The Perpetual Persecution of the Romani population, with a focus on Modern Ukraine

The Romani are a traditionally itinerant ethnic group, living mostly in Europe and the Americas. The Romani population is dispersed throughout Central and Eastern Europe, Turkey, Spain and France as well as the USA and Brazil. They originated in India, leaving Northern India between the sixth and eleventh century, migrating west, before arriving in Europe around a thousand years ago. These waves of migration were caused by various different factors including conflict, instability and the seeking of a better life in metropolises such as Tehran, Baghdad and, later, Constantinople. This entry will explore the persecution of the Romani population throughout history, with a specific focus on Ukraine. The entry will conclude with that ways in which the integration of the Romani population into Ukrainian culture and society could become achieved.

Historic Persecution of the Romani population

Like with many other minority groups throughout history the Romani people have been persecuted. Originally, when they migrated from Northern India, historians believe it was because they were carrying customs and practices connected to their Hindu gods. As a consequence of this, the Romani population was regarded as heathen in Byzantium and thus were assimilated into a heretic sect and labelled “the Untouchables”.

By the late 1300s, the Romani population had journeyed deeper into Europe, fleeing from the Turks and the plague, and could now be found across the Balkan regions and Central and Eastern Europe. Evidence of persecution was again widespread, and during that time within two Romanian principalities, Wallachia and Moldova, the Romani populations were forced into slavery. They were treated as objects with an exchange value, being sold in auctions, donated, given as gifts at weddings, or simply used to repay debt. The slave was the master’s property, with no legal status.

Their itinerant nature is a result of these high levels of persecution and subsequently, the Romani population fled towards Ukraine and Russia. They presented themselves as pilgrims, and like many other wandering group in Europe during those times aid or shelter was provided. This welcoming attitude didn’t last long however, and had dramatically changed by the 1500s. Historians believe this could have been because the volume of the migrations rapidly increased, but these Romani people also were seen as spies for the Turks, and consequently hunted and killed by decree. Some historians dubbed this “the first Roma genocide” – a period of fierce repression. During this time, there were hangings and expulsions in England; branding and the shaving of heads in France; severing of the left ear of Roma women in Moravia, and of the right one in Bohemia. This shows that the Romani population have always been considered to distant from the majority within a society – they have been labelled with a sense of ‘other’. These ideas were highlighted within the lectures of Prof. Michael Stewart (UCL Anthropology), he explained how society’s lack of understanding and the limited desire for the Romani people to assimilate, has lead to a greater divide between society and the minority group. The majority of the lecture was focused on the divisions caused by intercultural interactions within the Danube region. These divisions include differences of language, culture, lifestyle and socio-economic conditions between each group in the river’s basin. Due to the itinerant nature of the Romani population and the lack of a Romani ‘nation’, which leads to problems associated to nationality and belonging, within the lands they live they are a minority and don’t conform to the overriding culture of the lands in which they are settled. The Romani ‘nation’ would cross national borders in Eastern and Central Europe and connects many different cultures, and it was this idea that Prof. Stewart concluded the lecture. He said that that culture should connect, not divide – emphasising the fact that Romani culture was transboundary.

The approach towards the Romani population in Western Europe does contrast that of the Balkan and Eastern European states. In the West, particularly during the Enlightenment period, the aim was to “civilise” the Romani population through brutal and forced assimilation. In an attempt to do so punishments were administered towards the traditional Romani culture and customs. Punishments included twenty-four strokes of the cane for the use of the “Gypsy language”; forbidding Roma to marry among themselves; restricting the numbers of Roma musicians; taking away children as young as four years old from their parents and distributing them among the neighbouring towns. These were conducted in an attempt to stop the growth and continued practise of the Romani culture, in a hope that over the generations the culture would ‘die’.  In some cases these policies did force Roma to become assimilated. But many took to the road again, only added weight to the argument that the Romani population is itinerant due to the perpetual persecution.

The entire aim of this strand of this Global Citizenship Programme is to discuss the intercultural connections and frictions between the various societal groups along the Danube River. In this sense, the mention of Romani language is particularly interesting. In a lecture from Amelia Abercrombie, it was highlighted that the way different languages are connected, and how the adoption of different elements from various tongues became part of everyday vocabulary across the region, this in turn has lead to similarities between each Danubian language. Using her own research in Kosovo, she showed how some people don’t even speak the language of their nationality. This can be applied to the Romani population, and builds on the ideas regarding a lack of a Romani ‘nation’. The Romani language, which is a significant part of the culture, should give an identity, just like Romanian or Ukrainian does; yet, it is this identity and difference, which is the cause of much of the persecution.

The persecutions of the Romani population reached their peak with the rise of Fascism in Europe during the 1930s. The Romani found themselves among the first victims of Nazi Holocaust, or Porajmos (“the Devouring”) in the Romani language. They were sent to die in the gas vans of Chelmno, and were subjected to gruesome experiments in these camps. It is estimated that up to 500,000 Roma were killed under Nazi rule.

However, as highlighted in Michael Berkovitz’ (UCL Hebrew and Jewish Studies) lecture, the Romani population were not the only Danubian minority to be persecuted by the Nazis. The Jewish population was also heavily persecuted. By 1943, Vienna, an area which pre-war had had a higher concentration of Jews along its canal than any other social group along the Danube, had become a city without Jews – and in doing so lost its vitality and soul. However, the lecture also highlighted that integration of the Jewish population was possible. Berkowitz explained that Jews did the same as anybody else in their daily lives; they worked, studied and made a living for their families. In other words, they behaved in the stereotypical way of anybody in Vienna.

Post-war European governments, whether Capitalist or Communist denied the Romani Holocaust survivors both recognition and aid. In many cases there were special policies towards Roma, including coerced sterilisation (Czechoslovakia) or forcing them to change their names and hiding their dwellings behind concrete walls (Bulgaria). However, in certain areas of the communist bloc few Romani peoples managed to reach the modest living standards of the era. This was most often at the price of giving up their language and identity, integral components of their culture, while the majority of Romani people continued to lead poverty stricken lives on the margins of society. These examples only highlight the fact that the cultures divided the region rather than connected it.

Today, six million (60%) of the European Romani population live in Central and Eastern Europe. Decades of communism and the recent admission of Eastern countries into the EU have made negligible difference to the level of exclusion and poverty to which they are subjected. At present, many Romani families live in small shacks with no electricity or running water, and international institutions calculate that poverty rates are up to 10 times higher than those of the majority population where they live, while their lifespan is 10 – 15 years lower.

Persecution in Ukraine in the present day

A Romani minority in the Ukraine was first recorded in the early 14th century. The Romani maintained their social organisations and folkways, shunning non-Romani contacts, education and values, often as a reaction to anti-Romani attitudes and persecution that emerged with the fall of Communism. The Romani population are scattered throughout Ukraine, but their largest concentration is in Transcarpathia, which is in Western Ukraine near to Slovakia, Hungary and Poland as shown in the map. Half of this population live in cities and 35% of them consider Romani to be their mother tongue.


Picture 1. Map of Transcarpathia

The persecution of this minority population still continues in modern day Ukraine. Since March 2014, a number of reports from Roma civil society in Ukraine have been released, each detailing attacks on Romani people and the difficulties they face. There are many difficulties for the Romani people to access assistance and shelter following their displacement. In general, the ODIHR (Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights) has concluded that the situation for the Romani population in Ukraine remains problematic. The main challenges facing them include the lack of personal documents, difficulties accessing quality education and employment, inadequate housing conditions and misconduct by the police toward Romani people.

Examples in which the Romani population of Ukraine have been subjected to police brutality are quite common in Ukraine. One article, which I found during my research, reported that recently a police intervention against Romani people took place in the Ukrainian town of Uzhhorod. The special police commando unit of the Ukrainian Interior Ministry, “Berkut”, broke into Romani dwellings. According to local Romani residents who witnessed the raid, police officers brutally beat men and women in their homes in front of their children while shouting racist insults and threats. Romani residents say that police harassment, wherein officers arrest people for no reason on the street and then beat them up at police stations, is very frequent. Those afflicted see no one in their environment to whom they might be able to turn with a demand for justice, the authorities are already against them.

Recent political developments in Ukraine have further negatively affected the situation of Romani population, in particular of those displaced from Crimea and eastern Ukraine. There is no accurate data available about the number of displaced Roma, but reports from Roma civil society suggest that their number has increased following the deterioration of the situation in eastern Ukraine. Displaced Romani people face particular challenges due to the lack of civil registration and valid residence documentation confirming their displacement from eastern Ukraine. In the absence of a clear legislative framework regulating the protection and assistance for displaced persons, as well as effective co-ordination mechanisms, support has largely depended on the good will and capacity of local authorities. The level and type of assistance and shelter provided to displaced Roma varies. There is limited awareness of specific factors that contribute to the vulnerability of Roma, and insufficient outreach activities by relevant actors to address the situation of displaced Roma, in particular Roma women. In many cases, Roma are not aware of the assistance schemes available to them and do not know where to find information about available shelter. More attention needs to be paid to protecting the right to education of displaced Roma children.

Another cause of the persecution is the representation of the Romani population in the media. Since around the time the Ukraine declared the independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Roma have been subjected to stereotyping within Ukrainian press. Romani people are usually portrayed by Ukrainian newspapers as drug-traffickers; professional hypnotists cheating decent citizens out of their modest savings; pickpockets; and parents who specialise in raising professional beggars. Ukrainian newspapers also frequently emphasise the ethnicity of alleged perpetrators of crime. Many of the articles that deal with Roma are sensationalist, which only enforces the stereotype that is associated with the Romani population and can be said to have a contributing factor to their persecution.

Suggested means of integration of the Romani population in Ukraine

A recent study by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) focused on the current crisis in Ukraine and their implications on the Romani people. They provided a detailed summary and explanation that could eventually lead to the integration of the Romani population. The report calls for:

  • More comprehensive official data on the number of Roma in Ukraine, as well as more data on their socio-economic situation. The data should be collected on the basis of voluntary self-identification and used to inform the development of national and regional policies targeted at improving the situation of Romani people in the country.
    • Within this it is important to recognize the particularly vulnerable situation that Roma face in displacement due to a lack of civil or residence registration documents, as well as their marginalized position in society.
  • Provide civil registration documents and, in particular, birth certificates to all Roma without documents. Documents should be provided by law and without discrimination, and procedures to obtain documents should be simplified to remove obstacles and avoid burdensome processes.
  • Ensure that all Romani children have access to quality education and abolish the practice of segregating Roma children in Roma-only classrooms or schools.
  • Build trust and understanding between the police and Romani, including by implementing training programmes on anti-discrimination and community policing, and conduct awareness-raising activities on the situation of Roma to counter prejudices among law enforcement officials. Ensure that all instances of violence against Roma, including between February and August 2014, are effectively investigated by the Ukrainian authorities and that those responsible are prosecuted.
  • Promote a tolerant environment for displaced persons and refrain from any negative portrayals of displaced persons or groups.
  • Establish a legislative framework for providing protection and assistance to all internally displaced persons (IDPs) in line with international standards.
    • Within this it is important to provide shelter and humanitarian assistance to all IDPs without discrimination, including to displaced Roma and, if required, identify durable solutions, including access to adequate housing and employment, health care and basic education, with due consideration of the specific needs of both men and women and children.


The perpetual persecution of the Romani population, not just in Ukraine, but also throughout the Danube basin, in which they have settled since their migration out of Asia shows how intercultural interactions in the basin have led to tensions. There are a number of potential solutions suggested in order to reduce the tension between the minority groups in the Danube basin, and if these solutions are successful the Romani population could assimilate into their host countries, much like the Jewish minority have been able to assimilate into the Danubian culture.



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