Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Roma live all across Turkey and, in terms of absolute numbers, are not concentrated in any particular region. Various groups are included under the general heading of Roma/Gypsy, such as the Roma themselves who live predominantly in Eastern Thrace, Teber/Abdal who live across Anatolia and Posa who live in north-east Anatolia, Çankırı, Kastamonu and Sinop.
Studies indicate that the population of Roma and similar social groups in Turkey is between 2 million and 5 million: their exact numbers remain unknown as most Roma live in overcrowded households and many do not have identity cards.
The Roma communities of Turkey live in various regions of the country and the majority of them (97 per cent) are settled. There are three main groups of Roma in Turkey: the Dom who live in south-east Anatolia, the Lom who live in northeast Anatolia, and the Rom who live in western Anatolia. Furthermore, the Abdal are considered to be a community that lives much like the Roma. Depending on the region, they are known by different names, such as Roman, Çingene and Abdal.
Among the Roma there are people who speak Romani, Lomavren, Domari and Abdoltili, but now Turkish tends to be the mother tongue of Roma and similar social groups. Dom living in areas populated predominantly by Kurds are bilingual and also speak Kurdish. There has been a dramatic decrease in the number of people who can speak Romani, Lomavren, Domari and Abdoltili, and these languages and dialects are under threat of disappearing.
Nearly all Roma and similar social groups are Muslim, some of whom are Sunni, while nearly all Abdal are Alevi/Bektaşi, as are some Roma who live in central Anatolia. A small number of Roma are Orthodox and Protestant Christian.
Since the outbreak of the civil conflict in Syria Turkey has received a large number of Syrian refugees, including Abdal and Dom, who reportedly face particularly high levels of discrimination on account of their ethnicity as well as their refugee status.
Roma in Turkey have suffered a long history of exclusion, discrimination and negative stereotypes, frequently reinforced by media, public officials and politicians. Roma have also suffered frequent displacement and homelessness as a result of forced eviction and expropriation of property by the state.
Community members have repeatedly faced outbreaks of violence in recent years. In 2006 in the city of Afyon, it was alleged that two young Roma men had harassed some female students, whereupon a group of hundreds of non-Roma attacked a Roma family, and the attackers also set fire to a number of houses belonging to Roma. NGOs also reported attacks on Roma in the district of Selendi in Manisa, as well as in the cities of Bursa and İznik, particularly between 2010 and 2013. As a result of the incidents in Selendi, instead of being protected, Roma were sent first to the district of Gördes and then to the district of Salihli. Some were later relocated to a housing complex in the neighbourhood of Selimşahlar in the centre of the Manisa province. In another incident, five families in Bursa were forced to move into tents after their houses were demolished by the municipality following attacks against the community. The children of families who are forcibly relocated as the result of racist violence experience problems in accessing the right to education, and this increases the number of students dropping out of school.
At times, acts of violence have been carried out by security forces, and it is a common belief among Roma that the police are prejudiced against them. In 2015, in the district of Keşan in Edirne, 700 policemen took part in an operation targeting neighbourhoods populated primarily by Roma, as a result of which 44 people were taken into custody, including the president of the Federation of Trakya Roma Associations, on the grounds of ‘disturbing the peace, extortion, issuing threats and resisting the police.’ The raids were criticized by Özcan Purçu, an MP of Roma origin, who accused police of using Roma neighbourhoods as ‘training sites’ and fuelling ethnic discrimination. After the operation, around 200 riot police and Special Forces walked through the streets chanting, ‘The police bring peace and security’, as well as the slogan ‘Happy is the one who says I am a Turk’.
In March 2010 Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, initiated an historic meeting with Roma community groups in Istanbul in an attempt to address some of the huge problems facing the minority. 12,000 Roma were bused in from across the country to hear the Prime Minister’s address which included plans for improved Roma housing in 40 provinces. Community leaders praised the event as the first time a leader had ever spoken directly to the Roma community, and the Council of Europe expressed its support for the Turkish government’s stated commitment to Roma people.
The Turkish authorities have made some efforts to support greater integration and better access to services for the Roma population, including a US$12 million fund to invest in relevant projects in Roma communities between 2014 and 2016. In February 2015, the governor of the province of Edirne announced the establishment of an Ottoman army band, or mehter, made up of Roma musicians and the training of Roma children as hafiz, reciters of the Qur’an – an announcement welcomed by Roma representatives as an important source of recognition for the community.
In Turkey, poverty and social exclusion are widespread among Roma and similar social groups: the majority continue to be subjected to discrimination especially with regards education, employment and housing. Access to the right to education is as much a problem for adults as it is for children among Roma and similar social groups. According to the ECRI and CERD, Roma literacy rates are lower than that of the general population due to lower school completion rates among Roma children. The low literacy rates among Roma adults also has an impact on their possession of the basic skills required in the labour market.
Even though Roma and similar social groups reside in almost every province in Turkey, they usually live separately from the rest of society in ghettos, leading to the phenomenon of ‘Roma neighbourhoods’ in Turkey. In recent years, these neighbourhoods have been subjected to large-scale levelling carried out in the name of ‘urban regeneration’. After their neighbourhoods are razed, Roma residents have no choice but to move into apartments in other parts of the city, with low housing costs but far from the city centre.
These urban redevelopment projects are often carried out in neighbourhoods inhabited by social groups like Roma without regard for whether they in fact own the property. This leads not only to violations of the right to housing, but also to violations of the right to education for Roma children and the children of families from similar social groups. This kind of ‘urban regeneration’ creates negative results for many disadvantaged people, but it is the Roma community that has suffered the most.
The reasons for this are numerous: Roma are often unaware of their rights, illiteracy rates among Roma are high, and they fear adverse repercussions from the government if they oppose the development projects. As a result, they tend to not claim their rights. However, in recent years, Roma and similar social groups have begun to organize and demand justice. This has had a major impact on official policies and paved the way for the emergence of initiatives aimed at strengthening the Roma community in terms of obtaining equal rights.
Nevertheless, far more systematic efforts are needed to address the marginalization of the community, particularly Roma women. Though gender-based violence is an acute problem for women in general in Turkey, as well as under-age marriage, these issues particularly affect girls and women from marginalized communities such as Roma. Uçan Süpürge, a Turkish women’s rights organization, estimates that one in five of the Roma girls in an area north-west of Istanbul were married by the time they had turned 15.
Updated June 2018
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