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Legal issues of Roma community

Legal issues of Roma community tend to increase due to the current unstable situation in the country. Furthermore, these issues are growing and getting more and more social impact on Roma communities. One of the ways to resolve them is to turn to Roma Community Law Centers. There are nine Centers that provide free legal aid for Roma. They work with the support of “Roma of Ukraine” programme initiative (International Renaissance Foundation).


Roma issues are important, but still often neglected, even in Europe. We talk about nine millions of people who have to live in horrible conditions. Their potential turns negative in the society. Georges Soros has been helping Roma communities for quite some time and national foundations provide support to different Roma initiatives.

Roma issues are important, but still often neglected, even in Europe. We talk about nine millions of people who have to live in horrible conditions. Their potential turns negative in the society. Georges Soros has been helping Roma communities for quite some time and national foundations provide support to different Roma initiatives.

Roma is the most discriminated, marginalized and vulnerable social group. Roma are unable to protect their rights, they lack basic knowledge on legal procedures, and they cannot formulate their own needs. These statements were concluded by lawyers who work regularly with Roma communities.

Community Law Centers are a place for people to turn for help. They are here to aid vulnerable groups of people and provide free legal consultations and advice. The network of Centers in Ukraine counts more than 40 Centers in 20 different regions of Ukraine. Nine of them work specifically with Roma in the framework of “Roma of Ukraine” programme initiative.

The Centers’ lawyers have to admit: Roma are outsiders in Ukrainian society. There is a biased opinion about Roma: people see them as unwilling to integrate, as responsible for their own troubles. However, most Roma are uneducated and just do not know about opportunities and possibilities around them. They do not know they can use legislation to improve their lives and make State bodies work for them.

Traditionally, Roma are very suspicious of State authorities. They are especially afraid of police forces. Indeed, police officers often are the most biased ones: Roma do not want to work, they are lazy, most of them are criminals… But the statistics are here to prove them wrong. The level of criminality in Roma communities is 2,5 times lower compared to the regular level in the country.

Roma minority is now in the focus of free legal aid systems. Human rights defenders have been trying to raise awareness on this issue for years. To change the situation is to help Roma empower themselves. They will be able to overcome discrimination and social isolation with the right legal tools.

Tragic history of discrimination

Horrible statistics of Second World War show us how much Roma people suffered from genocide. More than 80% of Roma population was exterminated in Europe. Accordingly to records, 200 000-500 000 Roma from different countries died during the war. Roma communities of Russia and Ukraine lost 300 000 people during the war and during Soviet repressions: death sentences, concentration camps, deportations.

Roma national minority is still the most discriminated group in Europe. Roma situation is Ukraine is catastrophic.

The State declares equal rights and opportunities for everyone, but does nothing to enforce these declarations. Roma is the less protected and the most vulnerable community among other national minorities in Ukraine. They do not have a national country to back them up, no official representative, no mechanisms to protect their rights on an international level. 300 000 Roma live in Ukraine and 87% of them have suffered from discrimination. They are discriminated both by the State and by ordinary people. Now, during wartime, Roma are persecuted by separatists and terrorist in Eastern regions of Ukraine. Roma are beaten, humiliated, robbed and displaced. A lot of them are now IDPs and lack basic papers to register themselves for social benefits.

Legal issues are still not taken into account in national minorities rights

Roma social issues go far beyond national minorities problems. Roma Community Law Centers listed the main Roma problems in Ukraine: difficulties in obtaining ID papers, property registration, social benefits, access to education and health care, social and informational isolation, total poverty etc. Roma community needs additional positive actions.

The Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine adopted an action plan for the realization of the strategy of protection and integration of Roma community. This strategy is planned until 2020 but there are no efficient tools for its realization.

- Roma policy is completely declarative and doesn’t have adequate State funding, - noted Olga Zhmurko, “Roma of Ukraine” programme initiative director, - All EU requests are formally taken into account. But in reality Roma community receives help only from donors and public organizations.

Roma alone do not have the capacity to resolve their problems. There are many explanations to this difficulty. For example, they do not identify their issues as legal problems. They see only the social aspect of their inequality. A social survey conducted by International Renaissance Foundation together with Kharkiv institute of social research shows that Roma have immense difficulties to deal with their legal issues due to their low social status. Roma problems are not ethnical but social. Roma are discriminated because of their poverty and limited financial and legal resources. They do not have the right tools to defend their rights.

Roma are often isolated from the rest of the society because of their specific cultural traditions. They prefer to solve all their problems within the community and refuse to ask strangers for help. They do not trust State institutions. They are afraid of discrimination and do not want to be subject of laughs because of their lack of education. Some of them do not know how to write or spear properly.  These are barriers for Roma to receive relevant help from official organizations.

Community Law Centers are efficient because they employ Roma lawyers that have the community’s trust and respect. Roma lawyers know the problems of the community from the inside. For example, Pavlograd Center use the services of a Roma mediator to get access to its target group. Roma who have received legal aid in the Center and were satisfied with the quality of services will share and spread information in the community. They will continue to go to the Center and will bring other Roma with them. Indeed, Roma only turn to organizations after a recommendation from within the community.

Another interesting example: Renata Balog, a young lawyer from Mukachevo Community Law Center. Renata was born in a Roma settlement and has been living there for 14 years. However, she broke all the stereotypes, got education, finished Law School in Interregional Academy of management and now works in local Community Law Center. This Center operates in a Roma settlement in the premises of her family’s house. For the first time, Roma receive free legal aid directly in their settlement. Renata helps other Roma to restore their passports, register childbirth, to appeal to court decisions. Her story was filmed for “Roma dream” documentary series. This movie shows us success stories of four Roma from Zakarpattya settlements.

However, human rights defenders think it can be also beneficial for Roma to turn to people outside their community. It would help overcome social isolation. For example, pro bono services could be a good way to help Roma solve their legal issues. This question was discussed during recent pro bono forum in London. It is important to start a dialogue with Roma community. Lawyers need to help people in need.

Main problems and recent changes

“Legal Space” informational platform published a survey of Community Law Centers work. Survey team has analyzed the work of nine Roma Centers in different regions of Ukraine and narrowed down the main problems of Roma community. Lawyers have to deal with people without basic ID documents. A lot of clients come to Centers in order to obtain a passport. 80% of Roma lack ID documents. Passports are the first step to get social benefits, property registration, and access to health care and education. With a passport Roma can get official employment and become fully integrated into Ukrainian society.



As a result, today we have the following basic legal problems of Roma:


- When a person gets documents, he or she become “visible” for the system. People now have rights but also obligations. They have to interact with the State, with our society, with local authorities, - explains Oleg Hryhoriev, head of Mukachevo Community Law Center, - After getting their passports, Roma can think about next steps. They can solve their property problems, they can buy their land. Mukachevo settlement is illegal, as people do not have property rights for their land or houses. It is crucial to help them to register their property!

Another important issue is employment. The Center’s lawyers help Roma to get a job. Furthermore, they have to deal with biased attitude of police forces, access to health care, heritage problems, divorce etc. Among new problems, it is important to note the issue of military service and mobilization. Lawyers also try to fight discrimination in mass media.

There is a special section “Legal empowerment of Roma communities” on “Legal Space” informational platform. Roma Community Law Centers have the opportunity to publish their success stories, practices and share knowledge about Roma legal issues.

Focus on property rights

The Centers’ lawyers have noted an interesting trend. During previous years, Roma mostly wanted to get passports. Now, in 2014, they have made the next step: they are now addressing lawyers to solve property rights issues. Roma want to register and legalize their land, their houses and apartments. It is a positive change that shows a certain progress in Roma situation.

- A majority of Roma don’t have property papers for their houses, especially in settlement, - notes Volodymyr Navrotskiy, lawyer of Uzhgorod Community Law Center, - I have a specialization in property rights so I can help these people. They do not know how to register their property. Those who want to do it have to face so many bureaucratic obstacles that they abandon the whole procedure. They need a lawyer to guide them through this process.

Due to traditional and cultural specifics, Roma who live in settlement do not pay enough attention to registration and legalization of land and houses. Sometimes they think it is better not to become owners. Without property rights, Roma are free from certain obligations. However, it creates an unhealthy situation in the settlement. Roma do not feel secure and refuse to take care of property. They often feel their situation is temporary and they do not need to invest in land. Furthermore, without property rights they cannot leave a heritage for their family. It is a serious issue for Roma who live in settlements.

- It is true that some Roma refuse property rights, - comments Volodymyr Navrotskiy, - But the story of our settlement is difficult and painful. Thirty years ago Roma were forced to move from one place to another and they didn’t have the chance to get their belongings or to get back their property. Here nobody knows if this will happen again. People are not ready to invest when they don’t feel secure. That’s why our Center decided to privatize the settlement land. We want to create the first Roma cooperative. People will feel they own their houses and land. They will want to keep them clean and comfortable. They will start thinking about their future and about the future of their children. We will try and do it.

Another reason it is important to get property rights is getting access to social benefits. People need to present an official address and property papers in order to receive social benefits. The new legislation forces Roma to think about legalization of their houses.  Of course, it is easier for individuals to register property, but the settlement needs official papers as well. More than 700 Roma are living in the settlement. For now, they are in an illegal situation, but the Center is working on resolving this issue.

Roma are clearly motivated by positive examples of other Roma and by success stories they can hear about the Centers’ work. For example in Surte village 11 Roma families have already registered their property. Such activity is due to one villager who was the first to come to local Community Law Center. He asked help with property rights and soon enough got all the papers with the help of lawyers. Many other families decided to follow his example.

However, Roma issues are deeper than that. They need to learn how to change their ways of life, their lifestyle and traditions that are not adapted to current situation. They need to register property, to pay communal services, to provide education for their children. A Roma with education has a chance to escape poverty and social isolation.

New challenges

Roma Community Law Centers have to deal with a new problem: IDPs from anti-terrorist operation zone. IDPs need a lot of legal support: they need help with papers, housing, employment, education. Moreover, lawyers expect legal problems with property left on occupied territories or destroyed during bombing. IDPs also have to pass a specific procedure to receive social benefits.

Kharkiv lawyers speak about important Roma migration: Roma have fled Kramatorsk and Luhansk (900 officially registered families). Now people are leaving Donetsk. Most of them transit through Kharkiv. Roma turn to NGOs for help. Local lawyers have registered more than 100 such requests.

As we can see, Roma communities share some problems with the rest of the society, but also have some specific issues. Roma cannot deal with their legal problems alone. They turn to Community Law Centers and ask for legal consultations. There is a positive dynamic in the number of Roma clients this year. A lot of Roma reach Centers by phone: they call “hot lines” and explain their problems. Uzhgorod Community Law Center receives 15-20 phone calls daily. People from remote villages can get legal aid by phone.

In Zhytomyr region around 50 Roma receive legal aid monthly. Mukachevo and Svalyava Community Law Centers provided 700 legal consultations for Roma in just six months. Odessa, Kharkiv and Cherkassy Community Law Centers also note an increase in Roma clients. Lawyers think it is due to the rapid share of information in Roma communities. Success stories attract new clients. Two new Centers in Uzhgorod and Kherson registered more than 25 Roma families in the first days of legal consultations.

Legal aid: efficient and necessary

Community Law Centers’ experience proves that Roma have important legal needs. However, Roma cannot afford legal consultations and often do not have enough money to hire a lawyer. Most of them turn to Community Law Centers for free legal aid. 87% of Roma who participated in the survey agreed on the necessity to have access to Community Law Centers.

Community Law Centers are efficient and therefore attractive for Roma.

- Roma Community Law Centers use experience from European countries such as Spain, Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, - comments Myroslav Horvat, head of “Romani Cherhen” public organization and member of several international Roma initiatives, - I have been learning European experience in dealing with Roma issues for many years. I have worked as a Roma mediator as well. In Europe, it is easier for Roma to obtain free legal aid. The State is responsible for its citizens and provides them with all needed services. European countries understand that only cooperation between public organizations, local activists and State institutions can help solve Roma difficulties. Ukraine has to follow their example in the upcoming 5-10 years. Our government has to follow European standards and principles if we want to integrate EU.

Ukrainian human rights defenders stress the importance of joining the Decade of Roma inclusion.  Ukraine’s participation in this Decade opens up many possibilities for public organizations to take part in international initiatives and European programmes. The country can receive substantial help in developing relevant policy programmes and ensure social integration of Roma community.  

UN Commission on legal empowerment of the poor stated that effective legal rights and possibilities are a necessity for marginalized communities. Legal aid is not a luxury but a need. Fundamental rights that help people develop and empower themselves are access to justice, property rights, labour rights and freedom of entrepreneurship. Roma community needs these rights to fight exclusion and social isolation.

Additional Information: Community Law Centers, which provide free legal aid for Roma people, are established with the support of the International Renaissance Foundation within the framework of “Roma of Ukraine” programme initiative. You can learn more on the Centers network activities, basics and principles of work here: www.legalspace.org

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