WASHINGTON (CN) – Hate crimes against the Romani people by Ukrainian nationalist groups are worsening the existing humanitarian crises for the ethnic minority, human rights activists told the Helsinki Commission Wednesday.
The Roma, a minority population subjected to genocide by the Nazis during World War II, have seen growing violence levied against them since 2014 following Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
At the time, in a movement known as the Azov movement, the Ukrainian government fast-tracked the integration of roughly 30 privately-funded paramilitary groups into its army to fight Russian separatists.
But human rights groups say several of the militias folded into the National Guard of Ukraine brought neo-Nazi philosophy with them. As a result calls for ethnic cleansing of the Roma and others have persisted, and they’ve increased more rapidly since December 2017, the activists say.
The Ukrainian government contends it has clamped down on the independence granted to the paramilitary groups. However, in March, Reuters reported Azov movement members have branched out from the national military to spread their ideas through non-profits and other outreach groups.
On Wednesday, Oksana Shulyar, deputy chief at the Embassy of Ukraine to the United States, rejected the idea that Ukraine actively funds nationalist groups, including C14, an organization which attacked a Roma settlement outside Kiev in April.
The group publicly stated it was “cleansing” the country of Roma shortly after.
“The state is not funding those groups. The general security situation in Ukraine is one Russia created,” she said.
The commission, also known as the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, is an independent government agency created to monitor human rights and international cooperation in 57 countries.
Investigation by the embassy reveals groups like C14 and others “promote slogans not linked to Ukraine but trend with the spread of the Russian right,” she added.
“It’s a sporadic and difficult picture,” she said.
According to the Helsinki Commission, attacks on Roma have risen since December when a settlement camp in Zolotonosha, Ukraine was raided by police without any official insignia.
A month later, 200 Ukrainians gathered in a town square chanting anti-Roma slogans before descending on a Romani activist’s home to hurl stones. In April, C-14 members wearing masks and carrying knives chased Roma out of their camp j outside Kiev.
A month later another national group – which the Ukrainian government has yet to identify – stormed a village in Lviv, burned down the Roma’s homes and beat them.
In June, the far right group National Druzhyna, armed with hammers and axes, terrorized a pogrom in Kiev. They recorded themselves taunting fleeing women and children. The Ukrainian government labeled it as “hooliganism,” the commission reported.
Then the fires and beatings turned deadly. A mob wielding knives entered a Roma camp and stabbed a 24-year old man to death on June 23. Four others were injured including a 10 year old boy.
The Ukrainian government arrested eight suspects in the attack. Two weeks later, a Romani kindergarten and church was burned down in Velkya Dobron.
Zola Kondur, a Romani human rights activist and founder of human rights group Chiricli International Women’s Fund, said the Ukrainian Minister of Internal Affairs have finally begun to work with her organization to control the spread of violence.
But the response is slow, she said.
Police have collected information about Roma settlements and station patrol forces near some camps. But full mobilization against the spread of nationalist violence means more training, more police and a better understanding of the Roma’s economic plight by the world.
“We don’t have official employment or unemployment data for the Roma, but [Chircli] found 38 percent are officially employed,” she said.
The rest survive by selling scrap metal or flowers.
Lack of opportunity in rural Ukraine has forced Roma to migrate to large cities like Kiev, she said. Once there though, they don’t always have the documents needed to integrate into society.
Officially, 48,000 Roma live in Ukraine, unofficially, Kondur says the number is closer to 200, 000 to 400,000, with half being women and girls.
“They face gender and ethnic discrimination that has pushed them into the margins of society. They lack documents like passports and birth certificates [so] they lose access to medical services, employment and education,” Kondur said.
According to Halyna Yurchkeno, coordinator at the youth outreach program Roma Youth Ukraine, one possible answer to quelling the violence comes from more education.
“Not just in a cultural context, but a socioeconomic one,” Yurchenko said.
Ninety percent of the Roma can’t write, she said. Children can’t attend school in the winter because they lack the clothes. The temporary settlements Ukrainian nationalists claim spoil their country, she explained, are a byproduct of discrimination Roma have faced.
“There must be an alternative narrative of Roma people. The negative narrative has a long history and is now spirited by hate speech online. When, if ever, it is discussed in the media in there’s a need for quality information that create a truthful narrative of Roma people,” she said.