The camps that raise storms

Why a big part of the Roma com­mu­nity is so poorly in­te­grated all across Europe

The Ukrainian Week - - CONTENTS - Denys Kazan­skiy

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.”

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 proRus­sian 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.

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 nonRoma 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.

A pow­der keg. Con­flicts with res­i­dents of Roma set­tle­ments don't al­ways have a po­lit­i­cal ba­sis. Too of­ten, such as two years ago in Odesa Oblast, do­mes­tic quar­rels can blow up into pogroms

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