Among Syrian refugees, hidden Dom suffer war and rejection

by Thomson Reuters Foundation | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 30 October 2014 17:05 GMT

Alongside more than a million Syrians who have fled into Turkey, one ethnic group almost 40,000 strong is fleeing not only the fighting but also persecution by fellow refugees

By Sophie Chamas

TORONTO, Oct 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Alongside more than a million Syrians who have fled into Turkey, one ethnic group almost 40,000 strong is fleeing not only the fighting but also persecution by fellow refugees.

The Dom, Middle Eastern cousins of the Roma, are among the Arab world's most marginalised people, according to human rights workers who have visited their camps and described the conditions to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

As refugees in Turkey, the Dom are either pushed out of organised camps or avoid them altogether, rights workers said. Many Dom hide their identity from authorities for fear of discrimination.

Their story sheds light on a broader problem aid workers say they are seeing throughout Turkey, where at least 1.25 million Syrians are living outside the established refugee camps, many in dire poverty.

"If you're in the formal camps you have food and shelter. If you're outside you're left to fend for yourself," said Andrew Gardner, a researcher with Amnesty International.

"The Roma are among the most vulnerable groups, because they face discrimination as both Roma and refugees. Unfortunately, this isn't being documented," he said in a telephone interview from Istanbul.

Like Europe's Roma, the Dom are descended from travelling performers who migrated from India centuries ago. The Dom lived scattered all over pre-war Syria, some in tent villages along the coast, others in shantytowns in cities such as Aleppo. Most worked as entertainers or labourers.

According to a 2011 report by Terre des Hommes, an international network working for the rights of children, and Insan Association, which works with marginalised groups in Lebanon, the Dom are among the most despised people in the Arab world.

Because the Dom live outside the mainstream, many assume they flout social conventions. As a result, Dom are often refused jobs, threatened with eviction and denied access to healthcare, Insan executive manager Lala Arabian said by telephone from Beirut.

Kemal Vural Tarlan, a consultant with the European Roma Rights Centre, said that between 30,000 and 40,000 Syrian Dom are scattered throughout Turkey. Earlier this month he saw Dom in the southeastern cities of Kilis, Gaziantep, Sanliurfa, Diyarbakir, Mardin and Batman, living among Turkish Roma groups in peripheral camps or squatting in rundown apartments.

In Kilis, Dom are living in an informal camp of nearly 200 tents, each housing tens of people, Tarlan said in a telephone interview from Gaziantep in Turkey.

"They don't have furniture, kitchens, bathrooms or electricity. They don't have work so they collect scrap metal, sift through garbage for food and beg. They have a big problem with disease. These people only want food. They're hungry," Tarlan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Like other refugees, Dom lack work permits and compete with thousands of other Syrians for informal jobs.

Syrian refugees are meant to register with the government's Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency, to gain a place in a camp and access to free medical care.

The few Dom who do register often present themselves as Arabs, Kurds or Turkmen and give false names, said Ana Oprisan, a consultant for Roma rights organisations who visited their camps last year and spoke by telephone from Istanbul.

This makes it hard to count them and get a full picture of what is happening to them inside Turkey, she said.

But anecdotal reports from aid workers paint a desperate picture of their informal campsites.

"Nothing is provided for them, and because they're Roma they tend to be exploited by Turks and Syrians," said Elif Gündüzyeli, communications director at Support to Life, a humanitarian group working with Syrian refugees.

Gündüzyeli and her team visited a Dom campsite in Viransehir in February. "They put tents in the middle of nowhere. No one cares that they can't access food, water and aid. Kids were walking around with open slippers. They were urgently in need of winter clothes, hygiene products, rugs," she said in a phone interview from Istanbul.

"When you ask the U.N. (United Nations) if they know anything about the Dom, they say no. The government says, 'These are gypsies, this is how they live.' Even Syrian opposition leaders say, 'This is how they lived in Syria'," Tarlan said.

A few days into Gündüzyeli's assessment, half the tents in Viransehir had disappeared.

"Only the Dom can find the Dom," said Oprisan, "It was the Roma who pointed out refugees to us, and we might not find them next time."

That next time feels increasingly urgent to aid workers like Gündüzyeli.

"Winter is coming," she said. "Without data, we can't provide aid." (Reporting by Sophie Chamas; Editing by Stella Dawson)

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