are disparities in access to essential services like safe drinking water and sanitation and in exposure to environmental pollution along ethnic lines in Europe.

We have coma a long way from June, 2020, when European Commission Vice-President Margaritis Schinas, responsible for “promoting our European Way of Life”, claimed that we do not have “issues now in Europe that blatantly pertain to police brutality or issues of race transcending into our systems”. He said, “Europe as a whole has been doing better than the United States in issues of race, also because we have better systems for social inclusion, protection, universal health care”, adding that because of the “European tradition for protecting minorities, we have less issues than they have in the States”.

The disproportionate exposure to toxic environments, absence of fundamental public infrastructure, and repressive and prejudicial measures in their Roma communities faced during COVID19, reveal how incorrect the Commissioner’s statement was.

Environmental racism contributes to health inequities endured by Roma. With restricted access to essential infrastructure and services, it is near impossible to adhere to public health measures. Too often, blame is placed on Roma individuals for making wrong “lifestyle” choices, and too often oppressed racial and ethnic groups are seen responsible for their own poor health outcomes. We should instead focus on structural deficiencies and institutional corruption that produce and maintain health inequities.

The situation might be changing though. On September 18, 2020, in her State of the Union address, the European Commission President Van der Leyen introduced ‘A new Action Plan to Turn the Tide in the Fight against Racism’. She emphasized: “Now is the moment to make change. To build a truly anti-racist Union”.

The new Roma Framework has been described as a first concrete contribution to the implementation of this action plan and it is remarkable that it does not ignore the environmental justice perspective. Neglected for decades, Roma communities are also beginning to mobilize but more solidarity, and support is needed. Let us hope that this Action Plan and the Summit will live to this expectation and recognize environmental and climate justice among its most urgent priorities.