Blog post by Sarah Edgcumbe with Su’ad Ismaeel and Sangar Khaleel *
Romani Gypsies have been present in Iraq since as early as the sixth century, while Kurdish Gypsies have also been present in the country for centuries.[i] Despite this, Gypsies in the Middle East have been stigmatised throughout history for their nomadic way of life and othered as strangers from elsewhere. Historically residing on the peripheries of large cities such as Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul, Gypsies in Iraq are no longer nomadic, having been settled for decades. However, Gypsies in Iraq remain heavily stigmatised, perceived as uncivilised, “dirty”, “thieves”, and also as being “immoral” due to a perceived link with sex work.[ii] In Nineveh, approximately 2000 Gypsies are thought to have resided in Mosul city prior to occupation by the so-called Islamic State (IS), while the nearby village of al-Sahaji was also predominantly Gypsy in population.
This blog piece builds upon exploratory research I conducted in 2021 for Researching Internal Displacement, which examined the relationship between humanitarian protection and Roma/Gypsy internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Iraq and Syria. Analysis of data collected from interviews with humanitarian workers and researchers found that international humanitarian workers were often completely unaware of the presence of Romani Gypsies in Iraq. In contrast, Iraqi humanitarians were very much aware of the poverty and stigmatisation experienced by Iraq’s Gypsy communities, but they failed to recognise their displacement. A significant protection gap was therefore identified, as humanitarian actors in Iraq were unaware of how the degree of marginalisation and stigmatisation faced by Iraq’s Gypsy communities prevented them from accessing aid and assistance which was not tailored to their needs (and none was).
There is a huge amount of vulnerability and risk associated with the gap in protection outlined above. For this reason, the complete absence of information and understanding of how exclusion from humanitarian assistance permeates and shapes the everyday lives of Mosul’s Gypsies is concerning. There is a critical need to seek out the experiences of conflict, displacement, humanitarian assistance, and development provision (or absence thereof) narrated by Gypsies from Mosul themselves. Throughout August and September of 2023, with the help of a research assistant, four semi-structured discussions were held with nine Gypsies in Mosul – both men and women. Some identified as Gypsy, while others identified as Hosta (a Kurdish sub-group of Gypsies). The key themes that emerged from these discussions were: multiple displacements; in most cases a complete absence of humanitarian assistance; disproportionate structural violence; and humiliation – humiliation at the hands of Islamist militias after 2003, then at the hands of ISIS from 2014-2017, followed by the humiliation they experience as a result of relentless discrimination in post-IS Mosul.
Targeted persecution and displacement have been experienced by Iraq’s Gypsy communities since 2003. When the U.S-led coalition forces removed Saddam Hussein and created a power vacuum, Islamist militias targeted Gypsy communities for their perceived immorality.[iii] Research participants remember the time between 2003 and 2006 as characterised by war, humiliation, and beheadings. In 2006, most research participants fled to Syria and the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) to escape the persecution they faced in Mosul. Some stayed away, not returning to Mosul until IS had been removed, but most others had returned to Mosul prior to 2014.
Many Gypsies fled Mosul under IS, although some stayed in the city for the most part. One participant and her husband for example fled to a village near Dohuk in the KRI. They stayed there for twenty days, but with no assistance or support while displaced, and facing hostility from the host community, they returned to Mosul. Two participants fled to Kirkuk when IS arrived, residing there without any form of humanitarian assistance until IS had been removed. Most Gypsies displaced from Mosul fled to the peripheries of formal camps, but one research participant fled to Baharka formal IDP camp near Erbil. The decision to flee to a formal camp was unusual among displaced Gypsies. Research participants lamented that without being resident in formal camps, they were unable to access assistance and services, including the ability to enrol their children in the camp schools.
The reluctance of many displaced Gypsies to enter formal camps was likely due to the degree of stigmatisation they face from both Iraqi institutions and society. As one participant explained when speaking of her relationship with non-Gypsies “they are ok until they know we are Gypsies, then they discriminate.” Another participant told of her experience being displaced in a village near Dohuk, saying “we were in the village, amongst them, they called us Qarach and threw rocks at us, I swear to almighty God, they threw rocks at us, at night, my son couldn’t go outside, they were Kurmanj [Kurd] and we aren’t similar. What did they want from us? We are poor, we have nothing. They came to steal from us, to steal money from us, they said “you go rounds [beg], you deserve this” I swear to God we had nothing.” Because of the discrimination and violence this woman and her family experienced while displaced in this village, they decided to return to Mosul, despite the fact that it was still under the control of IS.
When IS took over Mosul, participants remembered hunger, violence, humiliation, and coercion. One man told of how his brother had been arrested by IS and subjected to forty days in prison, explaining how he was sentenced to “fifteen lashes every day, until he hated his life.” Another group of participants told of how it was common for IS to threaten them, saying things such as “join us, or we will take your money, your car, and your house.” Indeed, one participant told of how IS had stolen his home and turned it into a “hosting house”, a building used to house women who were either new arrivals to the territory, or widows.[iv]
In their narratives of conflict, displacement, and post-IS Mosul, participants spoke a great deal about being referred to as “Qarach”, an extremely derogatory term synonymous with begging and homelessness that has come to be used as an everyday label by non-Gypsies in Iraq. Participants described the feelings of deep shame and humiliation that this label triggers within them, as well as anger that society so openly discriminates against them without consequence, despite the fact that Gypsies are also Iraqi. Reflecting this, the European Asylum Support Office acknowledged in 2019 that Iraq’s Roma are ‘among the most vulnerable, disfavoured and at-risk of all the marginalized groups in Iraq’. Previously, in 2017, the UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues had stated that she was ‘disturbed by the lack of information about their circumstances’.
Absence of Humanitarian Assistance
Despite these warnings, in the wake of IS’ occupation of Mosul, the humanitarian community made no effort to research the particular circumstances and needs of Mosul’s Gypsy communities – they were not even mentioned among affected and at-risk minority groups cited in various annual humanitarian reports. Correspondingly, research participants pointed to the majority of Gypsies displaced from Mosul (as well as those displaced after 2003) as being unassisted during both their displacement and return.
Gypsies in Mosul have historically been present in the neighbourhoods of Al-Tarrak, Al-Karamah, and Saddam. While discrimination is not new to them, the onset of IS has resulted in the emergence of new protection concerns. There is a widely-held perception among non-Gypsy residents of Mosul that Gypsies joined IS. In many cases, this perception has taken on a very specific narrative; that Gypsies planted explosive devices for the terrorist group. Gypsies who participated in this research vehemently denied having joined the group, instead taking pride in their unswerving abstention from supporting any political parties or militant groups (this intentional avoidance of politics can be viewed as a survival mechanism). Nevertheless, they remain perceived as IS affiliates, and this often influences their interactions with other residents of Mosul. IOM Iraq has recognised that ‘stigmatisation of [IS]-affiliated IDPs makes them vulnerable to retaliation’, yet Mosul’s Gypsy community has received no assistance or support from the humanitarian community. This conflict-related stigmatisation adds another layer to the structural violence and discrimination that Mosul’s Gypsy community has faced for decades, and exacerbates pre-existing protection needs for which they also have received no assistance.
Gypsies across Iraq were banned from purchasing houses and excluded from Saddam Hussein’s national campaign against illiteracy. One research participant estimated that 75% of Gypsies in Mosul are non-literate. The combination of precarious housing and inability to access printed information presents tremendous barriers to their successful return and reintegration, as well as to accessing support. However, these are not the only, or the most pressing protection needs.
Previously, Gypsies in Federal Iraq were issued ID cards which were stamped with “exception”, rendering them useless for accessing public services. After 2003, the exception stamp was removed, but “Gypsy” was stamped on the cards instead, making the bearer extremely susceptible to discrimination.[v] In 2019, Iraqi law changed, and in a move to combat discrimination, new ID cards were to be issued which bore no reference to ethnic identity. However, none of the research participants had received these new cards. They also complained that government offices routinely discriminate against them by refusing to issue ID cards to Gypsies until they are between twelve to fifteen years of age, and by deliberately delaying any paperwork related to Mosul’s Gypsy population. In one incident, a participant described how she had gone to a local office for documentation purposes, but the official had started shouting at her, calling her “Qarach” before kicking her out of the office. The official told her repeatedly to “get out and go to Baghdad”, seemingly implying that Gypsies were not from, or welcome in Mosul, but were known to live in Baghdad. This refusal to renew or provide national ID for Gypsy returnees to Mosul is catastrophic for the Gypsy community.
However, if non-discriminatory ID is issued, it should not be viewed as a panacea. As a Baghdad-based lawyer explained, ‘even if [Gypsies] hold Iraqi ID, they are still rejected by the Iraqi community. They are not able to access hospitals, universities, or schools. There is even discrimination when they try to find a job.’ This is reflected in the experiences of Gypsies from Mosul who, since their return to the city, have faced increased movement restrictions. Research participants spoke of how they are often refused permission to pass checkpoints “we have to beg, they make us look like clowns”, and even being refused entry to local government offices. Such prohibition makes it impossible to access services, renew or apply for documentation, access rights, or fully benefit from Iraqi citizenship.
The degree of stigmatisation experienced by Gypsies in Iraq permeates and shapes every aspect of their everyday lives. Gypsies in Mosul distinguish themselves from Sunni or Shia Arabs despite predominantly being Sunni Muslims. As one participant explained, ‘we have nothing with them… we don’t see them and they don’t see us.’ Not only does this indicate the degree of social isolation experienced by Mosul’s Gypsy population, but it also demonstrates that Iraq’s clientelist system of governance offers no political representation or support, as there are no Gypsy political parties, and no parliamentary seats allocated for them in the political quota.
An inability to secure a sustainable income due to discrimination by employers was a unifying theme throughout all of the discussions. Aside from the belief that they joined IS, negative stereotypes paint Gypsies as untrustworthy thieves. The combination of employment discrimination, discrimination by state institutions, and social discrimination means that begging is often the only means of generating an income available to Gypsies. An elderly woman who participated in this research expressed grief at this, explaining, “if we do not do the rounds [beg], our children will starve to death.” However, begging has a negative impact on community relations which are already tenuous. It reinforces the perception that Gypsies are lazy, don’t care about education, and are untrustworthy. It also presents additional protection risks, particularly for younger women. The same elderly woman described how women who beg are often verbally insulted – called “Qarach” and worse, and sometimes also physically attacked. She also stated that men will sometimes try to grab them by the hand to take them to other places (the implication here being that the men were attempting to solicit sex).
Without any form of holistic intervention and support for return and reintegration which seeks to address pre-existing conditions of structural violence and discrimination, Gypsies in Mosul represent a failure by the humanitarian community. Aside from desperate poverty, stigmatisation and related risks, an Iraqi lawyer noted her belief that the majority of trafficking victims in Iraq are Gypsies. This is due to their conditions forcing them onto the streets to beg, thus rendering them exceptionally vulnerable, but also because they often do not have ID, making it easier to exploit them, or make them disappear.
Finally, participants of this research spoke of their fears for their children. Many of Mosul’s Gypsy children do not go to school due to discrimination by teachers combined with bullying (including physical attacks) from other children. Two participants stated that their children do go to school, but described how they are frequently taunted and assaulted by other children. Indeed, while one semi-structured discussion was underway, a group of non-Gypsy children attacked some of the research participants’ children, throwing rocks at them. The adults present in the discussion responded by encouraging their children not to retaliate against the perpetrators by swearing at them. When asked why, one woman explained, “to avoid problems for our children, our problems and theirs are not alike, we fear for our children.”
Research participants frequently expressed a desire to leave Iraq. They feel exhausted by the degree of discrimination and stigmatisation they face at all levels of society, and which renders them barely able to survive. They are tired of being made to feel inferior or sub-human, and they are tired of receiving no help. One participant succinctly stated, “we are broken”.
Gypsies from Mosul (and across Iraq) have, for decades, experienced disproportionate structural violence and discrimination specifically because of their identity. Since 2003 they have been subjected to targeted violent attacks by Islamist militias, but in Mosul, since their return from displacement, they face an additional barrier to social cohesion and integration presented by the perception that Gypsies joined IS. This layered stigmatisation exacerbates the pre-existing precarity experienced by Gypsies in Mosul which can be identified in structural, institutional, and social discrimination, resulting in inability to gain employment and corresponding reliance on begging; inability to access safe educational environments for Gypsy children; and general erasure from the social landscape of Iraq.
To date, only the few Gypsies who accessed formal camps during their displacement have benefitted from any form of humanitarian assistance. For others, the implications of the unique stigmatisation they face in terms of accessing humanitarian support have been completely overlooked. Humanitarian provision has excluded Mosul’s Gypsies, reinforcing their marginalisation and status as non-Iraqi “other” in the process. There remains a significant need for humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding interventions for Mosul’s returned Gypsies, no matter how small a population percentage they represent. The Iraqi government and the humanitarian community must reflect upon how humanitarian interventions have thus far marginalised the needs of displaced and returned communities which need them the most. It is critical that tailored protection strategies are drafted with input from Mosul’s Gypsy community to ensure that both structural and social causes of protection needs are addressed.
[i] Richardson K, Roma in the Medieval Islamic World: Literacy, Culture, and Migration, I.B. Tauris, 2023, p20-22.
[ii] Zeidel R, ‘Gypsies and Society in Iraq: Between Marginality, Folklore and Romanticism’, Middle Eastern Studies, 50(1), 2014. P79-80; and Edgcumbe S, ‘“We’re Real Iraqis”: Securing Roma Rights and Integration’, Middle East Research Institute, 18 June 2020.
[iii] Zeidel R, ‘Gypsies and Society in Iraq: Between Marginality, Folklore and Romanticism’, Middle Eastern Studies, 50(1), 2014, p80; and Institute for War and Peace Reporting, ‘Iraq: Gypsies seek government protection’, 24 June 2004.
[iv] In both cases women would remain in the “hosting house” until a marriage had been arranged for them, after which, they would move to a house with their new husband.
[v] The New Arab, ‘Iraq’s persecuted ‘gypsy’ community granted national ID cards’, 3 April 2019.
* Sarah would like to express gratitude to the British Institute for the Study of Iraq for funding this research.
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