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Europe

Roma attacked in Ukraine: Human rights activists call for dialogue

The murder of a Ukrainian girl blamed on a Roma led locals from a village near Odessa to carry out pogroms. An entire Roma community was evicted, causing concern among human rights groups.

Ukraine Sinti und Roma bei Loshchynivka

The Roma of Loschynika accompanied by police on August 28

In recent days, authorities in Izmayil, a region near Odessa, Ukraine, decided to evict from the village of Loschynivka all people of Roma ethnicity. The decision followed riots that had been sparked by the murder of a 9-year-old girl on August 27. Local residents have accused a 21-year-old member of the Roma community of the crime. However, many human rights activists are adamant that the eviction directly violates both Ukrainian and international law. Even some local authorities responsible have questioned the legality of evicting an entire community.

"This is a flagrant violation of human rights. The very essence of the will of the people who gathered at a spontaneous rally and decided to evict Roma is against the law. It discriminates against people based on ethnicity," said the director of the International Renaissance Foundation's Roma Program Initiative, Olga Zhmurko.

Ukraine Gewalt in Loshchinovka bei Odessa gegen Roma nach Mord an Kind

One of several Roma houses that was attacked in the pogroms

Izmayil district chair Valentyna Stoykova acknowledged that the eviction decision made by the Loschynivka village council lacks legal force. She also said - in contrast to other reports - that the evicted Roma had decided for themselves to leave the village, making the eviction to other regional villages a compromise.

Ukraine Gewalt in Loshchinovka bei Odessa gegen Roma nach Mord an Kind

Numerous Roma houses were burned in the pogroms and left in shambles

Extent of damage and evictions unclear

How many people are affected by the eviction remains unclear, for various reasons. The itinerant living patterns of many Roma may be one reason. Another is that there are some residential addresses where dozens of people have been registered, who may have actually never have lived there. In all, 10-12 entire families – a total of about 50 people – may be moved, according to some estimates.

Ukraine Gewalt in Loshchinovka bei Odessa gegen Roma nach Mord an Kind

The belongings of one Roma family, damaged in a pogrom

"These people live for the moment with their relatives. Other housing is not provided for them and there is no attempt to provide it," Volodymyr Kondur, head of Human Rights Romani Center told DW. The Roma are planning to sue for damages resulting from the riots and illegal entry into their homes, he said. Moreover, he underlined that "what happened in Loschynivka is not a single case in Ukraine. Unfortunately, the representatives of the Roma community are discriminated against pretty often. If a crime is committed in a village where there are Roma, they are the first to be suspected and accused."

The people are gone, the problems are not

Ukraine Odessa Gouverneur Mikhail Saakashvili

Governor of the Odessa region Mikheil Saakashvili

Human rights activists are not alone in their condemnation of such evictions - some local authorities have also spoken out, albeit with different rationales. Governor of the Odessa region Mikheil Saakashvili - the very same politician who succeeded communist stalwart Eduard Shevardnadze as president of Georgia and fled that country after nearly a decade in power - has claimed that the eviction of Roma from Loschynivka is a temporary fix that does not solve the problem. He says that the Roma community amounts to a "stash" [ed. note - a den of drug dealers] and that if evicted, its members will simply engage in illegal activities elsewhere and cause difficulties for residents of other municipalities.

Human rights activist Valeriy Fuyor visited Loschynivka four years ago, finding it to be peaceful and inhabited mostly by Bulgarians. "Demonstrations and rallies, and the fact that people are trying to ensure their safety, is standard practice for democratic states. The question is how the authorities react to the situation. Local authorities in Loschynivka became nervous, trying to extinguish the conflict, and followed the decision of the crowd. Because of one person whose guilt should be proved in court, you can't punish an entire community," Valeriy Fuyor told DW.

Fear among other ethnic minorities in a complex region

Given that the area is also inhabited by several ethnic and religious minorities including Jews, ethnic Germans, and Gagauz peoples, these communities are worried about the treatment of the Roma. According to Vasyl Kelioglo, head of the Union of Gagauz of Ukraine: "A representative of any nationality, whether Gagauz, German or Jew, may be the scapegoat next - so there is some concern on the part of other ethnic minorities, especially those who live nearby." Meanwhile, he is confident that the case in Loschynivka doesn't indicate impending ethnic conflict throughout the whole of Ukrainian society, but was merely a local misunderstanding, which may result from authorities ignoring demands of those they represent.

There are numerous reasons for the current conflicts in Ukraine - the war in the eastern region of Donbass, mass unemployment, inability of authorities to effectively govern - and disenchantment of the electorate. But among the complex web of issues currently affecting Ukraine, the current relationships among ethnic groups is in reality less of a catalyst for conflict - even if 135 recognized nationalities live in the country. Many disagreements are more historical than current; or have to do with geopolitical history. Fuyora noted that some areas of the Odessa region have previously belonged to Romania, the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. This traumatic history can escalate present-day troubles among groups.

Resettle or integrate?

In 2013, a state strategy was approved for protecting and integrating Roma into Ukrainian society by 2020. The program, however, existed more on paper than in reality and few efforts were made at implementation. Human rights activist Olga Zhmurko says that social integration of the Roma community is underway - however only the Carpathian region has seen some success in this regard.

Moreover, experts point out that a lack of police in villages such as Loschynivka also breeds a sense of vulnerability among residents. When locals do not feel a sense of protection, it is easy for emotions to get out of hand and the all-too-common result is mob law and vigilante justice. To resolve the situation, Zhmurko noted that a multiparty dialogue would be necessary, bringing together local authorities, the Roma and village representatives of those who committed the pogroms.