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Domari refugees in Turkey: ‘Peace, bread and toilets’


Stephan Müller

Two conflict zones currently make the news in Europe: Syria and Ukraine. People demonstrate empathy for those caught in war-torn areas and for the plight of refugees, in particular of the millions of refugees from Syria stranded in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and even Iraq. In general, empathy for the refugees diminishes the closer they come to Western Europe. In particular, when the refugees belong to Roma or Roma-related groups, the diminishing empathy very quickly turns into antipathy.

These two ongoing conflicts have produced large numbers of refugees or displaced persons. What goes forgotten in media reporting and public discussions about these refugees is the fact that among the displaced there are many Roma or people belonging to Roma-related groups such as the Syrian Domari. Who talks about the Roma or Domari people in the war-torn zones in Ukraine and Syria and how much public empathy is there for the tens of thousands of Domari refugees from Syria?

We all know the answers: hardly anybody talks about what happens or what happened to Roma in conflicts or wars. And if somebody does talk about Roma as refugees, it is in the highly negative context of ‘bogus refugees’, as if Roma have come to personify ‘bogus refugees’.

Who are the Domari people?

The Dom are not a homogeneous group, but could best be described as consisting of several related groups that speak different languages, have different religions, traditions and cultures. Whatever different labels may be applied, much of the outside world simply perceives them as an homogeneous group of ‘Gypsies’.  

The Dom might be related to the Roma, their languages are connected, but its also clear that Domari people are not just a sub-group of the Roma. They too once lived on the Indian subcontinent, but according to linguistic research it seems that they migrated at different times than the Roma.

Nobody can say exactly how many Domari people live in the Near East. Approximately 250,000 lived in Syria prior to the war. A few millions might live in other countries including Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, Iran and Egypt; in particular Egypt is home to quite large Domari communities. 

The majority of Dom seem to follow Sunni Islam, while others are Shiites or belong to the Alawites such as the Abdals. We also heard of small groups following old Christian oriental churches.

In addition to their own language, the Domari speak several other languages including Arabic, Kurdish, Turkish, Turkmen and other languages. Similar to the Roma, they are divided into groups based on their professions or the profession of their ancestors, such as sieve-makers, smiths or most notably dentists. Many of the Domari refugees from Syria actually worked as dentists and dental technicians before the war. They were not university-trained but learned their traditional professions from their elders. 

In Turkey, some of the ‘traditional dentists’ were able to attend training programmes   to become officially certificated dental technicians.

In Turkey alone, there’s an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 Domari refugees. The overwhelming majority of them do not live in the official refugee camps run by the Turkish government. The media and humanitarian organisations claim that only a few NGOs, in particular Islamic organisations have access to these camps. 

There are several reasons why Domari refuges are not in the official camps:

  • Most of the camps are inhabited by a single ethnic group (Arabs, Kurds, Palestinians, Circassians, etc), but there aren’t any official camps for the Domari people. And Domari people who were living in the formal camps had to leave because other groups did not want to share the camp with Domari. 
  • They have been refused admission to camps by the authorities.
  • They didn’t try to access camps, since they were afraid that they will be attacked by other ethnic groups.
  • Some who stayed in government-controlled areas before they were forced to flee Syria fear moving to camps where the majority of refugees came from ‘opposition-controlled’ areas.
  • Some sub-groups such as the Abdal are Alawites and belong to a religious minority that could not live in camps with a predominantly Sunni population. 
  • The strict living conditions in the camps also prevented some people from moving there.
  • Finally, most camps are already full to capacity and there is not enough room to accommodate the huge number of refugees. 

The fact that Domari refugees cannot access official camps has a dire impact on their daily lives. The majority lives in make-shift tents in informal camps set up in open spaces and are regularly subjected to police raids. 

During our ERRC field trip to Turkey in early November, Domari refugees and local inhabitants told us that police regularly raid the informal camps, destroy the tents, and order the refugees to leave the area. 

They reported cases where the police not only expelled them beyond the city limits, but drove them to a border crossing between Turkey and Syria deposited them on the Syrian side of the border, and then sealed border crossing. (Syrian border guards have long since deserted most of the border crossing points; and they are manned only by Turkish guards).

Refugees living outside the formal camps are not entitled to regular and sufficient humanitarian assistance. We met many refugees who despite being utterly destitute have never received any humanitarian assistance in the last three years. 

Some religious groups provide humanitarian assistance to ‘unofficial’ refugees, but not everybody is welcomed. Members of the Abdal group which belong to the religious group of the Alawites claim that Sunni humanitarian organisations exclude them from humanitarian assistance. Also, international organisations that assist refugees in other conflict areas are not present in Southeast Turkey where most of the Domari refugees live. Some Domari refugees find occasional agricultural work, but more often they are forced to scrape a living from what they find in the garbage. 

None of the informal camps are equipped with toilets or a waste water system. The lucky ones might live in a camp where they have access to a public water pipe. The hygiene situation in most of these camps is catastrophic. Many Domari refugees in informal camps, or squatting in ruins in towns such as Gaziantep, suffer from malnutrition and due to a lack of medical attention are prey to a host of other diseases. One Abdal refugee who has lived for more than two years in make-shift informal camps cried his three wishes to the sky: “Bread, peace and toilets”.

The Domari refugees are trapped by their circumstances: no access to official camps, no country that would welcome them as refugees, and no chance to return to Syria. For most of the refugees it is currently impossible to return to their homes in Syria. For the Domari people it is even more difficult, since they would be accepted neither in the territories controlled by the radical Islamist groups, nor in territories controlled by other ethnic communities. And this, despite the known fact that many Domari men are fighting with the opposition forces, or with the Kurdish forces in and around Kobane. As Alawites, the Abdal group face rejection whether or not they sided with Assad. We also met Domari refugees who fled from Iraq to Syria years ago, and were now expelled to Turkey.

Safe return is very unlikely even if a peace settlement were to be found and radical Islamist forces were to lose ground in Syria. It is instructive to take a brief look at other recent conflicts.

Despite the fact that the causes of wars in Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iraq and Afghanistan were totally unrelated to Roma, in all these conflicts, Roma and Roma-related groups suffered from violence. They were directly targeted by military and paramilitary groups; endured the atrocities of ‘ethnic cleansing’ and were expelled from their homes; and found themselves labelled as traitors and criminals. In many cases, the actions of certain individuals became the pretext to expel entire Romani communities from their neighbourhoods, and loot and destroy their homes.
And post-conflict, it has proven to be difficult if not impossible for Roma to return to their homes and properties. Another lesson learnt in the aftermath of war, is that when it comes to reconstruction assistance and other aid, Roma find themselves excluded. The reasons often include unintentional or deliberate neglect, and the racism of implementing partners on the ground. The most critical problem is that solutions for the political, ethnic and social arrangements in the post-conflict period at best ignore the specific situation of Roma groups, or at worst, further aggravate their plight. The internationally brokered ‘solutions’ for Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo serve as worst practices. 

In a country such as Syria where most of the international actors and brokers are completely unaware that a few hundred thousand Domari lived in Syria before the war, there is little hope that any peace solution will take their situation into account, or facilitate the return of the Domari. Take the example of Kosovo: before the conflict around 150,000 Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians lived in Kosovo. Today, fifteen years after the end of the conflict and despite the tens of thousands of forced returns from EU countries, only 35,000 to 40,000 Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians live in Kosovo today. The majority live elsewhere in Europe, as refugees, displaced persons or illegal immigrants.

The ERRC is doing what it can to address the situation of Domari refugees from Syria in Turkey. It has begun a research project to analyse and document their situation, compiling information on what happened to them in Syria. From next year, ERRC hopes to establish a ‘paralegal project’ to assist the Domari refugees to access the necessary documents to gain access to health service, and to provide legal assistance to counter rights violations. And ERRC will continue to raise awareness and draw international attention to their situation, at least to prompt action to alleviate the humanitarian crisis that currently besets Domari refugees in Turkey. 

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