The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022 and the armed conflict that has followed it have led to an extremely high number of displaced persons leaving Ukraine in search of refuge in other European countries. As of May 12th, nearly six million refugees had fled Ukraine; three million refugees entered Poland, and at least half a million refugees entered Romania, Hungary, Moldova and Slovakia respectively (UNHCR, 2022). The mobilization of volunteers and organizations was similarly unprecedented, with hundreds of thousands of individuals and groups offering aid, shelter, transport, organizing donations, and otherwise supporting refugees from Ukraine. However, not all groups of refugees leaving Ukraine receive the same support. Specifically, this article will consider the treatment of Romani refugees fleeing Ukraine in several European countries.
Based on Ukraine’s most recent census from 2001, nearly 50,000 Romani lived in Ukraine (UKRStat, 2022), though this number is reportedly much higher today. An estimated 400,000 Romani lived in Ukraine, but even these numbers are allegedly too low as official statistics are lacking and around 20 per cent of Ukrainian Romani do not have official documents (Medico International, 2022). Worryingly, Roma people in Ukraine were not exempt from patterns of discrimination seen in other parts of Europe. OSCE notes that hate crimes against Romani people were reported in several European countries, including the Czech Republic, Croatia, Poland, Germany, and Hungary (OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, 2022). Moreover, hate speech against Roma people increased since the start of the pandemic across Europe (UN News, 2022).
Many Romani in Ukraine were the victims of similar conduct. For example, in October 2021, a mob of far-right radicals held a protest near Irpin, during which they threw rocks at Romani houses and spray-painted hate speech on their doors and walls (Yakutenko, 2021). Also, a part of this mob was one of the leaders of the C14 paramilitary group whose members, in 2018, burned down several tents in a Roma settlement near Kyiv (HRW, 2021; Skibitskaya & Burdyga, 2018). Furthermore, also in 2018, one Roma man was killed and at least four others were injured in an attack on a Romani settlement near Lviv (Coynash, 2019). At least 6 attacks against Romani were reported in Ukraine in 2018 (HRW, 2018). Furthermore, many Romani were already displaced to other areas of Ukraine as a consequence of the conflict which followed the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 (Reliefweb, 2017). Even during that period of displacement in Ukraine, many Romani had difficulty accessing shelter and were victims of hate speech and violence. With the current conflict, Romani are displaced again and at risk both in and outside of Ukraine.
Displacement and discrimination after the Russian invasion
Once refugees began fleeing Ukraine in late February and early March of 2022, discrepancies between the treatment of ethnic Ukrainian and Romani refugees quickly surfaced. The Roma Anti-Discrimination Network (RAN) reported, on March 4th, that numerous Romani refugees did not receive help or were turned away when they asked for air in Slovakia (RAN, 2022). Moreover, RAN reported that, at the same time, around 100 Romani refugees were stranded in Lviv and faced significant difficulty in getting help to flee Ukraine. According to Romea, Czech bus drivers refused to pick up and transport Romani refugees, predominantly women and children and hinted at these refugees being merely economic migrants looking to ‘take advantage of the conflict situation (Elšík, 2022). Romani refugees who did receive shelter in Moldova, reported violence and discrimination while waiting at the border at the hands of Ukrainian border guards (Popoviciu, 2022). In Moldova, Romani refugees were separated from ethnic Ukrainian refugees, allegedly to ensure tensions between the two groups remain low, though it was observed that the reception centres that housed Romani had poor hygienic conditions and were overcrowded, pointing to a more explicitly discriminatory modus operandi (Lee, 2022). Moreover, while Ukrainian refugees may have been able to seek refuge in other countries, Romani refugees were not as they lacked biometric passports or other official documentation that would have allowed them to do the same (Popoviciu, 2022).
Romani refugees were reportedly also prevented from crossing the border into other countries, Hungary and Slovakia being two examples, much unlike the de facto open-borders approach that many other ethnic Ukrainian refugees received (Fried, 2022). In a monitoring mission to Ukraine in March, discrimination against Romani families was reported, including evictions from transit centres and discrimination in the provision of humanitarian aid services (Mijatović, 2022). In some cases in Poland, volunteers refused to help refugees once they realised the refugees were Romani (Medico International, 2022).
Shelter and housing remain particularly difficult to obtain for Romani refugees from Ukraine. In Poland and the Czech Republic, numerous refugees reported extreme difficulties in finding anyone who would be willing to provide housing to them once they found out they were Romani (Strzyżyńska, 2022). According to Mariam Masudi, a coordinator for the NGO Salam Lab: “No one wants to rent to them. I don’t know anyone who has managed to settle in Poland. Those who have been able to move out of hostels have moved abroad.” (Masudi in Strzyżyńska, 2022). In the Czech Republic, due to existing legislation, many Roma people with European Union passports are not eligible to receive refugee status and thus cannot receive housing open to other refugees. The EU passports some Roma may have is a result of them receiving Hungarian citizenship from Viktor Orban’s government due to many speaking Hungarian and, some claim, to be able to vote in Hungarian elections (Fodor & Fenyková, 2022). Having EU passports and Hungarian citizenship does not, however, help Romani refugees obtain aid in Hungary, nor does it ensure they would even be allowed to enter the country (Fodor & Fenyková, 2022; Markusová & Ryšavý, 2022).
Romani refugees, as a result, have to rely on help coming mainly from other Roma people. Roma people from England, Sweden, and Italy have both offered shelter and organised fundraising campaigns aimed at helping Romani refugees specifically (Medico International, 2022). In one Hungarian village near the Ukrainian border, a Romani community has offered shelter to around 200 refugees in a project started by a local pastor (Than, 2022). Similar initiatives were started by religious Roma communities across Europe, such as in Slovakia where Romani refugees are hosted in several villages (Wachsmuth, 2022). This led to the creation of an unofficial network of 11 churches in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and England that host the refugees (Wachsmuth, 2022).
Still, help remains scarce and difficult to obtain, and some Romani refugees who do not manage to find shelter or refuge in other European countries ultimately decide to return to Ukraine (Ellena & Makszimov, 2022). Aside from the lack of help Romani refugees receive in Europe, another reason for their return is the tight social bonds in Romani communities, bonds that were significantly broken up once the conflict started. The return to Ukraine is, therefore, meant to at least partially restore this sense of community. However, conditions in Ukraine remain precarious. Aside from the armed conflict still ongoing in some parts of Ukraine, the living conditions in some of the liberated parts are far from sufficient for a normal and healthy life – from demolished houses to destroyed infrastructure, Romani refugees return to unsafe circumstances where their quality of life may be significantly inhibited.
The discrepancies in the treatment of refugees are a stain on the otherwise commendable efforts to help displaced persons fleeing the armed conflict in Ukraine. Romani refugees in particular face obstacles. Alongside the history of discrimination against the Roma minority across Europe, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to increased discrimination against members of the minority group. Other Romani communities across Europe may help the refugees, but long-term support or aid, as well as help for all Romani refugees, remains scarce. As a result, many decide to return to unsafe conditions in Ukraine or remain in unsatisfactory living conditions in reception centres in other European countries.
Such discriminatory practices against certain groups of refugees should not be allowed and more controls should be implemented to ensure a fair and equal distribution of aid. The current approach not only fails to protect some refugees but may directly harm their rights and endanger their lives. Ethnic Ukrainians certainly deserve the aid that was mobilised and the outpouring of support they received since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. But Romani refugees are no less deserving of the same treatment. Continuing such differences in approach depending on the refugee group perpetuates ethnic divisions and is contrary to the non-discrimination principle enshrined in international law and crucial to the effective and humane treatment of refugees.
Research Intern, Act for Displaced
She holds a BSc in Politics, Psychology & Law from the University of Amsterdam and a MSc in International Crimes & Conflict from Vrije University. She researched on Yazidi genocide and transitional justice in the Western Balkan region.