Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Ukraine’s Roma population is remarkably diverse. Besides having distinct cultures, languages and histories, Roma communities in different villages and regions frequently inhabit wholly separate realities. The human rights issues they face also vary, sometime substantially, in different regions. Notwithstanding this diversity, however, the Roma population as a whole are believed to be the most marginalized minority group in the country. This exclusion feeds into a vicious cycle that has afflicted Roma communities in Ukraine for generations, with a long history of persecution, oppression, exploitation and assimilation under a succession of regimes. While there has been significant progress since the end of Soviet rule, Ukraine’s transition from totalitarianism to full-fledged democracy is still in progress.
The last National Population Census, carried out in 2001, recorded 47,600 Roma inhabitants (amounting to around 1 per cent of the total population). It is likely that the actual number is significantly higher than this: independent estimates suggest there may be between 200,000 and 400,000 Roma dispersed across the country, with the most numerous Roma communities situated in Zakarpattia, Odesa and Kharkiv regions. Although the estimates by different civil society groups are often conflicting and cannot generally be regarded as scientific estimates, they are likely to be better approximations than the modest figures recorded by the census. It is therefore crucial that national and local authorities have access to reliable data about demographic composition, geographic distribution and the specific needs of the population in general, particularly Roma and other minorities, to inform the development of effective and equitable policy making. This requires not only reliable data at a national level but also disaggregated data by locality, community and gender.
The undercounting of Roma also reflects their broader discrimination in Ukrainian society:
many Roma in Ukraine spend their entire lives without any form of identity documentation or registration. Some Roma houses and even neighbourhoods do not have an address and are not included on official maps as they were constructed without formal permits: as a result, they may be excluded from the census survey as they lack an official address. This invisibility on paper further entrenches their exclusion.
The variety of Roma ethnic and cultural sub-groups in Ukraine is intertwined with the complex and tragic history of the country. The largest of these communities are the Servos, whose dialect of Romani is closely tied with the Ukrainian language. Members of Servo Roma communities sometimes call themselves ‘Ukrainian Roma’ and have a long history in the region, with the earliest mention of a Roma presence in Ukraine dating back to the fifteenth century. At the time, most of modern Ukraine’s territory formed part of the Grand Lithuanian Duchy. The traditional crafts of Roma travellers, such as blacksmithing and barter trade, enjoyed considerable local demand: groups of Roma would migrate from village to village during the summer months and spend their winters hosted by locals in their homes.
At the end of the sixteenth century, when these territories came under control of the Polish crown in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the authorities ordered the expulsion of Roma from the Duchy. Many Roma from northwest Ukraine, particularly the Carpathian region, were forced to relocate to the scarcely populated steppes in what is the southeast of modern Ukraine. Between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries this area also hosted numerous disenfranchised Ukrainian villagers and gave birth to Zaporizhzhia Sich – the cradle of Ukrainian national identity. The prospect of freedom offered by these lands also attracted Roma from elsewhere, escaping slavery in the principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia (present-day Romania and Moldova). These were the ancestors of the modern sub-ethnic group known as Vlakhs (Vlahurja), whose dialect of Romani is also regarded as ‘Ukrainian’ due to the strong influence of the Ukrainian language on its development.
At around the same time as in mainland Ukraine, a Roma community began to develop in Crimea. In the lands of the Crimean Khanate, Roma predominantly lived among the local Crimean Tatar population. ‘Tatar Chingine’, as locals called them, were Muslims – like most of the Crimean population until the second half of the twentieth century – and depended on traditional crafts such as veterinary care, metal working and music. Although Tatar Chingine were ethnically distinct to the Crimean Tatar majority, their status was not very different from the ‘autochthonous’ or indigenous Muslim population and they were closely integrated into local communities – to the point that by the nineteenth century most had forgotten the Romani language and spoke Crimean Tatar.
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. Their dialect of Romani, which is the only one in Ukraine classified as a member of the so-called ‘Balkan group’ of Romani dialects, bears alongside strong Balkan and Romanian influences significant evidence of Crimean Tatar. The majority of Kyrymlytica Roma still practise Islam.
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. However, the Russian authorities allowed Romanian landlords and monasteries to continue exploiting Roma as their slaves. In order to ‘regulate’ the status of Roma travellers who were ‘owned’ by the state institutions, Russian authorities also attempted to settle them on state-owned lands. These policies underline the history of the villages of Kairo (now Kryva Balka) and Faraonivka in Odesa region, where Roma communities still reside. Yet these attempts at sedentarization were largely unsuccessful as many travellers feared that it would lock them into servitude.
The situation of Roma in the territory of western Ukraine, at that time under the rule of the Habsburg monarchy, was not much better. In the lands of modern-day Zakarpattia, Roma were subject to strict sedentarization and assimilation policies under Maria Teresa (1740 – 80). Beginning with the mandatory settlement of all Roma by local authorities at the places where they were identified, subsequent decrees prohibited Roma from wearing their traditional clothes, authorities from issuing passports to Roma and ordered Roma to be called ‘new Hungarians’ or ‘new peasants’. Soon authorities prohibited Roma from speaking Romani and from marrying among themselves. Roma children were to be removed from their families and placed in the ‘foster care’ of peasants to ensure a ‘Hungarian upbringing’. Because of these policies, a large number of Roma in modern Zakarpattia are no longer able to speak Romani: many speak Hungarian as their mother tongue and even self-identify as Hungarians, despite continuing to live in segregation.
In the lands of what is now Chernivtsi region, Austrian authorities initially preserved the practice of Roma slavery that had existed there since the area was under the control of the Principality of Moldavia. Though in 1783 the Habsburgs officially abolished slavery, the resistance of many Romanian monasteries and landlords to the decree meant that in practice Roma in this area – known as Bukovynian Roma – had no access to land and most were forced to remain working at the estates of their former ‘owners’ to survive.
In the mid-1850s, the Danubian Principalities of Moldova and Wallachia formally liberated all Roma slaves, though the owners had a right to ‘compensation’ from the taxes payed by their former slaves. The authorities subsequently embarked on an aggressive strategy to forcibly assimilate Roma, including dispersed settlement across Romania, compulsory education and prohibition of the use of Romani. This resulted in the mass displacement of Romanian Roma, Kalderari (Kalderash), Ursari and other ethno-social subgroups, some of whom ventured eastwards into the territory of modern-day Ukraine.
Industrialization, World War I and the social unrest, revolution and civil war that emerged in its wake triggered a wave of mass migration throughout Eastern Europe, including of Roma. The artificially orchestrated famines of 1921 and 1932-1933 that killed millions of Ukrainians encouraged many Roma to escape the famine-affected villages and resettle in larger cities, saving some from starvation, though many of these fugitives were subsequently caught 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. As nomadism was associated with poverty and proletarianism, this may have saved some Roma from repression during the brutal process of ‘collectivization’. At the same time, the new economic and political order built by the Soviets undermined and even criminalized many traditional Roma trades, leaving them little means of subsistence. Authorities forced people, Roma as well as other Ukrainians, into collective farms by depriving them of passports, barring their access to liquid cash and imposing a strictly regulated system in the cities to control migration. It was also prohibited to own horses. By the 1930s, itinerants were likely to be arrested for ‘vagrancy’, ‘counterrevolution’, ‘spying’ or other charges.
During World War II, the entire area of Ukraine was occupied by Nazi Germany and its allies. From the second half of 1941, extermination squads sporadically killed Roma travellers and by the spring of 1942 the systematic murder of Roma in Nazi-occupied territories began. Itinerant groups were targeted first, with Roma ordered to present themselves for ‘resettlement’, on pain of death. Thousands of Roma throughout Ukraine complied, believing they would be resettled: instead, everyone who appeared was brutally slaughtered. In autumn 1942 Nazis, aided by the local police, set out to identify the surviving Roma for extermination. Mass atrocities continued, with both itinerant and settled Roma targeted. The latter in particular were barely distinguishable from their non-Roma neighbours, but police and local officials helped the Germans to identify the victims. For many Ukrainian Roma who managed to avoid the mass executions of 1942, the only option was to go into hiding in the woods. Some survived thanks to the protection of other Ukrainians.
A different, but no less tragic, fate befell Roma in the southwest of Ukraine. The lands between the rivers of Dniester and South Bug (in what is now the territory of Odesa region and part of Mykolaiv region in Ukraine), dubbed by Romanian authorities as Transnistria, were designated as a site for the ‘deportation’ of Jews and Roma from Romanian territory, including Bessarabia and Bukovina. Between June 1942 and December 1943, the Antonescu regime deported approximately 25,000 Roma to Transnistria. The deportees were ‘settled’ in village houses from which their Ukrainian owners had just been expelled, with no warm clothes or other possessions, no access to food or fuel, and no gainful employment opportunities in exile. Escaping north or crossing the South Bug river meant a likely death at the hands of the German authorities, who controlled the surrounding territory. Some managed to escape back to Romania, Bukovina and Bessarabia, though many of these runaways were caught and returned to Transnistria. While there is no evidence to suggest that Romanian authorities specifically orchestrated mass executions of Roma in Transnistria, the records show that there were instances when gendarmes shot the exiles for transgressing the rules of ‘settlement’, as in Tryhaty (Ochakiv district of Odesa region) in May 1943, when police shot a group of Roma who had arrived from neighbouring villages in search of work. Ultimately, thousands of those deported to Transnistria died of starvation, cold and disease. The exact number of Roma who perished at the hands of the Antonescu regime in southwest Ukraine is unknown. In March 1944, when the deportees were allowed to return home, the number of survivors was around 14,000 people: this means that at least 11,000 Roma deportees must have perished in Transnistria. Not all Romanian Roma were able to return to their homes, with several thousand stranded behind the front line of the advancing Red Army. Some were repatriated after the war, with others scattered across Ukraine.
Approximately 15,000 Roma were based in Zakarpattia, including some sedentary and some itinerant Roma from Hungary and Slovakia. In 1941, the Hungarian government in control of the region curtailed the mobility of Roma and exploited their labour, confining Roma to ghettoes and imposing a range of restrictions, including prohibiting marriages between Roma and ethnic Hungarians. Yet until 1944, when the German military took effective control over Hungary, no deportations or killings took place. Between April and June 1944, tens of thousands of Zakarpattia Jews were deported to Osventsim concentration camp. Roma would have followed if the Red Army had not subsequently taken control of Zakarpattia later that year. Many Roma in the west of Hungary were killed or deported: Roma in Zakarpattia very narrowly escaped the same fate.
In Crimea, after an initial wave of mass shootings, several thousand Roma were saved from certain death thanks to petitions by the Muslim Committee and the alteration by local administrations of population records to list them as Tatars and not Chingine. In May 1944, after the Soviets gained control over Crimea, the whole Tatar population of the peninsula was deported to Central Asia. The majority of surviving Crimean Roma shared their fate. Thousands died on the journey and Crimean Tatars were not allowed to return to their homes until the Perestroika period. Some Crimean Roma left the areas of enforced settlement after the death of Stalin and eventually returned in the late 1980s and early 1990s along with Crimean Tatar repatriates. Others remain in Uzbekistan to this day.
Very few Roma survived the Nazi genocide in mainland Ukraine. Only nomadism and the cover of the forest helped the few survivors escape. In the mid-1950s, however, Soviet authorities enacted a range of policies forcing Roma to settle, predominantly in rural areas and often in substandard living conditions. Abstaining from labour was an offence in the Soviet Union so everyone was employed. Roma mainly worked at factories, collective farms or communal enterprises, though still segregated from the rest of the population. Despite every child being guaranteed education, many Roma were only able to access low quality schooling.
According to the 1989 population census, just under 48,000 residents of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic declared themselves to be Roma. In 1991, the Soviet Union and the socialist economy collapsed. The factories and collective farms where large numbers of Roma worked closed down. To survive, many Roma, particularly from Zakarpattia, engaged in seasonal migration to larger cities such as Moscow and St Petersburg in search of work. Throughout the turbulent 1990s and early 2000s, they were forced to live in temporary encampments and survived collecting scrap metal and other recyclables, doing handyman jobs, construction works and begging. Children of Roma migrants fell out of the education system. Generations were born without, or lost, their documents.
However, in recent years, particularly after the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014 and the outbreak of conflict in eastern Ukraine, the migration routes to Russia have closed down. In addition, armed hostilities have caused mass displacement from conflict-affected areas. Some 1.5 million people, including Roma from Donetsk and Luhansk regions, were forced to leave their homes due to threat of prosecution by the Russian-backed armed groups or acute shelling. Others remain in the conflict zone. Unfortunately, access by NGOs to information on the situation of Roma in the territories controlled by the armed groups is very limited due to severe restrictions on the operations of human rights groups in the area.
Civil society organizations have highlighted the high levels of poverty among Roma and other issues, such as difficulties securing identity documentation. Thousands live in substandard and overcrowded housing, often in isolated settlements with little access to healthcare, social and administrative services. Many Roma households are also not connected to heating, electricity or running water. In many cases, this residential segregation is in turn reflected in the education system, with substandard schooling, discrimination and associated problems such as absenteeism commonly experienced by Roma children. As attested by the high levels of illiteracy among adult Roma, these barriers can have lasting impacts on their life opportunities.
It is widely recognized that lack of identity documentation is among the key issues preventing many Roma in Ukraine from securing basic human rights. It perpetuates disenfranchisement, discrimination and impoverishment, barring access to social, administrative and medical services, education, regular employment and housing. Lack of identity documentation in Ukraine makes an individual invisible in the eyes of the law, unable to access basic rights. Due to the absence of reliable disaggregated data, it is difficult to estimate the exact number of Roma living without identity papers. Yet the experience of Roma rights NGOs suggests that lack of access to civil registration and identity documentation remains a significant challenge.
According to local experts, in Odesa region as much as a quarter of the Roma population were without documentation in 2011: though the proportion had fallen significantly since then, thanks to Roma rights NGOs who had helped hundreds of Roma to navigate the complete process of registering and proving their identity, they estimated that between 10 to 15 per cent of Roma still lack identification papers today. Those without documentation find themselves caught in a vicious cycle: while poverty, social exclusion, illiteracy and lack of adequate housing conditions had contributed to their lack of documentation, at the same time being undocumented cut them from education, welfare support, health care and other opportunities that might help them improve their lives.
In addition to the issue of documentation, improving education is also a very important tool to break the cycle of discrimination and exclusion. The Soviet schooling system destined the majority of Ukraine’s Roma to low-skilled manual labour at the bottom of the social hierarchy. This sector of the economy was hit hardest by the collapse of the socialist system and the transition to a free market. As a result, the 1990s and 2000s saw a dramatic slide in education among Roma, a process not just of professional deskilling but of a decline in literacy levels too. Today, many Roma children still have limited access to quality education: a survey of Roma conducted in 2018 found that more than a quarter of Roma with one or more children had school-age children not attending school. Roma girls are especially at risk when it comes to dropping out of school due to the persistent practice of early marriages in certain communities and other aspects of gender inequality, including the perception that schooling is less necessary for women than men. In many Roma communities, when girls reach their teenage years they are increasingly involved in household chores and taking care of their siblings.
In a country with high levels of unemployment and a large shadow economy, Roma minority are particularly vulnerable to being excluded from the formal labour market. Lack of education and personal documentation as well as widespread racism work together to drive many Roma into destitution and sometimes even illicit activities to feed themselves and their families. Unemployment among Roma is common: of the hundreds of Roma surveyed in 2018 by the Coalition 2020, around half were unemployed. In certain economically disadvantaged areas, such as rural or peri-urban areas in Zakarpattia region, the rate of unemployment in Roma communities was estimated by one respondent to be as high as 95 per cent.
Updated October 2020