The Insider: “In ’41, we were hiding from the Germans in Russia. Now it’s the other way round”: Roma people recount life under Russian occupation

The Insider published a longread on the situation of Ukrainian Roma living in eastern Ukraine before 2014, after the start of hostilities by Russia in 2014, and after the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022. The article contains materials from ADC Memorial reports: Roma From Ukraine: A Year of War and Flight ‘2023, Romani Voices From Hell: Discrimination, Epidemic, War ‘2022, Roma and War in Eastern Ukraine – refugees, displaced persons, victims of violence ‘2015.

Prior to the war, the Donbas region was officially home to over four thousand Roma people. However, following the Russian occupation, this community, which had frequently faced discrimination, found itself completely deprived of rights. Many Roma were forced to flee, yet even abroad, in European countries, they continue to endure persecution.

…The issue of how Roma were treated in Ukraine before 2014 was extensively studied by the Anti-Discrimination Center Memorial. “Unfortunately, discrimination against Roma is a pervasive phenomenon,” says Stefaniya Kulayeva, an expert from the Center. “But in several aspects, the situation in Ukraine was better than in Russia. For instance, children were seldom segregated in schools. I personally interviewed children who fled from the Donetsk region in 2014, and they all attended regular classes with other children in Ukraine.”

She explains that in Russia, “camp” children are segregated into separate Roma-only classes everywhere. In Ukraine, she only found “Romani classes” in Berehove (Zakarpattia) and in one village in the Odesa region.

…“The most complaints about discrimination came from Poland, Romania, and Hungary, but it also happened in Germany,” says Kulaeva. “Some people were evicted from refugee camps, and some were not accepted there, partly because Roma families are very large, and they couldn’t provide 35 spots right away, and Roma didn’t want to split up.”

In Russia, it is certainly more challenging for Roma than in Europe, notes Kulaeva. There is not much solidarity within Roma communities; refugees go to relatives and acquaintances but do not stay for long. “In 2014-2015, many Roma went to Russia,” says Stefania. “They listened to Russian TV, thought they would be helped, and were very disappointed that there was no real assistance, and difficulties with immigration status lasted for years. In 2022-2023, many more Roma left for the EU, including through Russia.”

While official Roma foundations and associations exist in Ukraine, there are fewer activists in Russia, and they often work alone. They help Romani refugees to the best of their ability, with document processing, finding housing, employment, and adaptation. They have strongly requested not to mention their names or provide detailed information about their activities, fearing actions by the Russian authorities.

Read the full article in The Insider