Roma in Ukraine: No documents, no rights!

It all started in November 2013, when peaceful protesters occupied Kiev’s Independence Square, to show their disagreement with Viktor Yanukovych’s government evasion of the agreement with the European Union, which would have led to weaker ties with Russia. In February 2014, the violence escalated, with police squads intensifying their repression and the successive implementation of anti-protest laws[1].

Since then, the angst was exacerbated by the possibility of a far-right ascension to power, rumours that some deemed to be simply Russian and anti-EU propaganda, aimed at destabilizing the political situation even more[2]. The elections, originally scheduled for 2015, prematurely took place on the 25th of May, with Petro Poroshenko, one of Ukraine’s wealthiest entrepreneurs, securing more than the needed 50% of the votes to be the next president straight from the first round, out of 21 candidates; his main adversary, Yulia Tymoshenko, received only 12%. His straightforward pro-EU position brings light on what the future of Ukraine, in terms of external affairs, will likely look like. The results come after months of turmoil. Caught in between the increased Russian sentiments and separatist claims in the Eastern regions, the annexation of Crimea – after it declared independence, through a still unrecognized referendum – by the Russian Federation, growing nationalist sentiments, and the desire to open to Europe, Poroshenko claimed that his election means that the Ukrainian people opted for an unified state. Implicitly, his policies will focus on eliminating the state of conflict and bringing peaceful resolutions, as the proposed weapon armistice to the Eastern rebels, who took over the Donetsk airport on the 26th of May while, in the region, only a few polling stations were open, with armed men guarding them to ensure no vote is cast.

by Cristina Simona Bangau

Unregistered Roma in Crimea: the new internally displaced persons and the invisibility of the non-citizens

Throughout the largely stabilizing role of the elections, one of the questions that still lingers is what is going to happen with Crimea and its population? Poroshenko publicly stated that he wants to bring Crimea back. The referendum that took place in March is deemed legitimate only by Russia. Ukraine calls the region temporarily occupied territory and international sanctions have been imposed on Russia. For the voting, people who consider themselves Ukrainian citizens had to cross the borders, pass the checkpoints and exercise their democratic right, to choose who will represent them. For now, this seems like a completely clear scenario. However, the border has seen reinforced laws since 25th of April, with the Crimean Border Service controlling 27 checkpoints. While this is an extremely difficult endeavour for documented citizens, for the Roma minority in the region the chances of safely crossing the border from Crimea are almost non-existent.  As elaborated in the 2014 ERRC and International Charitable Organization Roma Women Fund Chiricli’s written comments – organizations which took on the task of monitoring the situation of Roma human rights in Ukraine – submitted for consideration of the UN CESCR (United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) at its 52nd meeting, held in April and May, this year, the most pressing problem of this group is the lack of official documents. As it follows, the undocumented Roma in Crimea are in a perpetual limbo in this territorial dispute, unaccounted for in either Ukraine, or the Russian Federation.


1. Checkpoint Crimea


2. (OSCE pic: border Crimea[3])

Amidst the generalized crisis, these Roma have very little representation or legal means to decide whether to stay in the occupied Crimea, to choose the power-that-be or, for that matter, to influence the development of policies. Compared to the former Yugoslav case, the information available so far does not clarify whose Roma are they going to be, the discussions so far hinting at a internally displaced persons status for them. By the end of April, UNHCR counted around 7000 internally displaced persons registered all over Ukraine, with most of them being women and children, without specific information about their ethnicity. However, even these numbers might not completely reflect the proportions of the ones who flee Crimea, since registering to the local authorities is not mandatory. Freedom of movement is guaranteed by the 15th of April Law implemented by the Ukrainian authorities but, again, this is a right guaranteed for citizens, and the Roma without documents do not fall into that category.

For now, both Putin and the Ukrainian administration publicly announced their financial support. However, how long will it be until the Ukrainian hryvnia is replaced with the Russian ruble, leading to having the access of the Ukrainian payments in terms of salaries, pensions, social benefits being strictly limited in the region? The official languages will be Russian, Ukrainian and Tatar, to ensure the respect for the rights of every ethnic group, as Putin declared[4], early on, in March. New legislation is to be implemented, which brings forth the problem of the undocumented Roma people who, so far, managed to live in informal settlements and live in a context of strong family and community ties. A call to solidarity was shared, with all the Ukrainian people being ready to accept families arriving from the region to settle in their house until the situation stabilize. But changes are to come, from the smallest, mundane activities, to big important issues, from talks about citizenship, nationality, and ethnicity.

On the 18th of April, the deadline to apply for Russian citizenship, or refuse to receive one, those holding the stateless status included, expired, after only one month from its announcement, this hasty procedure gravely impacting the access to the right to citizenship. As it is revealed in Rita Izsak’s recommendations on Ukraine for UN[5], those who kept their initial citizenship may face deep discrimination and marginalization, in terms of access to the benefits that are reserved to the ones who hold the Russian citizenship. It is mentioned that unless they are applying to permanent residency, they may even face deportation, issue that again directly affects those undocumented Roma. Even protection and support from the civil society organizations is slowly made impossible; under Russian legislation, non-domestic NGOs have to operate as “foreign agents”[6], which drastically restricts the receipt of foreign funding and the scope of their actions. By now, three months after the annexation, almost half of the 2.3 million Crimean residents have applied for a Russian passport and the ruble became the official currency. As a New York Times op-ed[7] gloomy declares, there is almost no imaginable scenario under which Ukraine will re-establish its sovereignty over Crimea.

 When appeals to peace reveal the obscured violence

Many appeals to peace and diplomatic cooperation have been launched in the past months. It becomes pretty self-explanatory that Ukraine’s Roma may find themselves in a vulnerable position among the political and civil unrest that took over the country. A month ago, on the 8th of May, the US Ambassador Daniel B. Baer delivered, int Vienna, a statement of concern regarding the attacks on Roma in Ukraine, in front of the Permanent Council of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). This reiterates the declaration made on the 10th of April, 2014[8], two days after the International Roma Day, on the possible discrimination Roma might face as a result of the Crimean territorial dispute between Russia and Ukraine. Furthermore, one of the most feared scenarios is brought to light: what is going to happen to the Crimean Roma if they wish to flee the region, after the Russian takeover? As the representatives of Chiricli informed back in March 2014, many Roma have expressed their desire to leave the territory after what is generally considered an illegal referendum. However, this proves to be rather difficult, since obtaining travel documents requires permanent residence status. Not particular to the Crimean region, the situation of the Roma in Ukraine is rather delicate, the main points of concern being the lack of personal documents  which, in turn, creates a vicious circle of denied access to other essential services, such as housing, education, employment, health care etc, and obviously, leaving a territory one does not consider home, anymore.

So far internationally unrecognized, Ukraine declared Crimea temporarily occupied territory[9]. For this, it passed a law on the 15th of April to ensure the freedom of the citizens living in the region. However, Russia has already shut off all the Ukrainian bank accounts and is gradually implementing new legislation after the highly controversial 16th of March referendum. In this context, the law that stipulates that the Autonomous Republic of Crimea is inalienable territory, with only Ukrainian legislation to be legitimate, but with the violation of human rights and all the damages being Russia’s responsibility, seems of very little importance.

Naming the Problem: no documents, no rights!

Ukraine’s last population census dates back to 2001 (with the next one being planned for 2016), and it mentions a Roma population of around 50.000. However, unofficial estimates hint at a much higher number, stretching anywhere from 120.000 to almost 400.000 people. At a first glance, this may be due to the lack of disaggregated data by ethnicity, with many Roma simply choosing not to declare their ethnic belonging. However, the problem of the missing documentation is still there and, in this context of civil unrest, it may lead to worrying consequences. A complicit official invisibility of the Roma makes it easy for abuses against them to take place, since there is no account of their presence. Being denied access to education and legal protection, most of the Romani people live in informal settlements, risking displacement at any time, and being incredibly vulnerable to human trafficking.

After meeting with government, civil society and minorities’ representatives, Rita Izsak declared that the unrest should not be framed as an inter-ethnic conflict, and that no violent actions, or incitements, are justified. Regarding the Roma situation, she mentioned that the economic and social marginalization this group is facing is widespread knowledge, by now. Though there are two major initiatives addressing directly the structural inequalities, such as the “Strategy on the Protection and Integration of Roma in Ukraine until 2020” and the “National Action Plan on Roma Inclusion”, the results indicate that the policies are poorly implemented, with very few improvements, when looking at the general living conditions of the Romani population. With this occasion, she supported the collection of disaggregated data, of uttermost importance for legislation and strategic actions that respond to the tailored needs of the diverse minority groups.


(UN delegates, visiting the Roma settlements in Ukraine, with Chiricli)

No measures have been clearly taken, yet. Just days later, on the 18th of April, after the Ukraine visit of the UN representative, allegedly pro-Russian separatists attacked some of the Roma families in the eastern part of the country, Slovyansk[10], the Donetsk region, a city which has been under assault, crushed under the clash between the pro-Russian separatists and the government forces. While attempts are made not to propagate panic among the population, this was a clear ethnically motivated crime. An OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) Special Monitoring Mission was sent to Ukraine, during these months of civil and political unrest, to ensure the de-escalation of violence. Two weeks after a new president was elected, the city is still witnessing violent attacks and bombings. Just last Sunday, Poroshenko declared that negotiations with the rebels are on-going, which ought to result in Ukraine managing to cease the fire completely[11]. Until resolutions are found, nobody is spared in this conflict. Unfortunately, some lack even the legitimate means to voice their grievances. Amidst the conflict, the ones made invisible are reduced to a silence that strangely resembles a calm before a storm.