Running from Hatred: Roma communities struggle for human rights

November 15, 2018

The wave of attacks on Roma camps by radical groups over the past several months in Ukraine has revealed a high level of intolerance of the Roma minority ethnic group in the country.

Over the past three months, six Roma camps have been destroyed in Kyiv, Ternopil, and Lviv oblasts, affecting over 160 people, including children. Whole families end up on the streets with no possessions, and no place to live.

Illustrations: © Taras Sainyuk / UNDP Ukraine

The case of one group of Roma in Ukraine, who were forced to leave their settlement after their property was set on fire and their lives put at risk in May 2018, is typical of the violence these groups are facing.

This small Roma community was attacked on 22 May by a group of about 20 people who burned down their camp in the Velykohaivsky wood near Ternopil, where the group had been living for about two years.

According to official police reports, no one was injured in the attacks. However, Volodymyr Shevchenko, a civic Regional Human Rights Coordinator assisting the Ombudsperson’s Office under a UNDP project told a different story. He knew that when the camp was attacked there were women present, along with small children aged between 4 and 13 years of age.

According to some media sources, about 30 children were in the camp when the attackers came. Shevchenko also discovered that during the raid some Roma people were beaten and burned, but they did not go to the police to report these acts of violence because of fear of the attackers.  

Ombudsperson Liudmyla Denysova has initiated legal proceedings concerning the attack, which she says has indications of being discriminatory on grounds of ethnicity and motivated by ethnic hatred.

Shevchenko, meanwhile, went to look for the victims of the attack. He had been walking around the city for about two days asking passers by for any information when he finally found a small group of Roma sitting on a lawn near the bus station.

Here they were, without food or water, frightened and out on their own. They told me that the camp had separated into three groups to hide from the attackers,” he reported. “They fled without taking any clothes, documents or money."

"All their possessions were destroyed in the fire, but they didn’t want to go to the police as they were too scared that the attackers would take revenge."

"I persuaded them to go to the police to tell them what had happened. Even though I was there to back them up, they still hesitated,” he continued. 

While they were still at the police station, Shevchenko contacted the Department of Cultural Heritage, Religions, and Ethnicities of Ternopil Oblast State Administration for support. He also requested Caritas charitable foundation to help provide food and clothes to the survivors, which it did.

After the Roma filed their complaint and had a proper meal for the first time in 48 hours, there was still one issue to resolve: where were all these people going to live now? They wanted to go to their relatives in Svaliava in Zakarpattia Oblast, but they had no money to get there. Volodymyr approached the “Renaissance” foundation and they agreed to cover all the transport expenses.

On 30 May 18 Roma individuals who lost had their homes, including small children, went to Zakarpattia Oblast to rejoin their relatives. At the initial stage they received support from another charitable foundation, which takes care of Roma people in need. They are now living peacefully in Zakarpattia Oblast near their relatives, and starting their lives anew.

We all should bear in mind that Roma people are in a disadvantaged position,” said Shevchenko.

At birth, many of them are not registered and do not have any identification documents. Under Ukrainian legislation only someone with a birth certificate can get a passport. Thus, many Roma people who were born in Ukraine but were not registered cannot acquire passports and enjoy all the rights Ukrainians have, such as the right to medical care and the right to education."

"They also cannot seek assistance from the police and file complaints if they do not have documents."

"The only way out in this situation is to raise awareness of Ukrainian legislation among Roma people, and to ensure that they have equal access to education, healthcare and legal assistance.”

Volodymyr is continuing to help the survivors of the attack to adjust to their new community and to return to normal life. Now he is helping them to restore their ID documents, which were lost in the fire. He is also helping them to find money to buy a house, as all their savings were lost that night as well.

Like the other Member States of the United Nations, Ukraine joined the global process of sustainable development. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development pledges to leave no one behind for a socially inclusive world in which the needs of the most vulnerable are met. It recognizes exclusion and inequalities as the biggest challenges that need to be addressed to achieve sustainable development. UNDP in Ukraine is supporting the Ombudsperson’s Office to promote equality and social inclusion in the country through its mandate to prevent and combat discrimination.  

According to the Human Rights Baseline Study conducted in 2016, more than 11 per cent of Ukrainians think that the rights of Roma people should be restricted, while more than 36 per cent said that the rights of this social group can be restricted under certain circumstances.

* Civic Regional Human Rights Coordinators assist the Ombudsperson Office under the Strengthening Capacities of the Office of the Ombudsperson project, implemented by the United Nations Development Programme in Ukraine with financial support from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark during 2015-2018.