‘Environmental racism’ forcing Roma people into wastelands

Polly BotsfordThursday 30 July 2020

The Pata Rât landfill, reported to be rubbish piled five storeys high in places, sits six kilometres outside the vibrant university city of Cluj-Napoca in northern Romania. It’s surrounded by makeshift settlements, with around 1,500 Roma people living under improvised shelters made from materials such as cardboard and decaying wood. These Roma communities live in extreme poverty, with no access to water or electricity. They are cut off from public services, including basic sanitation.

Around ten to 12 million Roma live in Europe, with six million living within the European Union. Roma settlements like the one found at Pata Rât, where communities have no choice but to live in environmentally hazardous and contaminated sites, are not uncommon on the edges of Europe’s conurbations.

A report published earlier this year by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), a pan-European network of environmental non-governmental organisations, argues these settlements have resulted from what the EEB describes as ‘environmental racism’ involving the ‘ghettoisation’ of Roma, who are pushed out of towns and villages to these degraded places.

Since Roma have so few champions and representation, they are regularly pushed away from more favourable places towards degraded areas around landfills or industrial sites

Patrizia Heidegger
Director of Global Policies and Sustainability, European Environmental Bureau

The report, entitled Pushed to the Wastelands: Environmental racism against Roma communities in Central and Eastern Europe, is based on 32 case studies involving over 150,000 Roma across Bulgaria, Hungary, Northern Macedonia, Romania and Slovakia. It concludes that ethnicity has its part to play in the existence of these squalid settlements.

Katy Wiese, co-author of the EEB’s report and the organisation’s Associate Policy Officer for Environmental and Economic Justice, tells Global Insight: ‘Roma are one of the biggest minority population in Europe to be regularly excluded from environmental services such as the supply of drinking water, or adequate sanitation… Environmental burdens, such as degradation and pollution, are not equally distributed in society. We can see that ethnicity is an important factor in whether or not an individual is exposed to [them].’

The EEB’s report takes an environmental justice approach to the Roma experience. It explores how this particular community is disproportionately impacted by environmental degradation. Such an experience is common among local minorities around the world. ‘It is often the poorest and most marginalised households who have contributed least to global pollution who are the most exposed to [its effects],’ the report says.

This is a ‘fresh perspective on a very complex reality,’ says Gabriela Kubicova, who is the IBA European Regional Forum Council member for Slovakia, and a lawyer at PwC. ‘The conditions for the Roma communities is a deep-rooted problem that goes back generations, and is very complex. Originally landless, Roma people have found themselves isolated from mainstream society. This isolation has exacerbated the problem, preventing real change from happening.’

The EEB report explains how the latest phase of the segregation of Roma followed the collapse of Communism in 1989 when, typically, Roma lost their jobs during the radical transition of economies of that period. They ended up in ‘squalid villages’ or in ‘ghettoes in the periphery’ of towns. Historically disenfranchised, Roma found themselves ‘pushed to the wastelands’ to ‘make way for new projects’ as Central and Eastern Europe saw intense economic development.

Patrizia Heidegger is Director of Global Policies and Sustainability at the EEB and also co-authored the report. She explains that ‘Whether it is a new link road, a holiday resort or a housing project, Roma communities are constantly in danger of being evicted. Since Roma have so few champions and representation, they are regularly pushed away from more favourable places towards degraded areas around landfills or industrial sites.’

The exclusion of Roma is not new and policies to encourage Roma integration within the EU have been on the European Commission’s agenda for some time. The Commission reports annually on the progress of Member States in getting Roma into education, employment and proper housing. The focus, however, is on individual Member States themselves making change happen.

In January, the European Commission announced a new initiative, to take over from the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies, which ended in 2020. As one of the equality and non-discrimination initiatives under the banner ‘A new push for European democracy’, the Commission is working to launch an overarching, non-legislative strategy on Roma equality and inclusion strategies. However, the new initiative will again aim at supporting ‘national strategies.’

The EEB argues that the fact of environmental racism needs not only to feed into policy-making but also into ‘the implementation and enforcement of environmental law’.

There are many existing legal mechanisms that could be deployed to protect Roma. For instance, there are human rights laws such as the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights or Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which covers the right to housing and water. Article 12 of the International Covenant, meanwhile, covers the right to health.

There are also any number of EU environmental directives – and the national laws that flow from them – that are applicable. It’s a question of using these laws to a much greater extent.

The lack of enforcement may be connected to the current political climate. Anxiety around the rise of populism means governments may be reluctant to push these international standards to protect Roma as to do so would be unpopular with the electorate.

For now, the report plays its part in highlighting the need for environmental rights to be ‘granted to all without any distinction made based on ethnic and social identity.’

Image: Melinda Nagy / Shutterstock.com