MS Risk Blog

The Selective Targeting of COVID-19 Measures on Specific Groups in Eastern Europe

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In a report, Amnesty International stated that police enforcing COVID-19 lockdowns across Europe disproportionately targeted ethnic minority and marginalized groups with violence, discriminatory identity checks, forced quarantines and fines. “Police violence and concerns about institutional racism are not new, but the COVID-19 pandemic and coercive enforcement of the resulting lockdowns have exposed just how prevalent they are. The triple threats of discrimination, unlawful use of force and police impunity must be urgently tackled in Europe,” Marco Perolini, Amnesty International’s Western Europe Researcher, said.

Asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants in camps and shared accommodation were targeted in selective quarantines in Serbia. Serbia placed them under a strict 24-hour mandatory quarantine and deployed the military to monitor the curfew. The governments in Bulgaria and Slovakia brought in mandatory quarantines on Roma settlements, actions which Amnesty International called discriminatory. Over 50,000 Roma in Bulgaria were cut off and suffered severe food shortages under mandatory quarantines. The median income in Roma neighbourhoods also dropped by 61 percent between March and May 2020 according to a survey listed by AI. In Slovakia the military was tasked to enforce them. AI stated that the military is not suitable to carry out public health measures and should only be used in law enforcement settings where there is a clear reason showing that regular police officers are insufficient. No such reason existed in these cases, AI said.

An analysis by the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy (BCSP), “The Security Sector in the State of Emergency: Testing Democracy”, stated that “During the 52 days it spent in a state of emergency, Serbia failed the test of democracy, thanks to a series of failings and irregularities in the conduct and control of the security sector”. It states that the police did not always conduct themselves professionally, proportionately or as politically neutral agents who are primarily concerned with citizens’ needs and rights. The BCSP also writes that the Serbian Armed Forces “took on public security assignments for which it lacks training and clear procedures, which proved to be a problem particularly when it came to securing refugee and asylum centres”. Soldiers armed with automatic rifles have been seen patrolling the streets of the capital Belgrade and other cities throughout the lockdown. Their presence and the unclear rules of their engagement has raised concerns about compliance with international law on the use of force. Amnesty International recommended that military forces should only be deployed if properly instructed and trained to comply with human rights, and that they be subject to civilian command and oversight. Furthermore, Serbia has had one of the strictest lockdowns as it banned residents in centres for refugees and migrants from leaving at all, except in medical circumstances.

Meanwhile migrant camps in Bulgaria were heavily policed, with authorities even using drones with thermal sensors to take temperature of residents in Roma settlements in some municipalities. While drones have been used in other European countries, Bulgaria selectively targeted the Roma population. Marinov, Minister of the Interior, threatened to implement even more coercive measures “to protect the general population” if Roma failed to comply with the social distancing measures. Furthermore, members of government have on occasions engaged in discriminatory speech. The Bulgarian National Movement party referred to Roma as a collective threat that needs to be “controlled and contained”. In response, on May 13 two UN human rights experts called on Bulgaria to stop using hate speech against Roma in its response to COVID-19 and halt police operations targeting Roma neighbourhoods. Furthermore, Amnesty International said that such coercive approaches contradict evidence-based public health best practice. According to AI, a more effective response to this health crisis is grounded in respect of human rights, including policies that increase trust in authorities. Conferring further powers to the police should be a last resort, and less restrictive measures that encourage compliance with restrictions should be tried first. Furthermore, imposing prison sentences will probably exacerbate public health problems as the risk of COVID-19 spreading in certain prisons and other places of detention is elevated.

Five Roma settlements were placed under mandatory quarantine in Slovakia which were enforced by both police and military. While authorities argued this was necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Roma settlements had already been subjected to increased policing in recent years. The Slovak government has been criticised for testing Roma locations and imposing quarantines without providing them with the necessary means to protect themselves, such as providing access to water and sanitation. The residents have also complained about unlawful use of force by police officers during the pandemic and that they were not given information about the conditions and duration of the quarantine. Serious cases of unlawful use of force in addition to allegations of ill-treatment of Roma by police has also been reported in Romania. One video showed police beating Roma men as they lay handcuffed on the ground. After several such incidents, the European Roma Rights Centre raised concerns about the police violence against Roma that occurred in the context of COVID-19 emergency measures.

It is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic is an exceptional situation wherein states may be required to adopt extraordinary measures. In fact, international law allows the use of emergency powers necessary to protect the right to health in such circumstances. Such measures should however be based on credible scientific evidence and be grounded in legitimate public health goals. They should not target certain groups of people, nor be overly intrusive or left without proper oversight. Yet we have seen several examples of this occurring in eastern European countries. Lockdown measures have disproportionately restricted minority groups’ human rights. Disproportionate restrictions on freedom of movement of ethnic minority groups and refugees, asylum seekers and migrants, with no evidence of them presenting an objective threat to public health or security puts unnecessary and disproportionate burdens on these people. While authorities have tried to justify such measures by arguing that these people were not complying with social distancing rules, it is near impossible for them to comply in absence of support, especially those living in poverty.  Furthermore, law enforcement officials have responded to people breaking curfews and restrictions on freedom of movement by using excessive force.

In response to these issues, AI recommended that European states explicitly prohibit discrimination, including a system of disciplinary measures for law enforcement officials who breach the prohibition of discrimination; refrain from coercively enforcing lockdown measures and from giving law enforcement officials further powers; implement accountability mechanisms to ensure investigations of allegations of unlawful use of force by police; end discriminatory forced quarantines of Roma settlements; and review penalties imposed for non-compliance with lockdown measures, including cancelling fines against people who are not able to comply with measures because of their socio-economic status. If these recommendations are implemented, the disproportionate effect COVID-19 measures have had on minority groups, asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants can be mitigated.