Living in Pollution: Roma and Environmental Injustice
No working sanitation, denied access to water and living in a landfill; this is the reality for many Romani people living in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) today. Around ten million Roma live in the EU, and while the European Commission has been committed to their integration into society, social exclusion is still widespread. The marginalization of the Roma is not only visible in numbers on discrimination, violence and unemployment. They are also disproportionately affected by the effects of environmental legislation on their living environments. The situation many Central and Eastern European Roma are in, is a prime example of environmental injustice, which Maantay (2002) defines as “the disproportionate exposure of communities of color and the poor to pollution, and its concomitant effects on health and environment, as well as unequal environmental protection.” This article will take a closer look at this environmental injustice done to Romani people in CEE.
A New Era for the Environment?
In the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, CEE countries were reorganized towards a post-socialist society and Romani people were the first to lose their jobs (Harper et al., 2009). No longer considered necessary for their local economies, they moved into the periphery of their villages, creating what are now known as ‘rural ghettos’. A decade later, when CEE countries began to apply for accession to the European Union, the EU required them to meet its high standards. Key to the plight of many Roma today is the EU’s push for stronger environmental legislation; legislation that is often implemented unequally and which disproportionately burdens Romani communities (Harper et al., 2009; Hiedegger & Wiese, 2020).
During the 2000s, the social segregation of Roma only increased (Harper et al., 2009). The regions where Romani people settled became designated areas for landfills or illegal waste dumps and are ignored by the government when it comes to sanitation and sewage developments. This consistent disregard led to the point where only 12% of Romani communities had working toilets and drainage systems in 2017 (ERRC, 2017). As a result, streets and canals fill with waste and towns flood during heavy rainfall (Heidegger & Wiese, 2020). A telling example of the Romani’s segregation is the wall that was built in 2018 in Sajokaza, Hungary, which blocks Romani families off from the rest of the village (ibid.). Those living beyond the wall have no access to running water in their households (ibid.), making the wall a telling symbol for the environmental services denied to the Romani people. In other cases where the Romani villages are connected to water supplies and waste management infrastructure, authorities have denied them services because, they argue, the Roma do not pay their bills (ibid.). In Hungarian towns like Gulács, Ozd and Huszartelep, the water supply was even cut off during severe heat waves in 2013 and 2017 (Harper et al., 2019).
Many Roma are situated in a vicious cycle. They are deprived of active engagement in local economies, leading to unemployment and an inability to pay for their utilities. So, the Roma burn wood or waste to heat their homes, but as a result they are chided by non-Roma for their lack of environmental awareness (ibid.). This has resulted in a stereotype of the Roma as ‘short-sighted’ and ‘dirty,’ which is widely reinforced by and, in fact, largely the consequence of inadequate legislation. Through no fault of their own, many Roma in CEE countries are denied active participation in society and environmental justice, with little possibility for change in sight.
The environmental injustice suffered by Romani people is closely connected to negative impacts on their health. This is mainly due to the lack of sanitation and waste management facilities in their communities, as well as industrial pollution. Romani communities in Slovakia for instance were negatively affected by the pesticides from intensive farming nearby, which polluted their local water sources (Heidegger and Wiese, 2020). Research conducted by Hanaçek et al. (2019) furthermore found that issues with sewage and drainage in Romani communities significantly increased the risk of infectious diseases spreading. This particularly affected children (see figure 1). Again, in other cases, Roma were displaced from their homes by authorities and relocated to dangerous sites. One such case was in Transylvania, where over a hundred Roma were resettled to a toxic waste water site; within a year, two babies passed away with unidentified diseases (Berescu, 2011).
In an international example, between 1999 and 2013, the UN resettled many Roma to the Trepça industrial smelting and mining complex in Kosovo. The complex was known as one of the most contaminating mines in the country, with lead and other heavy-metal toxins pervading the surrounding waters, air and earth (Ferati et al., 2015). Trepça should never have been used as a resettlement location. With over half of the Roma residents at the complex aged 14 or below (Human Rights Advisory Panel, 2016), the environmental circumstances would prove all the more troubling. Lead and other heavy metals are incredibly dangerous when ingested due to their high toxicity, and can cause permanent damage to the brain and nervous system of children. Unsurprisingly, the results of the resettlement were disastrous. The lead, which entered residents’ system through environmental contamination, caused a myriad of health problems (Garcia, 2010). Journalist Garcia (2010) writes the following on his visit to the camp:
“The boy bares all of his teeth. I look closer [...]. The boy’s left front tooth is almost entirely covered by lead that has emerged through the rotting tissue of his receding gums. Lead more often than not is an invisible killer. But in this boy’s mouth, it announces itself with a boldness that turns my stomach.”
A 2019 UNHCR report stated that several adults and children passed away due to the effects of lead poisoning on the immune system (UNHCR, 2019). Recent testimonies made to the United Nations also further indicate that those who lived at the complex still experience adverse health impacts, including seizures, kidney disease and memory loss (ibid.).
Figure 1. Health-related impacts of environmental injustices done to Roma communities as reported in relation to the 32 cases analyzed by Hanaçek et al. (2019).
There has been a growing interest in environmental justice in Europe in recent years, allowing for new recommendations (Dunajeva & Kostka, 2021). The European Environmental Bureau (EEB) has recently listed policy recommendations in their publication Pushed to the Wastelands (2020), that stresses the importance of combatting racist stereotypes that affect the Roma, and urges the EU to recognize environmental discrimination in CEE. Yet, little progress is being made and Roma communities are not empowered.
While there is a strong desire for change within Roma communities, there is a significant lack of political mobilization. Studies indicate that Romani people in Albania for instance hardly seek access to the legal system because of inhibiting factors such as corruption, discrimination and a general lack of accessible information (Meçe, 2016). These circumstances severely limit Romani communities in their ability to promote their own agendas in environmental decision-making. This is compounded by the Romani identity’s intersection with other areas of social, racial and political inequality, making the dominance of non-Roma voices in decision-making bodies in CEE all the more likely.
In response to this lack of political mobilization amongst the Roma, the EU should increase its support and create channels for Romani that can help them engage with policymakers. Furthermore, existing European laws should be amended or supplemented with references to the situation of the Roma, so that Member States will be required to ensure environmental protection for this marginalized group. This was already done in the Drinking Water Directive of 2020, which urged Member States to pay special attention to vulnerable people such as “refugees, nomadic communities, homeless and Roma” (Council of the European Union, 2020). If these necessary steps are not taken by the EU, the Roma are most likely to (continue to) bear the brunt of environmental inequality in Central and Eastern Europe (Harper et al., 2009). Luckily, the European Commission is currently working on the post-2020 initiative on Roma equality, inclusion and participation; a framework which includes many of the recommendations that were discussed here (European Commission, 2020).
Romani communities in CEE are living in incredibly unsafe environments that puts the Roma’s safety at risk. The unsanitary and polluted environments that many Roma are effectively forced to live in have caused debilitating health issues and even death. Their segregation from society and the environmental burdens placed on the Roma are fueled by anti-Roma racism, and for change to happen, this racism must first be recognized and combatted, particularly in EU legislation. By addressing the Roma’s situation in EU environmental legislation, Member States will be obligated to protect their rights, regardless of public perceptions of Roma and anti-Roma racism. Furthermore, other initiatives that empower Romani voices and strengthen their political mobilization should be created and promoted by the EU. The recent growth of academic interest in environmental justice in Europe has increased public awareness and has led to new policy recommendations, but there is still a long way to go to bring environmental justice to Romani communities in CEE.
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