False narratives about the coronavirus have been weaponized to target stateless minorities around the world, according to a consortium of NGOs and citizenship rights activists. A new report, published by the Covid-19 Emergency Statelessness Fund Consortium, highlights how they have been scapegoated, attacked and characterized as vectors of infection, despite there being no evidence for such claims. 

“It’s straight out of the authoritarian playbook,” said Amal de Chickera, co-director of the Institute on Statelessness and Inclusion and an author of the document. “Where governments have failed to protect their citizens, they have tried to pin the blame on minority communities.”

De Chickera outlined how Rohingya Muslim settlements in India have been attacked by Islamophobic mobs, spurred on by the belief that refugees were responsible for rising infection rates. 

“These people were seen as other, and therefore it was easier to be fearful of contracting the virus off them,” he said.

In the Western Balkans, Roma communities, among which thousands are stateless, have also been blamed for the spread of the virus. People like Nevenka Kapičić —  project coordinator at Phiren Amenca, a network of activists working to combat the marginalization of Roma people — believe that this has led to Roma communities being ostracized, cast as a threat to public health and subjected to more stringent treatment than those of the wider population. 

Kapičić described how the pandemic has revealed “an extreme anti-gypsyism” in the region, which draws heavily on stereotypes of Roma people as being unsanitary. 

Online, Kapičić’s team have watched as comments flooded the internet with “spontaneous and  dangerous narratives,” stigmatizing Roma people and blaming their communities for the regional spread of the disease. They were cast as having too many children, described as “more infectious” than others, and it was stated that they would not adhere to the same pandemic restrictions as everyone else. 

In March and April 2020, Roma neighborhoods in Slovakia and Bulgaria were sealed off from the rest of the population with police checkpoints. Activists condemned the measures as excessive, aggressive and unregulated.

“I haven’t seen any really serious efforts to justify this treatment,” said De Chickera. 

In Croatia, migrants attempting to cross the border from Bosnia and Herzegovina were similarly victimized: border patrols sprayed red crosses on their heads, reportedly telling them it was a “cure” for the virus, and destroying their identity documents. 

The report also looks at how some of these prejudices have been addressed. The government of the Balkan nation of Montenegro initially viewed the Roma community as a potential threat, but lobbying from advocacy groups has led to a recognition that stateless people, who often live in densely populated areas and lack access to healthcare, are more vulnerable to the virus and, therefore, should be prioritized for vaccination.

Elsewhere in the world, the report highlighted how millions of stateless people have been excluded from access to immunization programs. Rohingya communities in India, Bangladesh and Malaysia are still waiting to be allocated shots, and stateless people in Lebanon — many of whom are born to foreign fathers and Lebanese mothers, who cannot legally pass citizenship on to their children — are struggling to register through the nation’s online portal. On Tuesday, the U.N. Refugee Agency warned that stateless people around the world might miss out on vaccinations as a result of their lack of identity documents or nationality. 

“The pandemic has brought to light a lot of hidden, simmering tensions and prejudice,” said De Chickera. “It’s very disheartening to see people being thought about as statistics, and being excluded, just because they don’t have a particular legal status.”