By Stephan Müller
Roma in Ukraine are equally affected by the Russian aggression as all citizens of the Ukraine. Thousands of Roma have joined the Ukrainian forces defending the country, other Roma are involved in humanitarian work supporting vulnerable people – Roma and non-Roma alike.
Roma were forced to leave their homes in the eastern part of Ukraine due to the bombings and Russian atrocities. Many are living now in the western parts of Ukraine as Internally Displaced Persons (IDP), joining the Romani IDP who were forced to leave their homes in Eastern Ukraine already in 2014.
Many others, probably a few ten thousand, found refuge in Moldova and in Member States of the European Union. Many of those perceived as Roma experience unequal treatment and discrimination by authorities and volunteers.
In many countries, civil society organisations have observed cases of discrimination: private persons or hotels refused to take in persons considered Roma; drivers refused to transport persons considered Roma; in other cases, they were segregated from other refugees or brought to remote places.
In the first weeks of the war, primarily civil society organisations, individual volunteers or church organisations provided assistance to the refugees, including Romani refugees. With official structures taking over the reception and provision of assistance to refugees, incidents of discrimination have not stopped, but are now in the responsibility of the authorities.
Based on the available information we cannot talk of a systemic discrimination of persons considered Roma. At the same time, there are indications of antigypsyism and of structural discrimination.
In particular, certain politicians and media outlets have begun to single out Roma as purely “economic migrants” who “abuse the refugee system” and break the rules. These irresponsible racist statements apparently aim at paving the ground for getting rid of the Romani refugees again.
Background: Roma in Ukraine
Roma have lived on the territory of what is now Ukraine since the 15th century. During the last census in 2001, 47,600 persons were registered as Roma. However, their actual number is assessed to be up to 400,000.
The Roma in Ukraine are a very diverse community. There are several sub-groups based on the main language or dialect of Romanes spoken, traditions, traditional professions, religion, or the region of Ukraine they live in.
The largest number can be found in the Transcarpathian region, a region that also houses a large Hungarian community. Many of the Roma in this region speak Hungarian and consider themselves as part of the Hungarian community and its culture.
In 2018-2019, several violent attacks were committed against Roma by right-wing extremists in which one young Romani man, David Popp was killed. Overall, discrimination and social exclusion of Roma was as wide-spread as in all other countries in Europe.
Since the onset of the war, some cases of violence and of discrimination against Roma took place, in particular in western Ukraine. There is only limited information about the situation of the Roma in the occupied areas. According to NGOs active in the area, the representative of the Roma community in Izyum was killed by Russian forces after he refused to cooperate with them.
According to European Roma Right Centre (ERRC) up to 20% of the Roma do not possess IDs which created problems for leaving Ukraine or for being accepted as a refugee under the Temporary Protection System of the European Union.
Despite these incidents of violence and the general discrimination of persons considered Roma in Ukraine, the overwhelming majority of the Roma are now defending Ukraine.
Internally Displaced Persons
A few ten thousand Roma were forced to leave their homes in eastern Ukraine and found temporary refuge in central or western Ukraine. Overall they face similar problems as other IDP, which are compounded by specific problems such as discrimination when they are looking for transport, accommodation or humanitarian assistance. Their plight is further exacerbated by the fact that they cannot afford private accommodation and have to rely on other forms of temporary accommodation.
Roma from Ukraine as Refugees
It is difficult to determine the exact number of Romani refugees from Ukraine, but we can assume that several ten thousand, primarily women and children have left Ukraine.
In May 2022, Ukrainian authorities regulated that only persons from war zones or in close proximity to war zones can leave the country without documents.
In March 2022, the European Union activated the Temporary Protection Directive that allows for access to accommodation and the labour market to persons from Ukraine. Ukrainian refugees do not have to enter asylum procedures. However, it seems that it depends on the individual country if it extends Temporary Protection also to persons from Ukraine entering without any documents. While Slovakia announced that also persons without documents are eligible for Temporary Protection after an identity check, Germany has not clarified this issue as of yet.
Another general problem seems to be that many Roma from the Transcarpathian region have a dual Ukrainian and Hungarian citizenship. In recent years, the Hungarian government has allegedly issued around one million citizenships to persons from neighbouring countries, such as Serbia, Romania or Ukraine. Just like ethnic Hungarians or ethnic Ukrainians, many Roma from Transcarpathia availed themselves of this opportunity to enter the labour market in the European Union by means of a Hungarian passport.
Yet, persons with a dual citizenship, in particular Roma, now face serious problems in countries such as the Czech Republic and Germany, since they are considered as citizens of the European Union and access to both the temporary protection system and asylum procedure are denied to them. A similar situation seems to exist in Austria.
The public discussion in the Czech Republic and to a lesser extent in Germany on refugees with dual citizenship focuses on Roma and ignores the fact that they constitute only a part of the Romani refugees from Ukraine.
The following sketches give an impression of the situation of the Roma in the Czech Republic, Hungary and Germany:
President Milos Zeman stated that the Roma are not war refugees, but solely economic migrants. When Roma refugees from Ukraine slept rough in front of the train station of Brno, the Deputy Mayor Ms. Marketa Vankova claimed that Roma refugees had applied for financial assistance in several countries but failed to provide proof for her statement when questioned by journalists.
In Prague, a few hundred Roma are spending the nights at the central train station. The city government plans to build a “tent town” only for Roma who have fled Ukraine. The mayor specifically referred to Roma with a dual citizenship.
On 19 May 2022, the Czech government modified the legislation governing the situation of the refugees from Ukraine. In the light of the ongoing public discussion before, a number of amendments to the law were introduced to target the Roma in particular. It was stipulated that the provision of humanitarian assistance to refugees at the main train station will stop at the end of May. The overwhelming majority of the refugees at the main train station are Roma. The civil society organisations working with the refugees were not consulted when the amendments were discussed.
The Czech Minister of Internal Affairs, Vít Rakušan, talked with his Ukrainian counterpart requesting that persons with dual citizenship should not be allowed to travel to the Czech Republic. He also contacted the Hungarian authorities and allegedly reached an agreement that Hungary will shorten the turnaround time for vetting new arrivals to the Czech Republic for a Hungarian citizenship.
In Hungary, there exists a considerable discrepancy between the number of Ukrainian refugees who arrived there and the actual number of refugees who registered in order to be eligible for health insurance and material assistance.
On May 12th, the Ministry of Internal Affairs stated that ca. 578,531 Ukrainian refugees had arrived in Hungary. Other government data vary between 700,000 and one million persons. These figures also include persons who came from Ukraine to Hungary via Romania. By contrast, only 21,320 persons requested temporary protection and 11.467 persons received the status by May 13th. In Slovakia, by comparison, 75,000 out of 425,000 refugees received temporary protection. In Poland, this was the case for one million persons out 3.6 million.
We can assume that a large number of the refugees who entered Hungary did not request protection and travelled on to other countries.
There exists conflicting information regarding the situation of the refugees with a dual citizenship. Between 2011 and early 2015, a total of 94,000 Ukrainians received Hungarian passports.
According to the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, all refugees from Ukraine with double citizenship are not eligible for asylum status, but they enjoy the rights granted to refugees from Ukraine under the temporary protection system, including access to temporary accommodation, access to health care, monthly financial support, etc .
The website of the National Directorate for Aliens Policing states that persons who have a dual citizenship enjoy the same rights and obligations as Hungarian citizens. Yet, there are reports from Hungary that Romani refugees receive unequal treatment. During the first weeks of the war, members of civil society or churches primarily took care of the arriving refugees and organised transport, accommodation or provision with food or hygienic articles. Due to discriminatory practices, it fell to Romani civil society organisations to arrange transport and accommodation for Romani refugees, to provide food or hygienic articles for them and an to assist them in their communication with the authorities.
In Germany, a few cases of discrimination have been reported and several biased media reports on Roma from Ukraine have been published. These reports merely concern the wrong doings of some individuals, but never present the situation of the overwhelming majority of the Roma. There were no reports at all about Romani lawyers and students. There was no mention of women and children arriving in a country whose language they do not speak. These women were discriminated at home and continue to be discriminated now while their husbands and fathers are fighting at the frontline.
Though being aware of it, the relevant German authorities such as the Ministry of Interior, or the Commissioner for Integration have not clarified the status of refugees from Ukraine who never possessed any documents.
With regard to the situation of Roma with a dual Ukrainian and Hungarian citizenship, it seems that the German authorities tend to share the position of the Czech Government and deny them access to temporary protection and asylum. The German authorities have not issued an official statement regarding this question so far.
For the German authorities, the Hungarian citizenship takes priority over the Ukrainian citizenship. In some cases, Roma with a dual citizenship were offered train tickets to Hungary, though they might have never lived in Hungary.
Since Hungary never signed the European Convention on Social and Medical Assistance, refugees considered as Hungarian citizens would also not be eligible for receiving health insurance or any kind of social assistance in Germany.
Persons considered Roma by the majority population have only received a similar welcome as other refugees from Ukraine in a few cases. It was very often up to the Romani civil society to assist them and we can identify from the very beginning a difference between Ukrainian refugees considered Roma and white Ukrainian refugees.
In countries such as the Czech Republic and Germany, the authorities and politicians tend not to consider and accept Roma as “war refugees” on a par with all other refugees from Ukraine. Although Roma constitute only a part of the Ukrainians with a dual Ukrainian-Hungarian citizenship, the public discussion in both countries focuses solely on the Roma. Further, in the Czech Republic, the authorities allegedly only check persons considered as Roma if they have a dual citizenship.
This raises the question of what the situation of the Romani refugees will be like in the near future. No one can predict how the Russian war against the Ukraine will develop, but we can assume that for a large part of the Roma a return to their pre-war homes will not be possible in the foreseeable future.
The receiving countries cannot exclude all Roma refugees from humanitarian assistance or inclusion measures. The example of attitude of the Czech Republic shows, however, that certain governments try to limit the number of Roma refugees in their country or to exclude them from the kinds of assistance other Ukrainian refugees receive.
Among the refugees, there are primarily women with children. Looking at socio-demographic data for Roma in Ukraine, we can assume that many women have only basic school education which creates challenges for their participation in inclusion measures such as accessing the labour market.
In addition, persons considered Roma by the majority and the authorities will face more severe obstacles to inclusion, primarily due to antigypsyism and the rejection by the majority population and authorities.
Experiences from other wars or post-war situations (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo or Syria) show that persons considered Roma also face serious obstacles or even resistance when they return to their home countries – either to their home towns or to other parts of their home countries.
Due to non-existing systematic monitoring and the dynamic situation, it is a challenge producing a comprehensive overview of the situation of Romani refugees from Ukraine in other European countries. This document is therefore less an analysis of their situation than a description based on available reports from media, humanitarian organisations and activists.
Situation in Ukraine
Situation in Neighbouring Countries
Situation in Germany