Europe: COVID-19 lockdowns expose racial bias and discrimination within police

Police enforcing COVID-19 lockdowns across Europe have disproportionately targeted ethnic minority and marginalized groups with violence, discriminatory identity checks, forced quarantines and fines, Amnesty International said in a new report.

Policing the pandemic covers 12 European countries and exposes a disturbing pattern of racial bias which is linked to concerns about institutional racism within police forces, and echoes wider concerns raised in the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests.

Police violence and concerns about institutional racism are not new, but the COVID-19 pandemic and coercive enforcement of the resulting lockdowns have exposed just how prevalent they are

Marco Perolini, Amnesty International’s Western Europe Researcher

“Police violence and concerns about institutional racism are not new, but the COVID-19 pandemic and coercive enforcement of the resulting lockdowns have exposed just how prevalent they are,” said Marco Perolini, Amnesty International’s Western Europe Researcher.

“The triple threats of discrimination, unlawful use of force and police impunity must be urgently tackled in Europe.”

Discriminatory policing targeting minority ethnic people

The police enforcement of lockdowns disproportionately impacted poorer areas, which often have a higher proportion of residents from minority ethnic groups. In Seine-Saint-Denis, the poorest area of mainland France where the majority of inhabitants are Black or of North African origin, the number of fines for breaching the lockdown was three times higher than in the rest of the country, despite local authorities stating that respect for lockdown measures was similar to other areas. In Nice, nine predominantly working class and minority ethnic neighbourhoods were subjected to longer overnight curfews than the rest of the city.

Unlawful use of force by police often took place in the context of stop and search and identity checks as police enforced lockdown measures.

In the UK, one of the few European countries that collects ethnically disaggregated data on law enforcement, police in London registered a 22 percent rise in stop and searches between March and April 2020. During that time the proportion of Black people who were searched rose by nearly a third.

Amnesty International’s Evidence Lab verified 34 videos from across Europe showing police used force unlawfully, and in many instances when it was not required at all.

In a video posted online on 29 March, two law enforcement officials stopped a young man, reportedly of North African descent, on the street in Bilbao, Spain. Despite appearing to pose no threat to them, the police violently push him and hit him with a baton. While the two officers keep the man pinned against a wall with his hands behind his back, the man’s mother appears and tells the police officers that her son suffers from poor mental health. The police officer then hits her with his baton before three police officers tackle her to the ground.

According to Amnesty International’s analysis the law enforcement officials did not use the minimum amount of force necessary, and in fact it is questionable if any force was needed at all. Some of the neighbours who were filming were fined for “unauthorized use” of images of law enforcement officials.

Another video shows Samir, a 27-year-old Egyptian national who has lived in France for 10 years, being chased by police before jumping into the River Seine in Île-Saint-Denis on 26 April 2020.  The police officers can be heard using a derogatory term for Arabs (“bicot”), laughing at him and one officer says “you should have put a weight on his ankle”. He was subsequently beaten by the police in their van and held in custody. Samir was never charged with any offence, he was ordered to leave the country. The two officers identified were suspended for the racist insults.

Roma settlements subjected to militarized quarantines

In a display of discrimination against Roma in Bulgaria and Slovakia, both governments brought in mandatory quarantines on Roma settlements. In Slovakia they also tasked the military with enforcing them Amnesty International considers that the military is not suitable to carry out public health measures, and should only be used in law enforcement settings in which there is a clear reason showing that regular police officers are insufficient. No such reason exists in the present cases.

During mandatory quarantines in Bulgaria over 50,000 Roma were cut off from the rest of the country and suffered severe food shortages. A survey showed that the median income in Roma neighbourhoods went down by 61 percent between March and May 2020.

In Burgas, the authorities used drones with thermal sensors to take the temperature of residents in Roma settlements remotely and monitor their movements. Similarly, in the town of Yambol, the authorities used planes to “disinfect” the Roma neighbourhood, which experienced an outbreak of COVID-19 and was kept under strict quarantine even after the nationwide state of emergency ended. 

Refugee and migrant camps targeted

Asylum-seekers, refugees and migrants in camps and shared accommodation have also been targeted with selective quarantines in Germany, Cyprus and Serbia, and with forced evictions in France and Greece. 

For example, under the state of emergency in Serbia, the authorities imposed a special regime that selectively targeted government-operated centres housing refugees, migrants, and asylum-seekers. It placed them under a strict 24-hour mandatory quarantine and deployed the military to monitor the curfew.

“The state must stop imposing discriminatory quarantines on and forcibly evicting Roma, refugees and migrants from informal settlements and camps. They must instead safeguard the right to housing and health of everyone,” said Barbora Černušáková, Amnesty International’s Eastern EU Researcher.

People experiencing homelessness

People experiencing homelessness also suffered punitive measures under lockdowns. In Italy, ‘Avvocato di Strada’ NGO collected at least 17 cases in which people who are homeless received fines for not being able to comply with measures regarding self-isolation and restrictions on movement. Dozens more were fined by law enforcement officials in France, Spain and the UK.

“Authorities must address concerns about institutional racism, racial bias and discrimination within the police that have characterized their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is time for such practices to end, and for Europe to confront the racism in its own backyard,” said Barbora Černušáková.

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Alison Abrahams on [email protected] +32 2 548 27 73 or +32 483 680 812

Background

The 12 countries covered in the report are Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, France, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Serbia, Slovakia, Romania, Spain and the UK.