Turkey's Roma hit hard by COVID-19 outbreak

The coronavirus pandemic has affected all in Turkey, but perhaps the worst hit have been the country’s Roma population, 75 percent of whom didn’t have a regular income even before the pandemic hit.

Many Roma people in Turkey make a living in the informal economy as collectors of recyclables, street vendors, musicians or flower sellers, and the atmosphere that the pandemic created is having a disproportionate effect on their livelihoods.

Istanbul’s Kuştepe neighbourhood is a slum at the heart of the city, in the Şişli district, and it has a sizeable Roma population. Fahrettin Şinnik is one of them, and before the lockdowns, he used to go to a coastal road in Istanbul's Zeytinburnu district every day. There, he would risk his life and stand in the middle of the street, trying to sell flowers to passing cars.

With the pandemic, it became almost impossible for him to sell flowers. Now, people do not wind down to buy flowers for fear of contracting the virus, Şinnik told Ahval. Even though flower sellers wear masks and gloves to give people a sense of security, it remained hard to sell flowers. Şinnik was poor to begin with, and after almost a year of this global pandemic, his family can no longer make ends meet at all. They have several months’ worth of unpaid bills, and they haven’t made rent in a few months.

“We used to make our living by selling flowers. But now people do not open the car window. The landlord called, asking for rent. Rent, bills are unpaid. Being hungry is a bad thing. No one should be in this situation," Necibe Şinnik, who sometimes goes to sell flowers with her husband, told Ahval.

“It’s bad to go hungry. May Allah spare all from this fate,” she said.

The Şinnik family is not an exceptional example. Poorer people are having a hard time due to the pandemic. The Roma community, who are at the forefront of ethnic and class exclusion, are exposed to more severe conditions every day.

İlhan Meşe, a paper collector who lives in Istanbul's Küçükçekmece district, shares the Şinnik family's fate. Meşe used to collect paper from garbage daily. However, he says that things have stopped with the anti-virus measures. Still, Meşe has to go out to work every day, or his family goes hungry. But he is also over the age of 65, so he has had to risk fines stepping outside his home for much of the confinement process as Turkey put the elderly on a curfew to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

“I collect the masks that people throw away because they would cause disease,” Meşe said. “Think about it, I depend on even the virus-laden trash.”

On Nov. 17, the government announced new measures, restricting the movement of the elderly and youth, and imposing a partial curfew over the weekends. Meşe says he is afraid that the police will fine him due to his age, but he has to work.

“We collect the masks that people threw because they were dirty. Can you imagine? I even need the thing that makes you sick, the mask that was possibly infected with the virus. I sell those masks, papers, garbage," he said.

"We are afraid of punishments. How will I make a living? Social distance is on everyone's lips, but where is social assistance? Should I die of hunger, or of collecting trash? Tell me, what should I do?” Meşe said.

Zero Discrimination Association Chairwoman Elmas Arus has seen a rise in fines issued to street vendors, flower sellers and scrap collectors under the pandemic. Roma women are worse affected by the fines, as they are usually the ones working out on the streets. Many have also been subjected to violence by police and other state forces. “Most of the fines imposed on peddlers were given to Roma. Because these jobs are done by Roma and people coming from eastern Turkey. This poverty is a common victimhood," she said.

Another group engaged in the same types of jobs is the Kurds, but they are better aware of their rights, according to Arus. They often don’t know how to file objections, or even that they could object to fines at all.

Many Roma people live in neighbourhoods with poor access to basic services such as electricity and clean water, with a high risk of infection due to crowded living conditions, according to Hacer Foggo, who established the Deep Poverty Network to support low income families during the pandemic.

“When we look at the houses where the Roma live, social distance is impossible anyway. Most of them live in one-room or two-bedroom houses in very bad conditions. They cannot pay rent at this time. What will happen? Poverty has increased even more."

She said many struggle to reach online health or education services due to low rates of literacy and internet access.

Meanwhile, many Roma children have lost access to education because they can’t participate in remote learning. Turkey’s remote education system EBA TV doesn’t work on old televisions. Many households don’t have broadband internet necessary to watch online classes, and even if they did, often the only smart device at home is the father’s phone, which he takes to work with him.

Thousands of children were locked out of education for six months, according to Foggo. “There is still no good solution in place.”

"They say distance education, but children cannot find the opportunity to access online education at home. No internet, no smartphones, no computers. They had no education for six months. Thousands of children were deprived of education and there is still no proper solution for the problem."

"In the interviews we made with the families in the field, we saw that none of the families have tools for distance education. Nobody even had internet at home," Güliz Vural, who works on a European Union project on the education life of Roma children, said.

Elmas Arus, head of the Zero Discrimination Association, said Roma people are mostly working on the streets, as flower sellers, peddlers, paper and scrap metal collectors and musicians. Majority of fines issued by officials for violating the anti-virus measures have been imposed on the Roma community, she said, citing the association's data.

Another issue for the community is that the normal age for a Roma child to start working is 13 in many cases. As such, many are affected by the curfew Turkey placed on its residents under the age of 20 as well.

Child marriages have increased while access to education decreased, especially for girls. “Before, 60 percent of Roma children had access to education. Now it’s 15 percent,” Arus said. Access had improved over the years, reducing child marriages.

Under current conditions, 34 neighbourhoods with Roma populations have shown signs of increased child marriages.

Overall, 25 percent of Turkey’s children have been deprived of education under pandemic conditions, according to an OECD report cited by Güliz Vural, an activist who writes EU projects on education for Roma children.

No households Vural visited as part of her recent field study had broadband (or other) internet access at home.

“The void left by the state is filled by civil society,” Vural said, mentioning the Deep Poverty Network, which hands out tablets to children in low to no-income houseolds. “Remote education must keep in mind the principle of equal opportunity, and the ministry must create conditions for all children to access education.”