United Nations

Law & Disorder: Legal instruments as a double-edged sword for Roma, Romany and Traveller people

Viola Popenko is a member of Ukraine’s Roma community and a legal advocate for wider Europe’s Roma communities. Viola joined Friends, Families and Travellers for a three-month placement over summer 2022. 

“Roma community”, “Romani people”, “Roma and Sinti”, “Romany”, “Gypsies”, and “Irish Travellers” are definitions and terms that describe groups of people that are excluded, neglected, discriminated against, segregated, and left without access to basic human rights all over the world.

What is the reason for our exclusion and pursuit for justice within legal instruments? How can Roma refugees from Ukraine be connected to Romany Gypsies and Travellers in the United Kingdom?

It is important to state, that the Roma community in Ukraine is a group of people of Indo-Iranian descent that share common traditions, and various dialects of the Romani language and have a diverse range of social, economic, and political issues. When the invasion of the Russian Federation in Ukraine started, the main indicators of exclusion of this community became a litmus for the inequalities that Roma communities in Ukraine faced for decades. The invasion made Roma families forcefully flee to neighboring countries and leave their homes and permanent places of residence under missiles and hostilities. Moreover, the Ukrainian Roma people started to face forceful displacement, bearing in their souls a hope to be accommodated in the reception centers or to gain access to social housing, where shaky safety and peace could be found.

Forceful displacements cannot be compared to the positive obligation of the state to facilitate the travelling way of life. It is well known, that the member states of the Council of Europe should encourage Roma to travel around and settle in different places as stated in the case of Buckley v. the United Kingdom . Unlike Roma communities in Ukraine, some members of Romany and Traveller communities in the United Kingdom travel and seek to preserve the culturally pertinent way of life, often associated with the right to respect the home and family life. This right is accompanied by the need to travel and stay in different locations often to provide for a family, access healthcare, education and essential services. Therefore, the travelling way of life for Romany, Traveller and travelling people has a well-founded reason and is not just a ‘show’ of nomadism, that can occur from first glance.

The historical and political backgrounds of Roma from Ukraine and Romany Gypsies and Travellers from England have differences, but it is worth nothing to compare them at this stage. However, housing and accommodation became a high profile topic due to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 in the United Kingdom, and the forceful displacement of Roma in Ukraine accordingly. The Police Act enlarges the capacity of police in the seizure of property that can lead to the forceful eviction of nomadic Travellers and Gypsies from roadside camps. The experience of Roma refugees from Ukraine demonstrates its somewhat surprising connection to accommodation.

Roma refugees from Ukraine face a lack of accommodation, prejudice, and discrimination in seeking asylum. One of the most important grounds while seeking temporary protection outside Ukraine is living conditions that enable Roma families to stay in safety, which could lead to further steps of protection for family members and relatives.

As it is stated by the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) human rights monitors , Roma refugees from Ukraine have been accommodated in Moldova, in sub-standard living conditions, and have also faced eviction from the reception centre Manej Sports Centre due to its closure. The Roma people there did not have any other means of accommodation, staying there till the last moment. In addition to sub-standard living conditions, Roma refugees from Ukraine in Poland are unable to rent accommodation because of discrimination and are treated as ‘economic migrants’ in the Czech Republic, leading to calls for them to be sent to Hungary because of Ukrainian-Hungarian citizenship. Other cases of discrimination against Roma refugees showcase repeat refusals of housing and forceful relocation to other European Union countries, such as Germany . This demonstrates a discriminatory approach of providing temporary protection status for Ukrainian asylum seekers of Roma origin, endangering Roma refugees who remain without temporary accommodation, homeless and camping at the train station, as has previously happened in Prague .

When it comes to people living roadside in the United Kingdom, forced eviction is suspected to increase under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. A so-called “Police Act” without courts’ authorisation and final judgment enables the relevant force to remove vehicles and any other property based on “significant damage or significant disruption [having] been caused or…likely to be caused as a result of…residence”, along with other stipulations. Namely, any vehicle and home could be removed from the land after the given deadline and the ‘offender’ can be arrested and in some cases, vehicles could also be impounded. The confiscation of vehicles and caravans could possibly cause eviction and homelessness – threatening the everyday lives of Roma, Gypsies, and Travellers.

From a human rights angle, the “Police Act” has a clear discriminatory provision in its attack towards Gypsy, Roma or Traveller communities, as vocalized by civil society organisations in the United Kingdom and by national and international human rights bodies. The alarming warning on the provision 60C to E of the “Police Act” was addressed by Council of Europe’s Human Rights Commissioner, Dunja Milatovic. Milatovic notified that “the criminalization of trespass in relation to unauthorized encampments will specifically impact on Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller communities leading a nomadic [way of life]” . Furthermore, the UK’s own Joint Committee on Human Rights proposed to remove provision 61 from the Act, since it would contravene the Government’s obligation to facilitate the culturally pertinent travelling way of life. However, these serious observations of a potential discriminatory provision did not shift the Government’s position and as a result, the Act was approved with wilful ignorance of the potential harm to communities that already struggle to access suitable accommodation.

Roma refugees from Ukraine seem to be protected by the Temporary Protection Directive and can be hosted by any EU country when joining family members, seeking employment, or requesting international protection. Given the information from Poland, Roma refugees in the Czech Republic and Hungary face unequal treatment and are more likely to receive poorer accommodation conditions and restrictions of movement than ethnic Ukrainians fleeing from the war. Thus, the law, that was designed to protect displaced persons evokes prejudice and reaffirms discrimination in the most unjustified manner. Like the “Police Act” imposed on the United Kingdom, the provision about the removal, storage and disposal of homes falls on Irish Traveller, Romany Gypsy and nomadic people disproportionally and effectively restricts movement within vast swathes of the country. Despite a drastic difference between countries, legislation, and conditions of enforcement, the discriminatory practices that Roma communities, Irish Traveller families, Romany people and nomadic groups face demonstrates a deeply unequal treatment. A treatment which carries a lack of some of the most important rights for every human being – safety and security, a place to call ‘home’ and the freedom to live in peace.

In a nutshell, why after centuries of persecution and experiences of continuous displacement, are Romany Gypsy, Roma and Irish Traveller people treated as ‘unwanted’, even in the countries of which we are citizens?

From the above, we can see that what has been ‘given’ to the general public includes a discriminatory backlash against Roma, Romany Gypsy and Traveller communities. In the United Kingdom, it leads to a cycle of forced displacement, eviction and hate. Ukrainian Roma refugees are forced to shift from localities to countries to localities and back to countries again, seeking safety through asylum. Being unwanted, not welcomed and considered troublemakers presents a devastating reality that has now transformed from insolent prejudice to codified law.

Viola Popenko

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