by Sarah Edgcumbe

In early May 2020, Mustafa al-Kadhimi was appointed as Iraq’s new Prime Minister against the context of ongoing protests and popular discontent resulting from widespread government corruption. This corruption has contributed massively towards increasing poverty, reduction in public services and rising unemployment. Since the 2003 U.S. led invasion of Iraq, social cohesion has fractured perhaps (but hopefully not) irrevocably, with politics and society becoming increasingly sectarian.

The effects of the sectarian conflict in Iraq have been widely reported on, but the media has remained largely silent on the dire situation of the Iraqi Roma. This lack of attention by the media is reflective of the neglect of the Roma of Iraq by the government, humanitarian and human rights organizations and largely speaking, civic society in general. The complete lack of information produced by the Iraqi government on the Iraqi Roma is symptomatic of the de facto policies of ostracization and othering which have persisted since the formation of the Iraqi state in the 1920s. The number of Roma residents in Iraq, including the Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI), is unknown, but best estimates place the figure at nearly 200,000 – translating to roughly 0.5% of the Iraqi population.

Discrimination against the Roma of Iraq has taken on an institutional nature for decades. Because the government of the 1950s omitted the Roma from its 1957 census, which now forms the backbone of citizenship criteria through tracing of parental lineage, the Iraqi Roma have remained devoid of citizenship-based national identification documents to this day. This is despite the fact that they have been present in what is now Iraq for centuries.

Thousands of Iraqi Roma died as a result of this brutal persecution, yet nobody in the Iraqi government, and very few in the national or international media deemed their plight worthy of attention.

Under Saddam Hussein’s regime, the Roma were afforded a measure of protection on the condition that they fulfilled their designated roles within society as musicians, dancers, entertainers, and in some cases, prostitutes. However, the identification cards distributed to the Roma under the Ba’ath regime carried their ethnicity, singling them out for discrimination during Saddam’s reign, and for persecution after the U.S invasion, when certain Shiite militias targeted them for their supposed “immorality”. Thousands of Iraqi Roma died as a result of this brutal persecution, yet nobody in the Iraqi government, and very few in the national or international media deemed their plight worthy of attention. Such attacks in some cases involved the use of bombs, mortars and machine guns, while in others, Roma witnesses describe seeing members of their communities, including women and children, beheaded with swords. Thousands of Roma fled to the Kurdish Region of Iraq in a bid to escape the violence. In 2019, the European Asylum Support office recognised Iraq’s Roma population as ‘among the most vulnerable, disfavoured and at-risk of all the marginalized groups in Iraq.’

In a definitive act of othering which cemented the position of the Roma as outsiders, after the 2003 invasion, many of Iraq’s Roma were issued with identification cards marked with the word “exception”, thus ensuring that they could not access government services or even apply for state-sponsored jobs. This cynical move essentially officiated the reduction of the Iraqi Roma to the status of non-citizens. Despite a government-issued promise in early 2019 that all Iraqi Roma would be issued new identification documents which would include neither their ethnicity, nor the word “exception”, this promise remains as yet  unfulfilled.


The state-sanctioned marginalization of Iraq’s Roma has had dire consequences for their quality of life and opportunities, but it has also entrenched the social stigmatization and contempt they experience on a daily basis. Many Roma live as IDPs on squatted land in squalid conditions without access to clean water, electricity, adequate shelter, healthcare, adequate food, education and other basic services. Roma communities have been completely neglected, their people abandoned by the state to live in grinding poverty as squatters in segregated slums where they are at constant threat of eviction.  The communities often have no access to running water or clean drinking water; in cases where clean water is delivered it is usually an inadequate amount. Roma communities and villages often lack schools or healthcare facilities, therefore dramatically reducing employment prospects to almost nil, and shortening life expectancy considerably. As a result of their being excluded from Saddam Hussein’s national campaign against illiteracy in the 1970s, 95% of Roma remained illiterate at that time. The current lack of educational provision combined with the failure to integrate Iraq’s Roma into society or promote their rights and culture, indicates that this figure may not be much lower today.

To add insult to injury, despite the structural violence inflicted upon the Iraqi Roma and despite the fact that they have never collectively (nor perhaps individually) taken up arms, current provincial government practice appears to be securitization of Roma communities. This securitization is not a bid to protect the Roma from harm as a consequence of thousands murdered by militias, but it is instead presented as a means of protecting majority society from Roma “immorality”. This outrageous act of provincially-authorised discrimination against a backdrop of bloody persecution committed against the Roma of Iraq has been ignored by international organizations, further enabling tacit support by state government.

For those Roma who fled to the Kurdish Region of Iraq, or who already resided there, whilst they may be protected from militias and massive bloodshed, the Kurdish government has continued with a de facto policy of social isolation and marginalization, with Roma housing being provided in the form of stand-alone communities, geographically removed from the cities and towns. Furthermore, the Kurdish government mirrors the Iraqi government in that, without recognised citizenship, the Roma population cannot achieve political representation. This political marginalization was the subject of much concern for the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, which in 2019 urged both the Iraqi government and the Kurdish government to remedy this by ‘taking all necessary measures, including amending its electoral laws and ensuring the representation of minorities that do not benefit from the quota system.’ To date, no measures have been taken, despite the best efforts of Iraqi Roma representatives.

Mobilizing political will amongst the government will be more of a challenge, but this government is slowly learning that it is accountable to the Iraqi people

While historic state-sponsored attempts to improve the lives of Iraqi Roma have been very few and far between, characterized by short-sightedness and a failure to take into account intersecting facets of oppression, a recent civic society initiative has been more successful in the Roma village of Fawar. The “Gypsies Are Human Too” campaign sought to combine provision of educational facilities and volunteer teaching staff with a targeted campaign to change the public perception of Iraq’s Roma. The positive outcome of this initiative – an established school and increased acceptance of the Roma by surrounding communities – demonstrates the need to formulate policies which strive to end the marginalization of all Iraqis by targeting all Iraqis in terms of introducing social cohesion and education initiatives for majority society.

Iraq’s new Prime Minister, as co-founder of the Iraq Media Network and current editor of Al-Monitor, certainly has the resources to implement such social cohesion initiatives as well as the media savvy to be able to formulate effective social media advocacy to this end. He also has the framework of Iraq’s National Constitution and its anti-discrimination provisions to fall back on in pushing for the rights and integration of Iraq’s Roma. Mobilizing political will amongst the government will be more of a challenge, but this government is slowly learning that it is accountable to the Iraqi people; intimidating, kidnapping, imprisoning and killing protestors has only served to further galvanise public opposition. By educating the public, and rousing them to demand rights and opportunities for Iraq’s Roma as their own, Mustafa al-Kadhimi could spearhead a change in governmental policy that would plant the seed for increased social cohesion in a fractured post-conflict society. Moreover, by proactively formulating solutions in a participatory, Roma-led way, Iraq has the opportunity to set a precedent for other Middle Eastern and European countries whose Roma populations also suffer from marginalization, discrimination and stigmatization.

Featured image via EASO.eu

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