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Roma face tougher challenges during coronavirus

Turkey's Roma Initiative helped identity awareness among Turkey's Roma community, says chair of Istanbul-based Roma group

Handan Kazanci   | 07.04.2021
Roma face tougher challenges during coronavirus


 Marking Thursday’s International Roma Day, the head of a Turkish Roma group stressed the many difficulties Roma people are wrestling with, especially during the continuing coronavirus pandemic.

“The situation of the Roma community, struggling with deep poverty and discrimination, has deepened during the pandemic,” Elmas Arus, chairwoman of the Istanbul-based NGO Zero Discrimination Association, told Anadolu Agency.

International Roma Day aims to celebrate Roma culture and raise awareness of the difficulties the Roma people face. The occasion was first declared at the World Roma Congress of the International Roma Union to honor the First World Roma Congress held in Britain 50 years ago.

The coronavirus pandemic has all but wiped away the achievements of the Roma people over the last decade, according to Arus.

“Roma society, which constitutes the poorest and most vulnerable population, has been hardest hit by the epidemic,” she added.

“Under pandemic conditions, poverty has now reached the level of fighting off hunger,” she explained. “The number of families who do not even have access to basic food has risen.”

Distance education in effect deprived Roma children of learning, Arus said, explaining that families who have trouble even putting food on the table cannot even dream of accessing the internet and computers needed for their children's education.

“Unemployment, disconnection from education, and problems accessing food have deepened the trauma in society,” she explained.

“Dependence on social benefits increased,” according to Arus. “But accessing them was also a problem,” she added, due to the complexity of the procedures required for benefits and lack of information on the issue.

As aid is usually distributed through an address-based system, she explained, families who lack addresses as they live in tents are powerless to receive aid.

According to Arus, there are an estimated 3-5 million Roma people in Turkey.

“There is no systematic opposition against Roma people in Turkey, but in practice, ongoing discrimination from individual people is felt very much," she said, adding that especially during the pandemic, this discrimination reared its ugly head even more.

“With the pandemic, Roma groups struggling with access to basic rights and struggling with poverty reached deeper poverty and lack of access,” she added.

Turkey’s Roma Initiative

In 2016, Turkey announced an action plan as part of the government’s Roma Initiative to enhance the living conditions of local Roma people.

Phase two of the action plan – expected to continue through this year – covering education, health, employment, housing, and social services was published in 2019 in the government’s Official Gazette.

Under the plan, the Family, Labor and Social Services Ministry has carried out several projects since 2016 to improve the living standards of Roma in Turkey.

According to Arus, the Roma initiative dates back to 2010, and “after this process, an awareness of identity emerged.”

“It had a positive psychological effect at that time,” she explained.

“A rapid organization process started with the Roma initiative,” she said, adding: “Many Roma non-governmental organizations were established after this period and started to work actively.”

Citing the Turkish government’s two action plans published in 2016 and 2019, Arus said: “The strategy documents are very valuable, as they are binding documents that can create a roadmap for public institutions.”

Underlining that public officials also have responsibilities under this document, she added: “The main demand of Roma groups is to end deprivation and poverty stemming from discrimination and exclusion.”

“They have difficulty accessing basic rights such as education, employment, housing, and health,” she said, adding that due to coronavirus, this inaccessibility has grown even more daunting.

“For this, the action plan prepared by the government must be followed,” Arus said.

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