Ukrainian Roma in times of war

ESSAY

Russia launched its re-invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022. Since then, we have been hearing and reading daily accounts of the Ukrainian army’s responses to the advances of the Russian aggressor, and of the mass exodus of over 2.5 million Ukrainian refugees into neighbouring Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova. It is the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s.

In the immediate wake of Russia’s launching its air and ground offensive against Ukraine, the small-size Czech Romani media outlet Romea began reporting on Roma-related aspects of the war. The coverage has included statements of support for Ukraine, pleas to Putin by domestic and international Romani organisations to end the war in Ukraine, but also reports on the agency of Ukrainian Roma during the war.

Under martial law, all Ukrainian men aged 18-60 are banned from leaving Ukraine and are encouraged to join the army. Indeed, many of them, including those of Romani heritage, have done so in order to defend the independence and sovereignty of their homeland. Ukrainian Roma have been proudly defending the nuclear plant in Zaporozhzhia; a group of Romani soldiers from Kherson even captured a tank belonging to the Russian aggressor.

Romani and non-Romani Ukrainians have been fighting for their country side by side, momentarily putting aside the fact that anti-Romani racism – also termed antigypsyism or Romaphobia – is widespread and deeply-rooted in the wider region.

A history mired in exclusion, slavery and discrimination

The largest group of Roma in Ukraine is called Servo, or Servitka Roma, who sometimes refer to themselves as Ukrainian Roma. Communities of Vlax Roma and Tatar Chingine – or Kyrymlytica Roma – also live in Ukraine.

According to the Council of Europe (CoE), based on the 2001 census, 47 587 Roma live in Ukraine. However, according to international and civil society organisations, unofficial estimates of the Romani population in Ukraine range from 200 000 to 400 000 people. Most of Ukraine’s Roma are fully integrated into mainstream society but many still endure shocking levels of poverty, particularly in the Zakarpattia region, 800 kilometres south-west of the capital.

Key challenges include all forms of ethnic, or racial discrimination; adult illiteracy and children’s lack of access to education; lack of housing due to decentralisation, including issuing title deeds to housing and land plots; low employment rates exacerbated by the pandemic; poverty and resulting financial difficulties and increased social tension; lack of access to healthcare; lack of personal identity documents (ID).

Approximately 30 000 Ukrainian Roma have no form of ID. Despite a lack of reliable information, the “Social Atlases” of Romani communities that were created for Kharkiv, Donetsk, Odesa and the Zakarpattia oblast all point to the urgent need to focus on a range of socio-economic difficulties. Namely, the breaches of human rights and the multiple forms of discrimination faced by Roma with multiple, intersecting identities, including women and girls, the disabled, LGBTIQ persons and those with an internally displaced person (IDP) status.

The above factors are compounded by distinctions within and between the various Romani communities across Ukraine based on regional context, social status, residence (i.e. urban/rural areas, temporary settlements), as well as cultural and religious differences (i.e. Christian and Muslim Roma). 

Over the course of 2018, mob attacks by the neo-Nazi group C-14 and the far right targeting Ukrainian Romani families, homes and entire communities escalated dramatically, destroying their property, injuring many, and killing at least one. From April 2018, the Roma Coalition reported eight attacks against Roma settlements in Ukraine, with more than 150 people falling victim to these attacks.

Although efforts were made at local, national, and international levels to counter this violence, much remains to be done. On 17 October 2021, approximately 50 far-right radicals went door to door in the Ukrainian city of Irpin, near Kyiv, chanting hateful slogans and calling for violence against local Romani residents; some were carrying torches. The mob spray-painted hate speech slogans on the fence of a house belonging to a Romani family.

According to Minority Rights Group International, the presence of Roma in the region dates to the 15th century. Then, most of present-day Ukraine’s territory was part of the Grand Lithuanian Duchy, and later, in the 16th century, it was controlled by the Polish Crown in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which ordered the expulsion of Roma. Between the 15th and 17th centuries, a Romani community began to develop in Crimea.

“With the expansion of the Russian Empire to the north coast of the Black Sea and the region then known as Bessarabia, many new and distinct groups of Roma came under its rule. Historians suggest that the expulsion of Tatars and other Muslims by the Russian rulers of these lands forced many Muslim Roma to relocate to Crimea, where Islam was still widely practised by most of the population. Today, the ancestors of these displaced Muslim Roma call themselves ‘Kyrymlytica Roma’, ‘Kryms’ or ‘Krymuria’, signifying their links with the Crimean Peninsula. Due to more recent historical events, particularly the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, they are now scattered all over Ukraine and can also be found in Odesa, Kherson, Donetsk, Vinnytsia, Zhytomyr and Kyiv. The majority of Kyrymlytica Roma still practise Islam.”

Throughout the history of what became modern Ukraine, the role of the Russian empire and, later in the 20th century, the Soviet Union was mostly detrimental and often fatal to Roma. “The jurisdiction of the Russian Empire also extended to many Christian Roma, who, for centuries, had been enslaved by Romanian landlords, Greek and Romanian Orthodox monasteries in Bessarabia and even other, more privileged Roma community members: according to Romanian law, they were regarded as the property of the state.”

The Russian authorities permitted Romanian landlords and monasteries to continue enslaving Roma. In order to ‘regulate’ the status of travelling Roma who were deemed to be state property, the Russian authorities also attempted to settle them on state-owned lands. Industrialisation, the First World War, and the social unrest that emerged in its wake “triggered a wave of mass migration throughout Eastern Europe, including of Roma”.

Stalin’s artificially orchestrated famines of 1921 and 1932-1933 that killed millions of Ukrainians led to many Roma fleeing the famine-affected villages and resettling in cities. This undoubtedly saved some from starvation, though many of the escapees were subsequently arrested by Soviet authorities and deported to Siberia.

“To escape persecution, many sedentary Roma in Ukraine left their homes and returned to their previous nomadic lifestyles.” Given that nomadism was perceived by Soviet authorities to be compatible with proletarianism, this may have saved some Roma from repression during Stalin’s brutal collectivisation drive.

However, the new economic and political order built by the USSR undermined and even criminalised traditional Roma trades, threatening their livelihoods. Roma and other Ukrainians were forced into collective farms and deprived of their passports. Their access to liquid cash was denied and a strictly regulated system in the cities controlled migration.

It was also prohibited to own horses. By the 1930s, itinerant Roma were likely to be arrested for “‘vagrancy’, ‘counterrevolution’, ‘spying’ or other charges”.

Discriminated against even during war

One would hope that every person fleeing the war waged by the Russian state would be treated without discrimination. However, it appears that not even war constitutes an exception to centuries-old prejudice in the region.

Within a couple of days of the re-invasion being launched, it became clear that Romani refugees fleeing the country were among those groups who were being treated less favourably, in ways that amount to racial discrimination. Such discriminatory practices by various stakeholders mainly in the neighbouring states have been disproportionately targeting Ukrainians of colour, including Afro-Ukrainians and Ukrainian Roma, and international students of colour studying in Ukraine.

Within the first week, national media outlets such as the Czech daily Denik and Romea reported instances of anti-Romani discrimination in the Slovak and Czech voluntary sector, including by non-Romani representatives of an accommodation facility, bus drivers and a firefighter. In addition to the trauma of the war, Ukraine’s estimated 400 000 Roma face discrimination along the evacuation route.

As many as 30 000 Ukrainian Roma were undocumented prior to the war, while others have lost their papers during the war. The public interest law organisation European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) has visited three refugee reception facilities in Moldova. They found that these facilities were ethnically segregated, crammed and used almost exclusively to accommodate Ukrainian Romani refugees (approximately 90%), including many children. The remainder consisted of other communities of colour, including refugees of Central Asian and African descent.

Providing support

Ukrainian Roma have been demonstrating their self-determination, pride and agency as both Ukrainians and Roma to defend their country. However admirable this is, it is not enough to help solve the current situation, which is extremely complex and multi-layered.

The status of Ukrainian-Romani civilians – both inside and outside Ukraine – is uncertain and very fragile, especially given the above accounts of discrimination in Ukraine and en route to safety, as well as the fact that Romani families are being separated, segregated, or, in the most extreme cases, facing outright refusal of emergency accommodation.

Despite a lack of hard data, there is ad-hoc evidence that the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic continues to exacerbate the intersectional vulnerability of Ukrainian-Romani refugee women, children, disabled, IDP and LGBTIQ persons.

In response to the overall situation, as well as the aforementioned instances of racial discrimination, fundraisers for Ukrainian Romani organisations have been launched, including the Roma women fund, Chiricli.

Moreover, initiatives for Ukrainian Romani refugees, namely but not exclusively those who have reportedly migrated to and are now stuck in western Ukraine, have been launched by the Glasgow-based Romano Lav, ERGO Network, ERIAC and the Czech and Slovak branches of Open Society Foundations (OSF).

If you happen to live in any of the neighbouring countries that have been receiving refugees from Ukraine and have a large or empty property, please consider housing Ukrainian Romani refugees. Otherwise, if you have financial capacity, please contribute to the above Roma-specific fundraising initiatives and if you are on social media, raise awareness of and bring visibility to the issues.


Article Image Credit: Steve Evans (© IMB)

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