Roma Facing Environmental Racism in a Time of Climate Catastrophe

15 June 2023

By Bernard Rorke

“Humanity is on thin ice, and that ice is melting fast,” was the dire final warning by UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) sounded the alarm about irreversible impacts, cascading disasters, and looming catastrophes. 

While the IPCC warns the world that the “window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future is rapidly closing”, truth is systemic racism has ensured that for many Roma that particular window was never open. While impoverished communities in the Global South are hardest hit by climate disruption, a recent ENAR report revealed how minorities in Europe are specifically and disproportionately impacted:

“To be clear, this is not some future threat for these communities. Many European climate movements discuss taking action for future generations, but the climate crisis is unfolding here and now for many racialised communities.” 

Across Europe’s worst-off ‘multiply-disadvantaged’ regions, entire communities of Roma subsist in deep poverty, many are forced to live in close proximity to landfills or toxic sites. They are often spatially segregated from the rest of society, living in so-called ‘settlements’, slum neighbourhoods, or improvised camps, and routinely denied equal access to clean water and sanitation, often cut off from affordable heating and electricity supplies. 

The environmental racism faced by Roma across Europe, is also evident in forced displacement and mass evictions to make way for gentrification, tourism or corporate development projects. This is a deliberate structural form of exclusion that serves to banish Romani communities to sites beyond the pale, out of sight and out of mind, to desolate locations, devoid of infrastructure or public transport or services.  

Whose Green Deal?

In contrast to the ominous warnings from the IPCC, the European Green Deal sounds eerily upbeat and jaunty, marketed by European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, as “Europe's new growth strategy" cutting emissions while creating jobs. Complete with catchy tags, such as the boosting of the circular economy, a farm to fork strategy, a biodiversity strategy, and the European Climate Pact, “where everyone has a place … each taking steps in their own worlds to build a more sustainable Europe.” Greenpeace described the measures envisaged in the plan as "too weak, half-baked or missing altogether"

While Commission concerns that “the most vulnerable are the most exposed to the harmful effects of climate change and environmental degradation” have prompted tentative moves in Brussels in pursuit of ‘just resilience’, the racist factors at play have yet to permeate mainstream policy-think. The European Environmental Agency (EEA), in its February 2023 briefing, called on policy makers to focus on equity and engagement of vulnerable groups at all stages of planning, implementation and monitoring to ensure “that no one is left behind.” 

The EEA makes mention of how climate change impacts differently on individuals, communities and regions, and the most vulnerable groups, including older people, children, those of low socio-economic status and health problems. But there is no mention of racism as a factor that has been proven to render some groups more vulnerable than others.

When it comes to racialised minorities, a solitary mention that in some countries Roma are exposed to flood risks is followed by a speculative suggestion that “this may indicate that some areas at higher risk of flooding are inhabited by populations either unable or unwilling to move to safer locations.”  A history of environmental racism is completely elided; in this fleeting mention, the glib and prejudiced implication is that Roma may be just ‘unwilling or unable’ to move somewhere safer. 

In the colourblind quest for a climate-resilient society that leaves no one behind, one that requires “striving towards an equitable distribution of the benefits and burdens of adaptation measures” there seems to be no room to acknowledge the impact of systemic racism targeting Europe’s largest ethnic minority.

This colourblind spot is perhaps indicative of what has been described by the #BrusselsSoWhite movement and racial justice activists, as the ‘whiteness problem’ in Brussels, both in the EU institutions and the equally white environment movement. These activists warn that failure by environmentalists to truly commit to anti-racism and intersectionality will deny people from racialised and systematically marginalised communities the chance to be at the fore of the wider struggle for environmental justice. As for the institutions, leaving racism out of the equation in the mainstreaming pursuit of ‘equitable adaptation solutions’ and ‘just resilience’ carries great risk that millions of Roma across Europe – many of whom are among the most vulnerable in the climate crisis – will in fact be ‘left behind’.

Sulukule: a bitter parable for our times

The story of the destruction in 2010, of the historic Romani Sulukule neighbourhood in Istanbul, is one of the most notorious examples of anti-Roma environmental racism and could stand as a parable for much that is wrong about our times. ‘Urban renewal’ meant the demolition and the disintegration of a historical Roma community, its members dispersed in a manner that deprived them of social networks, solidarity and the means of earning a living. As Martin Demirovski and Adrian Marsh described it, 

“The crumbling Ottoman wooden tenements were bulldozed as crowds of Romani people watched, to be replaced with neo-Ottoman, two-storey villas complete with parking for every household. A shopping mall and sports centre complemented this gentrification and the much-promised culture centre for the Romani people who used to live there never materialized. The alternative for a few of the 3,000 residents was the Taşoluk village, newly built 45 kilometres away from Istanbul, where families of seven were offered 50 square metres to live in.” 

A 2012 court ruling that the urban renovation project was ‘not in the public interest’ and in violation of conservation laws was cold comfort for the thousands of former Romani inhabitants, relocated many miles away or living in the ruins of the settlement.

The recent report Unnatural Disaster by Civil Rights Defenders provides an account of litigation cases, many brought by the ERRC, to combat environmental racism against Roma. Strategic litigation is one aspect of the resistance to this relentless and pitiless confluence of neo-liberal avarice and racial prejudice. This resistance is comprised of coalitions of local and international Roma and pro-Roma CSOs, civil rights, anti-racist and housing activist groups, grass-roots environmentalist organisations and directly-affected communities, who have waged long-running campaigns, protests and advocacy actions against powerful vested interests. 

After two decades of little tangible progress on Roma inclusion in general, it is time to confront the limits of cautious, incremental and ‘soft’ social policies, and to recognise that the official and political neglect of environmental racism is no innocent or accidental oversight. Now more than ever, with climate catastrophe looming, time is of the essence when it comes to environmental justice. Now is the time to ensure that Roma and other racialised minorities are not side-lined in Europe’s colourblind quest for a climate-resilient society that leaves no one behind.

For more on this topic see: Bernard Rorke, Unnatural Disaster: Environmental Racism and Europe’s Roma”, Civil Rights Defenders, Stockholm, April 2023. Available here.


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