Blog post by Sarah Edgcumbe, a PhD student with the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews. Her research focuses on Roma conceptions of peace and everyday resistance in post-conflict environments
Very few people are aware that Iraq has a Roma community, much less the specific forms of persecution they have experienced. The attacks the Iraqi Roma have experienced are distinct from the conflict which followed the 2003 U.S-coalition invasion of the country. Due to the targeted violence that has been enacted against them, combined with the depth of the poverty and marginalisation they experience, the Roma of Iraq were cited in the European Asylum Support Office’s (EASO) 2019 country guidance for Iraq as ‘among the most vulnerable, disfavoured and at-risk of all the marginalised groups in Iraq.’
The Iraqi Roma have received very little attention from the media, particularly international journalists. This is symptomatic of the severity of their social, economic and political marginalisation combined with, perhaps, the stereotypical perception of Roma as social ‘outsiders’. Compare this lack of interest to the rightful international condemnation of the persecution of the Yezidis of Iraq, and we must ask ourselves why the discrepancy? Moreover, what implications does this have for the Iraqi Roma in terms of forced migration and subsequent recognition as refugees with legitimate claims to asylum?
Persecution of the Iraqi Roma in the post-Saddam era
During Saddam Hussein’s regime, the Iraqi Roma worked as musicians, singers, dancers, craftspeople and fortune-tellers. Additionally, alcohol was sold in Roma communities and some Roma women worked as prostitutes. Saddam did not treat the Roma well, but he also did not subject them to the same murderous oppression he employed against groups such as the Kurds. Roma communities often acted as playgrounds for members of the Iraqi elite, and so they were protected from attack.
After the U.S invasion and subsequent overthrow of Saddam’s regime, Iraq’s Roma became the target of Iraqi conservatives and Islamist militias, such as the Mahdi Army, on the premise that they are immoral and promote indecency. Barbaric attacks were conducted against the Roma across federal Iraq, resulting in the deaths of thousands of men, women and children in conjunction with the forced displacement of thousands more. Roma were slaughtered, homes were destroyed, belongings stolen and communities burned down. The Iraqi government and state officials consistently failed to hold the perpetrators of these crimes accountable, or indeed demonstrate any interest at all in protecting Iraq’s Roma from serious harm.
These attacks against Iraqi Roma continue today, albeit to a lesser extent, as their communities have become increasingly tightly policed. This surveillance is not for the safety of Roma residents, but in order to restrict their movement, thereby preventing them from allegedly contaminating the morality of communities around them. This policy of containment severely inhibits the ability of remaining Roma communities to migrate to safer environments. Meanwhile, sexual assault and rape continue to be a high risk for Iraqi Roma women.
Many Romani individuals have experienced discrimination and physical abuse at the hands of civilians, police and local authorities alike, leaving them nowhere to turn for protection. Some Roma families have chosen to leave their communities and attempt to hide their identity, living precarious lives alongside the majority population in towns and cities. Hundreds, if not thousands of others have fled to Iraqi Kurdistan, where they are afforded more physical protection by Kurdish authorities. Concurrently, an unknown number have fled to nearby countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, where they are able to work as entertainers at parties and clubs. An additional unknown number have claimed asylum in European countries. In short, since the U.S invasion, the exodus of Iraqi Roma from their long-term communities as a result of persecution has been massive. Fawar village for example, in Diwaniyah, was home to approximately two thousand individuals prior to 2003. By 2015 only 150 people remained.
Neglect of the Iraqi Roma in research and statistics
The distinct lack of interest in the Iraqi Roma on the part of journalists, policy-makers, humanitarians, peacebuilding practitioners, lawyers and academics has resulted in very little information being available through which to build a reliable picture of migration patterns and asylum decisions. Asylum statistics for the UK and EU are disaggregated by nationality, gender and age, but within those categories, no further analysis is possible. For example, available data demonstrates that 18,310 first-time asylum applications were made by Iraqis in the EU between 2019 and 2020. These applications comprised eleven per cent of the total number of asylum applications, while asylum applications from stateless individuals comprised six per cent. Without any means by which to further interrogate and analyse this data, it is impossible to tell if any Iraqi Roma were among these asylum applicants, or which categories they fell under. Many Iraqi Roma have insufficient (or no) identification documents, thereby rendering them de facto stateless.
The lack of information available on the Roma of Iraq suggests that insufficient awareness and understanding of the distinct forms of persecution they face likely characterises refugee status determination proceedings. The EASO describes the acts which they could be exposed to in Iraq as ‘of such severe nature that they would amount to persecution…for reasons of race and / or nationality.’ However it qualifies this statement by recommending that the individual assessment ‘should take into account risk-impacting circumstances such as: statelessness, [possession of] identity documentation, area of origin, religion, gender, etc.’ Adding these additional qualifications to the assessment of likelihood of persecution reads as an attempt to restrict the number of eligible asylum applicants. In reality, it could be argued that in a post-conflict environment as rapidly fluctuating and combustible as that of Iraq, with a recent history of targeted attacks against Roma communities, any Roma residing in Iraq (with the exception of the Kurdish region) are extremely vulnerable to persecution on the basis of their ethnicity.
The EU Asylum Framework: A history of disdain towards the Roma
The European asylum framework has consistently been hostile towards Romani people, often appearing to respond to populist politics and rhetoric. The case of Roma refugees in Kosovo provides an enduring example. In 2003, Nando Sigona argued that the labelling of Kosovan Roma as ‘nomads’ as soon as they approached Italy had clear repercussions on the reception they received, including their likelihood of receiving asylum. The misconception of Roma as nomads is pervasive across both Europe and the Middle East. In reality, the majority of Roma families have been settled for generations. The ‘nomad’ label and accompanying connotations is particularly harmful within the context of forced migration, because it infers that refugee status is not required on the basis that an itinerant people can simply relocate elsewhere; don’t nomads simply keep moving?
The European Roma comprise both the largest, and the most persecuted ethnic minority on the continent. Roma communities are subjected to all kinds of false stereotypes in both national and regional / international media. They are often simultaneously portrayed as immoral beggars and prostitutes, criminals with a penchant for stealing (child-stealing being a particularly common, albeit unfounded and damaging accusation), and opportunist benefit scroungers. The latter stereotype is evidenced by the 2012 statement by European Commission spokesman Michele Cervone, that Roma people from Serbia and Macedonia could not be ‘real asylum seekers.’ This sweeping assessment denied the distinct forms of persecution that Roma face, particularly Kosovan Roma, many of whom fled to Serbia and Macedonia during the 1998 – 1999 war and its immediate aftermath. During the war approximately 100,000 Roma fled the territory.
Conflict, persecution and poverty: The Roma of Kosovo
The perception of contemporary post-war Kosovo as a safe place for all social and ethnic groups overlooks prevailing social dynamics, which to a certain extent continue to be influenced by the events of the conflict itself. During the war, Kosovan Roma assisted Serb forces, though Roma activists stress that they were coerced into cooperating, with no opportunity for resistance. As the social fracturing caused by the conflict lingers on, the Roma continue to be perceived by many ethnic Albanians as supporters of Slobodan Milosevic, and therefore fundamentally at odds with Albanian nationalism and Kosovan independence; the dominant socio-political features of post-war Kosovo. Despite ongoing ethnic and social tensions, between 1999 – 2007 around 51,000 Kosovan Roma were forcibly returned to the country from the European nations in which they had sought safety. Revenge attacks against the Roma for their perceived support of Milosevic were common during the immediate aftermath of the war, and the Roma of Kosovo continue to be discriminated against despite government-level strategies for their inclusion.
The EASO recognises the extreme poverty and social marginalisation experienced by the Roma of Kosovo, but states that they have not been the objects of serious violence in recent years. It also, somewhat contradictorily goes on to recognise that incidents have been reported which resulted in Roma individuals being seriously injured. It seems therefore, that the EASO is willing to recognise persecution of Kosovan Roma only if it is enacted against entire communities. Additionally, the EASO seems to err towards the belief that Kosovan Roma can avail themselves of police and state protection, and therefore should not be considered as meeting the grounds for persecution necessary for recognition as refugees. An asylum case in 2009 echoed this sentiment, finding that the Kosovan state bodies were willing and able to protect Roma.
Both this 2009 judgement and the EASO guidance however, have consistently been proved wrong by facts on the ground. Most recently, the European Roma Rights Centre documented a rise in attacks against the Roma of Kosovo during the summer of 2019, with violence being fuelled by false accusations of child-stealing and the allegation of causing harm to ethnic Albanian police officers. In the latter instance, two Roma men were arrested then subsequently beaten and tortured by police officers while in custody. One of the men lost consciousness and both remain traumatised. Attacks against Roma by police in the area of Kosovo in which this abuse took place are reportedly not uncommon, but fear of reprisal attacks and further persecution prevents many Roma victims from coming forward. This sequence of events performed against a background in which police brutality against Roma is common, indicates that contrary to asylum guidelines, Kosovan Roma in some areas of the country are unable to seek protection. Framed within the broader context of severe marginalisation and entrenched, systematic discrimination, Roma victims of persecution should not simply be expected to move to another area within Kosovo.
The violent acts perpetrated against Kosovan Roma during 2019 were clearly on the basis of their ethnic identity. Over the past two decades a worrying pattern of asylum judicial decisions has emerged which places the emphasis on the asylum claimant’s ethnic performance (or ability to under-perform), as opposed to the threat of persecution they face if returned to Kosovo. A 2005 asylum decision demonstrated a clear lack of understanding of the intensity and likelihood of persecution faced by some Roma in Kosovo. In his decision, the judge’s stereotypical perceptions and superficial, generalised knowledge of Romani culture took precedence over recognition of the lived experience of the claimant. The asylum claimant was able to speak Albanian and had paler skin than many Roma due to his mixed parentage. The judge ruled that these two factors made him less distinguishable than other Roma and therefore less at risk upon his return. In the 2009 case referred to earlier, the asylum claimant’s ability to speak Albanian rather than Romani was again cited as justification for finding that the likelihood of his being persecuted upon return was slim.
The need for a Roma-oriented, thematic approach to asylum proceedings concerning Roma applicants
Historically Roma communities across Europe and the Middle East have adopted the language and religion of the majority population. Thus Iraqi Roma speak Arabic and practice Islam, while the Roma of Kosovo speak Serb or Albanian depending on the dominant demographic of the area in which they reside. Many Roma in Kosovo cannot speak the Romani language, just as many Roma in Iraq cannot. Placing undue importance on performative aspects of identity which correspond with stereotypes and minorities within the Roma community (such as Romani language speakers), fails to take into account the complexities and nuances of the conflict and post-conflict environments from which Roma asylum seekers may originate. An asylum court judge in the UK may be unable to immediately identify an individual as Roma due to some arbitrarily defined, superficial barometer, but within environments still simmering with ethnic tension, it is highly likely that plenty of people will.
The lack of data on Roma refugees and asylum seekers, combined with the lack of factual, comprehensive, up-to-date information on the contexts in which they live, including their lived experiences within those contexts, makes analysis of the refugee status determination process concerning Roma applicants extremely difficult. The anti-Roma socio-political paradigm within which asylum applications are heard, combined with the populist anti-refugee rhetoric which currently dominates much of Europe, makes it highly likely that Roma asylum seekers from post-conflict environments such as Iraq and Kosovo are not receiving the protection they are entitled to under international law.
Blanket country-based asylum guidance is currently insufficient to adequately inform asylum judges who are external to both the refugee-producing conflict and the Roma community. This is particularly problematic given the possibility that asylum judges are unconsciously absorbing anti-Roma bias through various avenues of public-political discourse. The invisibility of Roma communities in conflict and post-conflict environments is alarming and should be remedied as comprehensively as possible. Seeking guidance from bodies such as the European Roma Rights Centre, and Roma groups from within countries of concern, who are able to advise from a nuanced, experienced perspective would be a critical step forward. Proactively seeking clarity on the situation of Roma in conflict and post-conflict environments would contribute towards ensuring consistently just asylum decisions based on individual circumstances rather than stereotypes and misinformed generalisations. Furthermore, there is a definite need to monitor asylum decision making processes through a more nuanced lens than simple nationality. Data disaggregated at a sub-national level would enable rights-based organisations to hold decision-makers accountable for any discriminatory practices that adversely effect the Roma community. Roma communities are marginalised within their countries of origin, making them particularly vulnerable in times of conflict and post-conflict fragility. They should not be marginalised by the asylum process too.
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