In recent months, a series of attacks on Roma camps in different Ukrainian cities provoked heated debate about xenophobia and fascism. Conflicts involving Roma are not a rare thing in Ukraine, but most are too minor to make it into the press. The more dramatic ones do get reported in the news. For instance, two years ago, a local Roma man was accused of killing a child in the village of Loshchynivka, Odesa Oblast. This led to a classic pogrom with local residents burning and tearing down Roma homes with the help of farming implements.
The June 24 killing of a resident of a gypsy camp by Ukrainian teens from the neo-nazi group called “Sober and Mad Youths” in Lviv Oblast also made headlines. This particular incident became grist for the mill among pro-Russian politicians and the Russian media, and a remarkable number of vultures rushed to get some free publicity for themselves over the murder. The tragedy was immediately used to gain political points by presenting it as proof that Ukraine’s government was “establishing fascism” and “encouraging ultra-right groups.”
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In all the cacophony, few people were talking about the other side of the coin: the fact that there are Roma camps in the first place. This is a very old problem that needs to be resolved. In the 21st century, living like nomads and building shacks anywhere you feel like it, especially within city limits is not really acceptable. Often it is this specific fact, and not the culture or ethnicity of Roma, that is the real reason for clashes. It’s clear that Roma most often become the focus of attacks because of this nomadic way of life.
Governments in western countries are often accused of segregation and of deliberately pushing ethnic minorities into reservations and ghettoes at the edges of economic and cultural life. With a large part of the Roma community, the opposite is the case: by living in ramshackle camps, they are voluntarily segregating themselves.
Roma villages were ghettoes back in soviet times. An ethnically isolated environment, limited links with the outside world, and the lack of social infrastructure were all factors that encouraged the conservation of many social problems. Poverty, unemployment, lack of access to education or even outright illiteracy, criminality, and infectious diseases constitute just a partial list of the social ills that were common in nearly every gypsy settlement. So it’s no surprise that healthy, functioning communities have no desire to have such camps anywhere in their neighborhood. The issue is clearly not the color of people’s skin or the language they speak.
What’s more, conflicts with Roma are not just an issue in Ukraine. In post-soviet countries, such incidents take place on a regular basis. Indeed, they tend to be far more aggressive in neighboring countries. Take Russia, for instance, which raised a storm of protest against Ukraine over the killing of a Roma in Lviv. Yet in the last few years, there have been a number of high-profile cases in which Roma were murdered in Russia. In a series of incidents in Yekaterinburg and Stavropol Krai, Roma were actually mowed down by men wielding machine-guns.
In Bulgaria, a member of the EU, the situation is even worse. Bulgaria’s population is nearly 5% Roma ethnicity, yet attacks on them take place nearly every year. In 2017, massive disturbances happened in Asenovgrad. After some Roma beat up Bulgarian teenagers, thousands of Bulgarians came out in protest and marched to the Roma district, demanding that all the illegally-built huts be torn down and all Roma without documents allowing them to reside there resettled elsewhere. The police were barely able to prevent the situation from turning very violent.
Tensions in Bulgarian society are taken advantage of by politicians from nationalist parties who regularly make xenophobic pronouncements. After the Asenovgrad incident, MP Ivo Hristov declared that the Roma were the “blasting cap that could blow up all of Bulgaria, just like Albanians did at one point in Yugoslavia.” MPs from the nationalist party Attack, which is known for its pro-Russian and pro-Putin position, have been openly calling for a variety of sanctions against Roma and organizing anti-Roma rallies.
All is not well even in the better-off countries of Western Europe. The deportation of Roma from France caused a major scandal in that country and then-president Nicolas Sarkozy came close to being accused of fascism. All this simply confirms that there is a problem and it needs to be resolved in a civilized manner. This means introducing various social programs and gradually integrating Roma into the cultural and economic life of the countries where they live. This is the path that most European countries have chosen to take. However, it’s not a straightforward task. Even in wealthy European countries where people don’t mind seeing their tax money go to a very broad range of social programs and are happy to provide welfare to refugees from third world countries, completely integrating Roma has not proved possible.
In Eastern European countries like Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, the situation is far worse. There, efforts were made to socialize Roma communities even in communist times: entire blocks of high-rise apartment buildings were built and Roma were forcibly settled there. But after socialism collapsed, these districts gradually turned into even more hideous ghettoes than the movable camps. For anyone who accidentally ends up in such an area, the impression is dreadful: no plumbing, broken windows, mountains of garbage that the residents of these vertical slums have been tossing into the yard out of the windows of their apartments. Plenty of photos and video documentaries of such neighborhoods are available on the internet. What they clearly demonstrate is that simply resettling gypsy camps from plywood huts to properly constructed buildings does not resolve the issue of socialization.
In the 21st century, camps and ghettoes are just as abnormal a phenomenon as pogroms, and they need to become a thing of the past as soon as possible. People should not be living in shacks made out of scrap. If a society doesn’t like such spontaneous settlements in its neighborhood, then its interest should be to help Roma integrate into a more stable environment and to adopt a healthier lifestyle. Simply tearing down illegal camps won’t resolve anything, and violence even less so. Practice has also shown that welfare payments don’t help Roma break out of the toxic ghetto environment and change their way of life.
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For Roma to be able to adapt socially, a more comprehensive approach is needed. If a country provides public housing, then the way to avoid setting up ethnic islands, this housing needs to be in neighborhoods with non-Roma Ukrainians and other ethnic minorities. Greater oversight needs to be instituted over the spending of welfare, including child support benefits. One reasonable approach would be to set up a system in which families whose children attend kindergarten or school on a regular basis are provided with a bonus on top of their regular benefits. At the same time, parents have to be held responsible for preventing their children from going to school and for not taking proper care of them. In particularly heinous cases, they should have parental rights withdrawn. It should be unacceptable for a child to grow up in terrible, unhealthy conditions, without basic vaccinations and without schooling.
This is not about a “wave of Ukrainian fascism.” Back in 2013, Amnesty International wrote in its report that Roma were persecuted across all of Europe and faced “shocking discrimination.” It’s clear that Ukraine is not some kind of unique case or demonstrates exceptional discrimination towards Roma. The Roma community runs into the same problem everywhere. Conflicts with the residents of Roma camps and attacks on them will continue until the government begins to pay real attention to the existence of these settlements and to understand that something must be done about them.
Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj