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Policing the Pandemic: Amnesty’s Report on Human Rights Violations in the Enforcement of COVID-19 Measures in Europe

Following the recent increase in the police’s already disproportionate use of force against Black communities in the UK, the timely report by Amnesty International examines the enforcement of government measures to tackle COVID-19 in 12 countries across Europe. The report’s findings highlight that the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated Europe’s existing inequalities and discrimination on the basis of race, nationality and other protected characteristics, as it has in the UK.

The report considers the enforced containment of Roma and ‘people on the move’ (migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers) in Bulgaria, Cyprus, France, Greece, Hungary, Serbia and Slovakia. It then considers the unlawful use of force and other human rights violations by police in Belgium, France, Greece, Italy, Romania and Spain, finding that discrimination is pervasive in law enforcement across Europe. The report also considers the disproportionate impact of fines on homeless people and other marginalised groups across Europe.

Enforced containment of Roma and people on the move

Among a number of examples of targeted enforcement used against people on the move, the report draws attention to the creation of a closed facility in Kofinou, Cyprus as part of the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. This facility is being used to detain asylum-seekers until asylum procedures are completed and was created to address the rise in the number of people arriving in Cyprus to seek refuge. Amnesty points out that no cases of COVID-19 were identified in the facility, and the detention of asylum seekers in this way is contrary to European and international standards on migration detention. In May, the detained asylum-seekers protested over poor conditions within the facility. The government response was to employ the anti-terrorist unit of the Cyprus police to intervene. At the end of May, an infectious outbreak of scabies within the facility meant that residents were prohibited from leaving on public health grounds. As a result, while the government announced the easing of COVID-19 measures in Cyprus in June, no measures had been announced to ease the detention imposed on asylum seekers detained in this facility.

Practices in Serbia were labelled as discriminatory by Amnesty in the report, where “the continued military presence and disproportionate restriction on freedom of movement, which selectively targets refugees and migrants, without evidence that they present an objective threat to the public health or security, imposes an unnecessary and disproportionate burden on this group and amounts to discrimination.”

Another example of discriminatory practices by authorities in Europe concerns the mistreatment of Roma communities. A specific example is from Bulgaria in the town of Yambol, where the authorities used planes to “disinfect” a Roma neighbourhood. Residents were advised not to leave their homes during the spraying of the area. The community was forced to remain under quarantine even after the nationwide state of emergency ended on 13 May 2020.

Serbian authorities imposed a regime targeting government-operated centres which house asylum seekers, refugees and migrants, placing them under a 24-hour mandatory quarantine. Authorities deployed the military to monitor the curfew.

Authorities have sought to justify coercive tactics by arguing that measures were necessary as individuals were not complying with quarantine measures. The report highlights the obvious failure by authorities to acknowledge that typically it is difficult and often impossible for people, particularly those living in poverty, to comply with quarantine conditions without the necessary forms of support.

Unlawful use of force

The report highlights that in many countries across Europe, members of racialized groups (the term used in the report to describe individuals whose ethnic or religious backgrounds or migrant status has been used by powerful institutions to justify discrimination, stereotyping and violence) are much more likely to be stopped and searched without any reasonable or objective justification.

There is limited information about the enforcement of COVID-19 measures adopted across European states because many states do not collect disaggregated data on stop and search. The Human Rights League collected 102 allegations of abusive police practices in Belgium between 18 March and 29 May 2020, in which 40% of victims were racialized people.

The report highlights the lengthy curfews imposed specifically in areas in France where racialized communities live. Among many shocking examples of the disproportionate use of force by police, the report details the death of a 19 year old man of North-African descent who died in a collision with police cars after fleeing police in Belgium to avoid being fined. The use of several police cars to chase the young man who was not seen to constitute a threat to anyone’s physical integrity and who had not committed a serious offence was clearly a disproportionate measure.

In France, trends in unlawful policing and enforcement of COVID-19 related restrictions were evident, for example in Seine-Saint-Denis, the poorest department in mainland France and where most inhabitants are of North and West African origin, the number of fines for breaching confinement was 3 times higher than in the rest of the country. This is despite respect of lockdown measures being comparable with other regions in France. This department also has the highest COVID-19 death rate in France. According to the Regional Health Observatory of Île-de-France, the higher death rate is explained by dire housing conditions and the disproportionately high number of residents who are key workers and therefore have to leave their homes for work and use public transport.

Other human rights violations by police

The report highlights outrageous police tactics which clearly constitute human rights violations, including instances of police in Greece using chemical irritants to disperse crowds.

A number of examples of police unlawfully restricting people’s freedom of expression are presented, including one example from Spain where individuals took videos of police physically abusing a young man and then his mother, after she informed them that her son suffers from poor mental health. Those individuals who took the videos were reportedly fined for the ‘unauthorised use of images of law enforcement officials’ and ‘lack of respect of law enforcement officials’ both of which are offences that Amnesty has expressed concern over as they are not in line with the rights protected under the European Convention on Human Rights to free expression.

In response to the Italian police’s appalling use of force to disperse a gathering for Italy’s Liberation Day, in which people were assaulted and verbally abused by police, Amnesty said:

“While the dispersal of the gathering may have been necessary to ensure compliance with lockdown measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, the use of force against individuals who do not pose any threat to law enforcement officials appears to be disproportionate to achieve the legitimate aim of protecting public health. Under international human rights law, law enforcement officials may only use force that is necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate aim, even under a state of emergency. Under no circumstances should the authorities resort to the use of force as a means of punishment for violations of lockdown measures. They should also avoid, as far as possible, taking any person into police custody, given the increased risk of contagion, and instead consider alternative measures.”

Disproportionate impact of fines on homeless people and other marginalised groups

At least 700,000 people across Europe are homeless (roofless, houseless, without secure tenure or living in housing unfit for habitation). The COVID-19 pandemic exposes homeless people to increased risk. It is common sense that a lack of access to adequate housing hampers people’s ability to comply with the required measures, for example frequent handwashing is not easily achievable for someone without continuous access to water.

Amnesty notes that Italian authorities have adopted a punitive approach instead of a preventive one in relation to enforcement of lockdown measures. The report cites examples of Italian authorities sanctioning homeless people with fines for non-compliance with lockdown measures. This was also noted in France, Spain and the UK, although many fines from police have been successfully challenged in court. An Italian NGO collected data confirming at least 17 cases where homeless people received fines for breaching lockdown measures. The NGO emphasised that nobody should be punished for not having a home.

Conclusions and recommendations

The report concludes that the pandemic has “disproportionately restricted the human rights of marginalised groups and individuals who experienced stigma, discrimination and violence well before the pandemic”, echoing the long-standing concerns exposed by the Black Lives Matter movement.

Recommendations from Amnesty include calling on European states to:

  • Ensure that all measures adopted by authorities to protect public health are implemented in a strictly proportionate and non-discriminatory way
  • Collect disaggregated data by race, ethnicity, nationality and other protected grounds in relation to implementation of measures to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Ensure that the coercive enforcement of measures to protect public health should be considered only as a last resort
  • Ensure all security forces comply with international standards in relation to the use of force and only use force where doing so is necessary, proportionate and in pursuance of a legitimate aim
  • Put in place accountability mechanisms to ensure thorough investigations of allegations of excessive use for force
  • Explicitly prohibit discrimination in police laws and develop appropriate guidelines, protocols and training for law enforcement officials.

Trends across the West

The report cites the definition of institutional racism as stated in the Macpherson Report from 1999:

“‘Institutional racism’ has been defined as organisational structures, policies, processes and practices which result in ethnic minorities being treated unfairly and less equally, often without intention or knowledge”.

The high number of fines handed to minority groups cited in the report serves as further evidence of the racial bias in the policing of the coronavirus lockdowns in Europe. The reports highlights that in many countries, inflammatory speech used by members of government have acted as a pre-curser to the implementation of discriminatory measures. Among many important issues, this report highlights that the deep-seated institutional racism across European governments, and discriminatory practices by police, is in no way unique to the USA. While a number of critics of the BLM movement have denied that the UK or elsewhere has a problem with racist police, this report demonstrates that in a number of other countries with a predominantly white population, the use of force by police against racialized, particularly black communities is disproportionate and unjustified.


Full Amnesty report: