ROMA AND EGYPTIANS AND COVID-19: THE HUNGER VIRUS AND FEAR OF THE EPIDEMIC

Representatives of Roma organizations demand all members of this population to be provided with water and electricity, as well as food aid for the most vulnerable, but the Government has not given a straight answer yet

 

Last night, water finally flowed from the fountain in the yards of nine families with 50 members, in the area of the former refugee Camp Two in Vrela Ribnicka, on the outskirts of Podgorica. They were connected to the network after several days of appeals, requests and actions of Roma organizations to provide the inhabitants of this settlement with at least basic hygiene measures for the prevention of Covid-19.

Tarzan Adzovic and other residents of that settlement say that they feel a little safer now.

“After two years, we finally got water. We are satisfied, because now our children will be able to maintain personal hygiene,” Adzovic told the Center for Investigative Journalism of Montenegro (CIN-CG).

Single mother C.G. who lives with six children in another part of Konik still deals with this issue. The virus of hunger and thirst had bothered this family even before the infection appeared. “We are more hungry and thirsty than full. Children are no longer allowed to collect waste at the landfills. The other night, a neighbor brought us food so the children did not fall asleep starving.” 

She suffers the reproach of the neighbors because she takes water from them and cannot participate in splitting the bills. “They ask us to take care of hygiene, but that is a luxury for us,” she says.

H.B from this settlement, whose husband collected secondary raw materials and sold old things at the flea market on weekends, shares the similar fate. They take water in cans from the neighbor and pay half of his bill. Other torments are the same for this family as well.  

Two gloomy fates, Violeta Harizaj reported on during the training on the basics of journalism organized by CIN-CG within the project on raising the employability of Roma and Egyptians, are common for many families from this population in Montenegro.

The United Movement of Roma and Egyptian (UMRE) has asked the Montenegrin government to urgently take measures to protect vulnerable families from the corona virus in RE settlements, especially due to the significant number of those who did not have water or were cut off from electricity.

“Since the Government`s COVID-19 measures have taken effect, members of the most marginalized community in Montenegro fear for their lives. The COVID pandemic had only increased the already existing problems of RE community, while only few of them are able to respect the measures of personal and household hygiene adopted by the official institutions”, the UMRE has warned.

In the past couple of days, 40 local coordinators of this movement worked on “mapping the most disadvantaged families from the Roma and Egyptian communities” in ten municipalities where they live.

“We have sent a request to the Government asking for special attention to be paid to the most vulnerable categories during the pandemic in order to avoid a social catastrophe. Because of substandard living conditions, RE families face an increased risk of contracting corona virus in case it appears in any of the settlements, especially those where the lock down has already been imposed on,” the UMRE has stated.

The movement has also proposed to the Government of Montenegro, as the majority owner of Electric Power Industry of Montenegro (EPCG), to order urgent power connection to all users who are disconnected due to debt, in order to enable them to be informed and to take preventive measures. It was also proposed that all citizens in the next three months be charged electricity at a cheaper rate throughout the day, as well as to postpone their payment during the current COVID-19 measures and that in that period debtors are not disconnected from the network.

Until the publication of this article, the Government did not respond whether they were familiar with the UMRE’s letter, whether they considered the request for emergency assistance for vulnerable Roma and Egyptians and if they made any decisions, and if so, when the implementation could begin.

Electricity is a special problem in the Roma and Egyptian settlement of Riverside in Berane, according to daily Dan. Ardijan Shala, the representative of the inhabitants of this settlement, called on the authorities to understand that help to these families is urgently needed.

“In the beginning, we received help from humanitarian organizations. Prefabricated houses in which we live now have been built. But lately, there has been no help, although we hear that a lot of money is being set aside for vulnerable categories of the population. We are registered as foreign citizens and we get the impression that we do not belong to anyone, since we still live in those conditions, especially now that the virus has paralyzed the whole country. I know that the most difficult thing is to suppress the spread of the corona virus, but we also have the right to life, because for us the most dangerous virus is hunger“, Shala said.

He reminded that many families in Riverside live without electricity and wood.

“Only a few families have electricity. These are the ones that somehow managed to raise money and pay the increased debt. Everyone else has been living in the dark for years. Their unpaid electricity bills amount to 3,000 Euros on average per household. This is the best indicator of the situation that we live in. That is why we are asking for all previous debts on this basis to be written off, as Serbia and Croatia have done. If that does not happen, we are forced to seek collective asylum in other countries, because we have been brought to the brink of despair“, Shala stressed for daily Dan.

For now, the German organization Help has come to the rescue, which, in cooperation with the NGO Roma Youth Organization “Walk With Us” (Phiren Amenca) and with the financial support of the European Union, provided 600 food packages for the most vulnerable as emergency aid. Assistance has reached 400 homes in the settlements of Gracanica in Niksic, Riverside and Talum in Berane, Strojtanica, Rakonje and Zeljeznik in Bijelo Polje and Drenovik in Herceg Novi. The packages, worth a total of 12,400 Euros, as published on the Help website, contained flour, oil, sugar, pasta, rice and soap.

Elvis Berisha, executive director of the Roma Youth Organization “Walk with us – Phiren Amenca”, called on other organizations to help the Roma and Egyptian communities, warning that “in this time of pandemic we shall react urgently and not wait for the situation to get worse.”

“I expect, and I call on all other organizations, especially those that receive funds from the European Union, the Fund for Minorities and the Ministries, to redirect money to help the community, because that is the most urgent thing at the moment. If we want to keep people in their houses, then we should make it possible for them, when the Government of Montenegro does not provide any answers”, Berisha said.

He pointed out that he wants to see “the Roma National Council, the new Roma political party, and other organizations active in the field, but not only to invite people to stay at home, because we know that this is not possible when they have to earn money for food”.

“I am willing to jointly agree and coordinate assistance if necessary because we already have the experience. I expect and appeal to the Red Cross of Montenegro to help all families, as we asked for it, and to include us in order to make it easier for them and for people to get help as soon as possible. This was the first week and at least ten more are to come. It is important that we provide people with access to water, food and hygiene packages!” Berisha said.

According to the 2011 Census of population, households and dwellings in Montenegro, 6,251 persons declared that they belong to the Roma nationality (1.01 percent of the total population), while the Egyptian population numbers 2,054 persons (0.33 percent). Most Roma live in the territory of Podgorica (3988), followed by Berane (531), Nikšić (483), Bijelo Polje (334), Herceg Novi (258). The largest number of Egyptians is in Podgorica (685), Niksic (446), Tivat (335) and Berane (170).

The European Commission’s reports on Montenegro’s progress in the European integration process constantly emphasize the importance of protecting the rights of RE and the need to improve their position, primarily through the consistent application of existing legal solutions. The Report for Montenegro for 2019 states that the Roma minority remains the most vulnerable and most discriminated community in Montenegro.

Police order people to go back home

Besim Hajrizi, a resident of Vrela Ribnicka, lives nearby to the city landfill. His family of nine shares only one room. Living conditions are bad, they don’t even have a bathroom. Now, with the new situation, they are additionally aggravated, because he is prevented from making money. He fears for his family because, as he says, he cannot provide basic necessities for life, let alone means for maintaining hygiene.

“The other day, the police ordered me to go back home when I went to town to collect scrap metal. I understand it’s for my own good, but I make a living from it. I can’t work. I can’t provide any powder or soap, let alone disinfectants. It is said on TV that protective masks and gloves should be worn, but we haven’t even seen them. And how shall we then protect ourselves from infection? How to maintain hygiene? I appeal to the Government to help us,” Hajrizi told RomaNet.

Institute for Public Health (IPH): There are no infected people from the RE community

The Institute of Public Health of Montenegro (IPH) told CIN-CG that so far there are no members of the Roma community in Montenegro who are infected with the COVID-19 virus.

However, it does not mean that they are not in the special focus of preventive activities carried out by the Institute of Public Health together with local epidemiological services. On the contrary – due to their lifestyle, a special part of the educational campaign on measures to prevent the spread of the new corona virus will be adapted to Roma and housing conditions. At the same time, key social actors involved in providing assistance and care in such situations have focused a number of activities on Roma and their children in order to improve the social situation and preserve the health of the population, which is particularly vulnerable when it comes to infectious diseases, the Institute of Public Health pointed out.

Serđan BAFTIJARI

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