Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
According to the 2010 national census, there are 204,958 Roma in the Russian Federation (though official census data is believed to underestimate significantly the number of Roma in the Russian Federation). Roma in Russia can be divided into several groups differentiated by language, culture, kinship ties, dialect, and occupation. There is often strong rivalry between these groups and each has developed different relationships with the Russian state and society. The leading group has, for instance, achieved some success in the performance arts.
Today the majority of Roma are sedentary. Roma are affected by particularly severe discrimination and ill-treatment, in the form of segregation of Roma children in schools and police ‘special operations’ targeting settlements.
Roma migrated to Russia in three main waves beginning at the end of the fifteenth century.
In the mid-1920s Roma were classified as a national minority of Indian origin and policies were developed to assimilate them. In the 1930s many were deported to Siberia. In 1956 Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev decreed that Roma must be settled. There was a cultural revival in the last decades of the Soviet Union when the Moscow Romani theatre was established.
In the past their movement was regulated; for instance, from 1759 to 1917 they were banned from entering St. Petersburg. After the demise of the Soviet Union, discrimination became more pervasive and visible.
Roma communities are plagued by sub-standard living conditions, difficulties in socio-economic integration and, at times, segregation of children in schools. Roma settlements have been targeted by law-enforcement officials. Roma face serious problems in securing employment due to negative stereotyping and obstructions to renewing temporary residence permits. They also lack representatives in positions of authority and their political concerns have remained unheard. The economic, social and cultural rights of Roma are also violated through blocked access to housing, health care and education. Against this backdrop of profound discrimination, Roma are frequently targeted with racist violence.
Roma advocacy organizations have also documented many examples of human rights abuses of Roma at the hands of law enforcement officials in Russia. These range from torture or other ill-treatment of Roma in detention, racial profiling, arbitrary police raids on Romany settlements, abduction and extortion and denial of fair trial standards to Roma under prosecution. Minority women may be particularly vulnerable to certain forms of abuse. For example, there have been numerous reported instances of Roma women whose hair was cut while in detention. In the specific cultural context of Roma, the forcible cutting of a woman’s hair is considered deeply shameful – an act that, in the words of a human rights defender interviewed by MRG, is ‘comparable to rape’. Roma women have been specifically singled out for this treatment in police stations, and it is believed that the hair might also be sold for financial gain.
The highly respected NGO Anti-Discrimination Centre (ADC) Memorial has reported on the existence of ‘Roma databases’, with regular fingerprinting taking place in Roma settlements, as well as cases of Roma being searched and detained – despite the law not requiring it. Police officers, like wider society, are often affected by deep-rooted prejudice against members of certain groups. Assumptions are made about the involvement of Roma in drug trafficking; even age-old prejudices about Roma stealing children periodically resurface.
Far from condemning these developments parts of the Russian press have praised them, fanning negative stereotypes of Roma as being associated with begging, drug dealing and other types of crime. Local and federal government officials have also made a series of public statements encouraging mass violence against Roma. This has contributed to a climate of impunity with regard to physical attacks on Roma homes and settlements and discrimination in society at large.
Roma are particularly vulnerable targets as they frequently have no documents – having lost them, or never having had Russian citizenship – leaving them reluctant to report crimes to authorities. Indeed, statelessness is a key issue for Russia’s Roma community. Out of the 178,000 people believed to be stateless by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, in 2011, a substantial number are thought to be Roma. Stateless Roma are especially vulnerable as they will be particularly hesitant to contact the authorities; lack of identity documentation makes it difficult for them to access essential services as well.
As a diaspora community without a recognized claim to a homeland, their efforts for linguistic self-determination have also failed. As is the case for other groups without an ethnic republic or without specific territorial concentration, focused programmes for Roma are primarily implemented by NGOs or activists: for example, efforts to preserve the use of the Romani language in Russia remain without state support.
The segregation of and discrimination against Roma children in Russian schools has been a major concern. Some Russian organizations, such as the ADC Memorial, have worked to sensitize school employees of the harmful effects of this practice, which, among other things, results in lower educational standards for Roma children. There have been reports of schools that have ended this practice as a result of such efforts. Despite these and similar improvements at local level, they remain insufficiently far-reaching to address systemic problems affecting Roma – such as endemic discrimination and precarious socio-economic conditions. Discrimination against, and social exclusion of, Roma are unlikely to come to an end without measures to promote integration.
Focused activities to benefit Roma, as is the case for other groups without an ethnic republic or without specific territorial concentration, are primarily implemented by NGOs or activists: for example, efforts to preserve the use of the Romani language in Russia remain without state support.
Updated December 2020
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