European Energy Crisis Hits Roma Populations Hard

Roma community protest in the Serbian city of Nis after dozens of families in a settlement in the city had their electricity cut off. Credit: Opre Roma Srbija
Roma community protest in the Serbian city of Nis after dozens of families in a settlement in the city had their electricity cut off. Credit: Opre Roma Srbija
  • by Ed Holt (bratislava)
  • Inter Press Service

Many of the 12 million Roma in Europe have a low standard of living, and even before the energy crisis, energy poverty was rife among their communities.

Roma leaders and rights organisations say the current crisis has only deepened the problem and are calling for governments to ensure that one of the continent’s most vulnerable groups gets the help they need this winter and beyond.

“EU leaders and policymakers must ensure that energy policies already agreed, or any agreed in future, must be tailored and implemented in such a way that the most vulnerable, including the Roma, can access and benefit from them,” Zeljko Jovanovic, director of the Open Society Roma Initiatives Office at the Open Society Foundations (OSF), told IPS.

Roma living in Europe are among the most discriminated and disadvantaged groups on the continent. In many countries, significant numbers live in segregated settlements where living conditions are often poor, and extreme poverty is widespread.

Energy poverty is also common. It is estimated that at least 10% of the roughly 6 million Roma living in EU countries have no access to electricity at all.

Meanwhile, where utilities are available, many struggle to afford them.

Rising energy prices this year have exacerbated the problem. But while governments have rolled out help in the form of one-off payments and other support for families and businesses to pay energy bills, this aid is often not filtering through to Roma despite the minority being among those most in need, say rights activists.

Unemployment in Roma communities is often high, with only one in four Roma aged 16 years or older reporting being employed, and many earn money working in the grey or black economies. But because of this, they often struggle with accessing state support schemes. This is especially true for measures approved to provide financial aid during the energy crisis.

“Even before the energy crisis, there was a problem with energy poverty in Europe, and for the Roma, this was even more so because so many were not in the formal system.

“Measures for the energy crisis are made for those in the formal system. Many Roma are not in that system – they are unemployed, or not formally registered, or earning money and paying into the social welfare system – so they cannot access those measures,” explained Jovanovic.

Roma NGOs working in some countries say they have already seen these problems.

In Romania, which has a Roma population of 1.85 million according to the Council of Europe, a programme to help the vulnerable with energy payments has been launched.

But Alin Banu, Community Organiser at the Aresel civic initiative, told IPS some Roma are unable to access it precisely because “they work in the grey or black economy and don’t have the right documentation of social insurance payments, wages etc.”.

Meanwhile, even those who are eligible for help are often being denied it, he claimed. He said that some municipalities had put conditions on receiving help to pay energy bills - for example, evidence of historical tax debt, or car ownership, makes an individual ineligible for the help.

The group says this is illegal.

“We have solved this problem in some cases, but most Roma will not complain about this because often they simply will not know it is illegal,” Balu said.

There are also concerns that other measures already adopted will actually make things worse for Roma.

Last year European leaders agreed on a non-binding goal for EU countries to reduce overall electricity demand by at least 10% by 31 March 2023, and a mandatory reduction of electricity consumption by 5% for at least 10% of high-demand hours each week.

Jovanovic fears that politicians’ first steps to save on energy consumption could involve simply cutting off power supplies to those not formally connected to the energy grid.

“Countries’ reductions in energy demand might come from cutting energy to those who do not have formal access to it, like the Roma,” said Jovanovic.

Nicu Dumitru, a Community Organiser at Arsesel, agreed – “the Roma would be the first to be cut off in that case,” he told IPS – but said that even if that does not happen, many Roma are already struggling with soaring energy costs.

Information collected by his group suggests that a fifth of all Roma households have had their electricity cut off since the start of the crisis because they cannot afford to pay. They are then connecting informally to the grid – usually through one person in their community who has a connection and who then charges high prices for others for use of that power – often borrowing money to do so, and worsening their already precarious financial situation.

There are an estimated over 400,000 people informally connected to the power grid in Romania, many of them Roma.

“The situation is getting critical for Roma,” Dumitru said.

Meanwhile, Roma activists in other countries are worried that politicians will use the energy crisis as an excuse to ignore long-term problems with energy poverty among the Roma or even as a justification to allow Roma settlements to be cut off from supplies.

In May this year, electricity supplies to 24 families in the ’12 February’ Roma settlement in the southern Serbian city of Nis were cut off over unpaid bills. The families claim this debt pre-dates their time living there, but the local power distributor demanded proof of house ownership from the families before reconnection.

People in many Roma settlements often lack such documents as the process for obtaining them is costly and difficult for many to navigate without expert legal help, and none of these families was able to provide the required proof.

It was only after both local and nationwide protests by members of the community themselves and negotiations between the families, who were represented by the Opre Roma Serbia rights group, local authorities, and the local distributor Elektrodistribucija Nis, that in December, limited supplies of electricity were restored to the families involved.

Jelena Reljic of Opre Roma Serbia said she was pleased those affected could now access electricity again but warned “the situation in this settlement is an example of a much wider systemic problem” which politicians are not doing enough to solve.

“The last cut off in this settlement was because of historic debt, but the problems with electricity have been going on for a decade. Politicians are relying on being able to cut Roma settlements off from electricity during the energy crisis without too much public outrage or resistance. Around 99% of the reaction we have seen to the problem in this settlement has been of the type ‘oh, no one should be getting energy free during this crisis, we pay, so why shouldn’t they?’” she told IPS.

“Politicians are using the energy crisis to cover up the fact that they have never dealt with the problem of energy poverty for years and years,” she added.

The OSF’s Jovanovic wants European policymakers to review their proposed help during the crisis, including not just the approved reductions in energy demand but plans for energy price caps and a solidarity levy on the profits of businesses active in the oil, natural gas, coal, and refinery sectors.

He said the 5% reduction must not lead to electricity cuts for those already in energy poverty and that public revenues from the energy cap and solidarity levy - estimated at €140bn within the EU - should be redistributed along principles that are both morally and macroeconomically justified.

He has been involved in high-level EU committee meetings on energy crisis support policies, but, he told IPS, at those meetings, there seemed to be “little idea of the perspective of Roma and other vulnerable groups and how they would cope in the crisis”.

Now he and other activists are trying to arrange further talks with EU and national policymakers to urge them to address shortcomings in current policies affecting vulnerable groups, including Roma.

“We want to raise these issues,” he said.

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© Inter Press Service (2023) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service