Saturday, November 24, 2018

The Roma of the Ukraine

Ukraine with the relentless rise of right-wing demagogues has created a climate of ultra-nationalism and disturbing levels of xenophobia. Attacks against the Roma, have become commonplace. Most of Ukraine's estimated 250,000 Roma are fully integrated into mainstream society but many still endure shocking levels of poverty, particularly in the Transcarpathia region, 800 kilometres south-west of the capital, where the inhabitants of most Roma settlements speak Hungarian. It is from within these communities that small groups of families migrate to Ukraine's more prosperous cities in search of seasonal work, setting up temporary camps and sending money home, just as their parents and grandparents have done before them. But in the current climate, such people have become targets of ultra-right paramilitaries - attacks usually justified in typically contemptuous terms. It is hard to find articles in the Ukrainian media that don't reinforce the negative stereotypical view that a distressingly large section of the public here seem to have of the Roma as drug pushers, petty criminals and beggars. Intolerance has become disturbingly deeply embedded and so it is perhaps no surprise where that has led.

In April 2018 (on a day that many members of the far-right still mark as Hitler's birthday) when a neo-Nazi group calling itself C14 launched a violent assault on a temporary Roma camp in a park in Kiev. They were attacked by a group of young people who had gas sprays and other things, but because nobody had died at that time, there was not a lot of reaction from the state and then there were other attacks. The apparent impunity of those responsible inspired other neo-Nazi groups and, before long, a vicious wave of anti-Roma raids began to sweep across the country.

On the outskirts of Lviv one night in June 24-year-old David Popp was stabbed to death by knife-wielding youths. His widow, Iboya, showed us the wounds she received that night. "There were 17 of us who were stabbed," she explained.

On a number of other occasions, not only have the police stood by and allowed such attacks to take place but, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), in some cases, they have actually participated. A recent OHCHR paper entitled Report on the human rights situation in Ukraine describes raids on Roma communities during which "police were physically aggressive; beating people, damaging or destroying private possessions, and treating the Roma in a humiliating manner."

"These conflicts with the Roma nationality always take place because the Roma mostly live by robbery … without work, by drug trade, by fraud," says Ilya Kiva, a former paramilitary and presidential candidate in next year's election, when we meet him at his headquarters in downtown Kiev. "They must be taught to live according to the law of the country in which they live. That's it."

Zola Kondur, of the Coalition of Roma NGOs believes that prejudice is now so prevalent that it has become the norm. "If you will go to a Roma community and you ask: 'Do you face discrimination in your everyday life?' they will not even be able to answer because they don't see it any more. They are so used to it."

The first thing you notice when entering the Roma settlement on the outskirts of the city of Berehove in Transcarpathia is the wall that surrounds it. On the outside it appears to be a typical Ukrainian locale, the sort you are likely to find anywhere in this part of Eastern Europe; on the inside, it's as if you've entered another world, one populated by malnourished children and gaunt, prematurely aged adults.  The narrow streets are squalid and filthy, Dickensian even; to find such deprivation in a modern European country is deeply shocking. Nevertheless, it seems that the inhabitants of this miserable shanty town have been forgotten by the state. Unsurprisingly, there is much sickness here and life expectancy is considerably lower than elsewhere in Ukraine. Small wonder then, that so many from here want to migrate to the suburbs of Kyiv, Odessa and Lviv, albeit on a temporary basis, to earn a little money - or even to beg if they have no other choice. But since the attacks began, most Roma migrants have fled the cities and returned to Transcarpathia.

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