Still un-integrated: Ukraine’s Roma Integration Strategy leads nowhere

By Volodymyr Navrotskyy

Ukraine’s Roma integration strategy is in need of a complete overhaul; and if the government is serious about Roma inclusion it must take steps to combat anti-Gypsyism and prevent further violence against Roma in rural areas.

In the negotiations leading up to the historic failure to conclude the Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement in 2013 the Ukrainian government had been tasked to address the issue of Roma inclusion. The regime’s policy makers did not fully comprehend what the EU expected of them and were baffled as to why the EU should take an interest in Roma in Ukraine.  Neither did they understand how measures to achieve this mysterious objective might be implemented in practice. However to tick that box and make an impression on the European Commission, in April 2013, President Yanukovych signed the Strategy for Protection and Integration in Ukrainian Society of Roma National Minority for the period until 2020.

The document hardly qualifies as a strategy; it is little more than a declaratory statement. Any real strategic policy paper comprises problem analysis, key concrete objectives, verifiable indicators and some mechanism for monitoring and evaluation. The government’s Roma integration strategy had none of these. The Presidential decision ordered the Government of Ukraine to elaborate an Action Plan for implementation of the Roma integration strategy within six months.

The Government, in order to avoid making concrete commitments, chose to keep the Action Plan as vague as the text of the strategy. The plan would ‘provide support’, and ‘try to improve the situation’ for Romani children in education – there was no commitment to eradicate discrimination against Roma children in schools; no effort to set concrete targets to raise enrollment rates, or bring down early school leaving; and no targets set to improve learning outcomes and secondary school completion rates within fixed timeframes. The lack of clear commitments and any concept of how to implement such a strategy, meant that both documents amounted to nothing more than vague declarations of intent.  The Action Plan was approved in September 2013.

The Strategy and its companion Action Plan had nothing to say on the issue of challenging anti-Roma prejudice and the promotion of inter-cultural dialogue. Three years on, the implementation process remains a mystery. The events around the August 2016 pogrom in village Loshchinovka, when the village council publicly delivered the decision to expel all Roma from the village, provided a particularly graphic illustration of the complete failure of the state, in terms of policy and practice, to integrate Roma into Ukrainian society, and to combat strong anti-Roma attitudes, especially in rural parts of Ukraine.

Following the arrest of a Romani man for the alleged brutal murder and rape of a young girl, local resentment towards the Roma in the village who were suspected of theft and drug-dealing turned to outrage and anger, which prompted the council decision to expel all Roma from the village. Their houses were destroyed as the police stood idly by. Seven families comprising 28 people were forced to flee the village and seek shelter from friends and relatives. Beyond providing a safety corridor to enable the Roma to flee the mob, the state provided no support to the families who had lost their home. What went wrong? I would like to make three main points:

First, the existence of strong anti-Roma sentiments in society was never addressed during the drafting of the strategy documents. How to explain this oversight? I would suggest that nobody addressed this popular prejudice, and nobody was giving any serious thought to the Ukrainian context because these documents were prepared for Brussels and not Ukraine.  If the state was serious about Roma inclusion, it could have introduced appropriate measures to promote inter-cultural dialogue. But the strategy was never regarded seriously as a road map for integration of Roma into Ukrainian society, and suffice to day that three years on, the state has not allocate any resources for implementation of the strategy and its non-action plan.

Second, in the aftermath of the evictions and the pogrom, it would be reasonable for the state to undertake active measures on restorative justice, to provide victims with support to repair their houses and compensation for failure to prevent the damage done. It would also be reasonable to assume that those actively involved in the pogrom be promptly prosecuted and the rule of law be seen to belatedly prevail. However, three months on, due to a combination of weakness at central government level, and a complete lack of will from the side of local administration, the seven Roma families have simply been left alone. The only support they get comes from local human rights NGOs, which is obviously not enough. The Strategy and Action plan were completely unprepared to resolve such treatment of Roma by the state.

It is worthy of note that the Ukrainian ombudsman issued a statement on the prohibition of racial discrimination and called on the village council to revoke its expulsion order. Has this produced any effect? No. The village council decision still stands. The Roma have not been able to return, their houses are still in ruins. For me it remains unclear why the Ukrainian ombudsman has not decided to take a more active position and initiate court proceedings against the village council for direct discrimination of Roma nationals. Such a right is granted by §3 of part 1 of article 10 of the law of Ukraine on prevention of discrimination. There were no obstacles or conditions hindering such a course of action. However, the Ukrainian ombudsman decided to stand by and observe the situation while the rights of the seven families have still not been restored.

The third issue is that the Strategy was created for the use of the central government, but not for the local governments or municipalities. Three months after the pogrom, when the evicted Roma came to the village head to ask why he had sanctioned the destruction of their houses, there was no clear response. The village head saw no reason to explain his actions and simply murmured something incomprehensible. Instead of fulfilling his duties as community leader to promote Roma integration according to the Strategy and Action plan implementation, he chose to accede to the anti-Roma demands of a mob. It would come as no surprise to find out that this community leader has never heard a thing about the Strategy for Protection and Integration in Ukrainian Society of Roma National Minority for the period until 2020, nor its Action Plan. What is also disturbing is that local members of the village council on that same day expressed no regret about the decision or the actions that followed, and saw no need for any form of negotiation of discussion on conflict resolution or compensation.

Can something to be learned from the Loshchinovka case to prevent similar occurrences in the future? I would say most definitely, and the most importantly the state must take the Strategy seriously and not just as a paper to deliver on request to the EU; the strategy needs to be completely redrafted with clear targets and earmarked resources and devised in consultation with local authorities with a view to effective implementation. There is a need to develop what the European Commission has termed ‘robust monitoring mechanisms’ to assess the impact of the revised national strategy and action plan. The authorities need to take stock of the deep anti-Roma attitudes in society and take preventative measures to forestall ethnically motivated violence, to promote inter-cultural dialogue and reduce the potential for conflict between communities. If the state is serious about preventing any repeats of what happened Loshchinovka in the future, they need to make Roma integration an urgent priority, without any further delays.

However, I bet that nothing I have suggested will be done either this year or next. And it remains unclear that the EU will use much by way of leverage to insist Ukraine gets serious about Roma inclusion. There is a need for EU to keep up the pressure otherwise the Roma will remain excluded and un-integrated. The current documents fall way short of an integration strategy and hold no prospect for meaningful Roma inclusion in Ukrainian society.

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