Could integration help Ukraine’s Roma?

In Ukraine, civil society campaigners are trying to stop discrimination against Roma communities by helping them organise and integrate. RU

Ганна Соколова
13 November 2018
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Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.Since the beginning of 2018, there have been five attacks on temporary Roma settlements in Ukraine. After people arrived in Kyiv, Ternopil and Lviv areas for seasonal work from other areas of the country, mostly Zakarpattya in the southwest, nationalist extremist groups evicted Roma from their camps, setting fire to tents and household goods. These far-right groups were angered by the fact that Roma set up camp in parks and wooded areas, while the police “did nothing about it”.

In most cases, the attackers were charged merely with “hooliganism”, although the additional charge of “infringement of the equal rights of citizens in connection with their racial or ethnic origin or religious identity” was added in relation to attacks in Kyiv and Lviv after pressure from activists. In the most recent attack, in the Lviv area, a 24-year-old man, David Pap, was murdered, and four more were injured.

Civil society remained unsatisfied with Ukrainian law enforcement’s reaction on the attacks against Roma settlements. Attacks on Roma aren’t only offences under the criminal charges of hooliganism, murder and infringement of equality. This kind of persecution contravenes Article 24 of Ukraine’s Constitution, which states that “there can be no privileges or restrictions on grounds of race, colour of skin, political, religious or other principles, gender, ethnic or social background, material position, place of residence, language or any other factor”.

It’s not, however, easy to investigate attacks on Roma as racially-motivated offences. While the government and law enforcement have no particular position on the issue, victims of the crimes are disinclined to press charges, given that the police are representatives of the state.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian civil rights campaigners are drafting a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) over the lack of effective investigation of events that took place in 2016 in the village of Loshchynivka in the Odessa region, when local residents attacked a settlement after a member of the local Roma community was accused of killing a child.

“The police in Izmail [the nearest town] and the Odessa region prosecutor’s office overstepped the mark and created grounds for an appeal to the ECHR,” says lawyer Yulia Lisovaya, who represents the Loshchynivka Roma community. “The police tried to close the case, the courts would force them to re-open it and they would close it again. This tells us that, at the very least, there has been no effective investigation under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights [the right to a fair trial – ed.], so we are preparing our submission to the ECHR”.

Roma communities need to get organised

One of the reasons that Roma face persecution in Ukraine is the lack of systematic work with this community, Mykola Burlutskyi, who heads the Kharkiv-based Chachimo NGO, tells me.

“Working with Roma in our region, I’ve found one problem – there is a desire to integrate Roma, but the Roma community itself is quite passive,” Burlutskyi says. “That’s why you need to start by organising them into a community that can effectively react to issues arising both internally and in Ukraine as a whole.”

In Merefa, a town in the Kharkiv region, civil society activists have been organising meetings for Roma representatives to talk to lawyers, migration and social services personnel and health professionals, where they learn how to interact with state institutions and stand up for their rights.

“The idea is to find ten or so people who can be trained to take on active civil responsibilities. Then, in the future, they can represent their community in local administration and hold a dialogue with the authorities,” Burlutskyi tells me.

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Mykola Burlutskyi. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.Mykola decided to begin his project in Merefa, since he knows the local Protestant community and, as a pastor, has some sway within it. “We can run a pilot project here with minimal loss,” he says. After Merefa, the civic activist team plans to expand its work to the two other places in the region with the largest Roma population – Vovchansk and Vilshany.

At the sessions in Merefa, Burlutskyi acts as mediator between lecturers and the students. But first he has to persuade the Roma that they can trust the police and social services staff. And during the meeting he explains unfamiliar words to participants, repeating the points they need to remember in more accessible language.

“Around ten years ago, the police arrested me and tried to pin a charge on me, and demanded money from me in return for being released,” says Oleksandr, a local Roma resident. “So I’ve tried to avoid them ever since. But I’m now trying to get over my prejudices.” Burlutskyi sees Oleksandr as a future leader of Merefa’s Roma community and has already started introducing him to representatives of local government.

One of the reasons that Roma face persecution in Ukraine is the lack of systematic work with this community

Last year, the village of Vilshany was the site of a dispute that ended in a shooting and the death of a local Roma resident. The day before, the village head had had an argument with a local Roma. He and his father, a former village head and member of the regional council, as well as other armed villagers, then demanded a meeting with the entire Roma community to settle the argument. It was only a year later that charges of murder and rioting were brought by the courts. And Andriy Mukha, a lawyer with the Romen organisation and counsel to one of the injured parties, stated that he had been beaten up by the local public prosecutor and three other men in his own office. He believes that the attack was a result of his professional activity; the prosecutor’s office has called it an attempt to discredit them.

“The man’s death could have been avoided if there were active members of the Roma community in Vilshany – people who knew their rights,” Mykola Burlutskyi tells me. “They would have called the police and got in touch with civil activists and the media, and the dispute could have been resolved peacefully.”

This was not the first dispute involving the Kharkiv region’s Roma community. There were two incidents in 2016 and 2017, when some of the residents of the town of Lozova and the village of Sheludkovka demanded the expulsion of the Roma. In both cases, the conflict began with claims that the Roma were responsible for an increase in crime, although there was no official confirmation of any such rise.

Public advisers

In addition to heading Chachimo, Mykola Burlutskyi is also a paralegal: he helps people in the Kharkiv region solve common legal issues, as a mediator between them and the local authorities. Last year he and other civil society activists from other areas underwent training in setting up state institutions dealing with safety, the protection of human rights, finance and communications.

“As a paralegal, I have two aims connected with Roma communities,” says Mykola. “The first is the security that results from realising constitutional rights, when a state provides protection for its citizens. The second is building a dialogue with the government and law enforcement, in order to develop preventive and reactive measures.”

Paralegals, also called public advisors, are a new institution in Ukraine. The rationale for its creation is that most Ukrainian citizens, especially those who live in small communities, have no easy access to legal help of any kind. At the same time, Ukrainians tend to distrust the state judicial system, says Olha Halchenko, one of the instigators of the idea and a coordinator of the Human Rights and Justice programme of the International Renaissance Foundation.

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Natalya Andreyeva. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.Any active citizen can become a public advisor: you don’t need a law degree; you just have to go through a competitive selection process and a training programme. Natalya Andreyeva, a resident of Babay, a small town in the Kharkiv region, has signed up for the course. She used to work at home, but after war broke out in Eastern Ukraine she began working as a volunteer, helping Roma who had moved to the region.

“I am a Roma myself. Lots of people in my community are uneducated, and this makes it hard for them to integrate. How can this situation be changed? Who will they listen to? Not to the authorities – to their own people,” she tells me. Natalya, like Burlutskyi, sees self-organisation of her community as a priority.

Creating Roma self-government

In Zakarpattya, southwestern Ukraine, civic activists have a different way of helping Roma integrate into Ukrainian society. Since 2015, members of the Rozvitok (“Development”) charitable foundation and the Mukachevo Human Rights Centre have been helping to set up Roma self-government – representative bodies created by local residents to resolve everyday social and cultural issues. Roma are coming together in their settlements to talk to the local authority about the needs and aspirations of their communities.

In 2016, local Roma representative bodies were set up in the town of Svalyava and the villages of Velyki Luchki, Pavshyno and Chomonyn. It’s too early to talk about results, but this spring, the Roma community in Velyki Luchki collected money and built a road, which the local civil society campaigners see as an achievement.

“I am really proud for the Roma: they have understood what self-organisation means and are beginning to take independent steps towards the creation of a safe social infrastructure, and the enforcement and maintenance of their space in an appropriately clean and tidy state,” says Oleg Grigoryev, a representative of the Rozvitok foundation and the Mukachevo Human Rights Centre, who sees this type of development as the only effective way of integrating this ethnic minority.


April 2018: improving the village road at Velyki Luchki. Source: Oleg Grigoryev.Different sources put the number of Roma living in Ukraine at between 47,000 and 260,000, with the largest populations in the Zakarpattya, Donetsk, Dnipro and Odessa regions. In 2013, the Ukrainian parliament approved a “Strategy for the protection and integration of the Roma ethnic minority up to 2020”. Then in 2016, Aksana Filipishina, a representative of the Parliamentary Ombudsperson on Human Rights, called the strategy a “formal document”.

Different sources put the number of Roma living in Ukraine at between 47,000 and 260,000, with the largest populations in the Zakarpattya, Donetsk, Dnipro and Odessa regions

“This document relates to European integration, it is supposed to demonstrate that the state is taking some action aimed at regulating the Roma issue,” said Filipishyna in an interview to Hromadske TV. “The Strategy was approved without any initial analysis of the situation, no research was carried out. This is a document that contains the unusable slogans such as ‘foster’ and ‘perfect’. These are abstract words.”

At the same time, Roma human rights activist Zemfira Kondur believes that Ukrainian public officials are indifferent to Roma problems – more often than not, it’s the voluntary sector that works on these issues. The UN is nevertheless calling on the Ukrainian government to protect the country’s minorities, and the Roma among them, from discrimination and persecution.

“The lack of accountability in violent attacks against minorities and evictions of Roma in previous years has fuelled impunity,” said Fiona Frazer, head of the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine. “We urge the Government to demonstrate zero tolerance by publicly condemning such acts, by investigating all attacks against minorities, by bringing perpetrators to account and by guaranteeing the right to non-discrimination and equality.”


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