by Jonathan Lee

CW: War, torture, police violence, racist violence

The full-scale escalation of the war in Ukraine began on 24th February, 2022; a war which has now displaced more than a third of the Ukrainian population and forced some 8 million people to flee as refugees to neighbouring European states. The response from (most) European countries has been nothing short of remarkable. The majority of the continent’s states have responded to the largest displacement of people in Europe since the end of World War II by opening their borders, facilitating access to their social welfare systems, providing work permits, and mobilising tens of thousands of volunteers to aid those in need. The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, described the obligation to protect refugees as “a moment of truth for Europe.” In her address to the European Parliament on March 1st 2022, she said:

This is a clash between the rule of law and the rule of the gun; between democracies and autocracies; between a rules-based order and a world of naked aggression. How we respond today to what Russia is doing will determine the future of the international system. The destiny of Ukraine is at stake, but our own fate also lies in the balance. We must show the power that lies in our democracies; we must show the power of people that choose their independent paths, freely and democratically. This is our show of force.”

If only this show of force, power of democracy, and freedom to choose one’s own path applied equally to all peoples fleeing war. Refugees from darker-skinned parts of the word can only dream of such noble rhetoric coming from a European leader. The policies of Fortress Europe to repel people from conflict regions in South West Asia and North Africa are well documented. These people have not been greeted with emergency directives to ease their access to European job markets. Rather, like beggars at the door, they have found the gates of Europe firmly shut to them. More often than not, those gates have invariably been reinforced with barbed wire, and kept shut by attack dogs, tear gas, and lethal force. While white Ukrainian refugees have broadly been welcomed with open arms, those from outside the continent remain left behind, beyond the borders of the EU. 

Ukraine’s own left behind minority group – the Roma – found themselves also unwanted and unwelcome in the eyes of their European neighbours.

Similarly, Ukraine’s own left behind minority group – the Roma – found themselves also unwanted and unwelcome in the eyes of their European neighbours. In the hours and days after the commencement of full-scale war, Ukrainian Roma experienced waves of panic as rumours of impending pogroms and hate crimes circulated in segregated and excluded communities. Their fears were not unfounded. In the past 20 years, Ukraine has witnessed several attacks and pogroms on Romani communities by far-right groups, as well as by villagers in rural areas. In June and July 2018, these attacks culminated in the deaths of one 24-year-old Romani man in Lviv, and one 30-year-old Romani woman in Beregovo.

In the first twelve days after the Russian invasion, Romani neighbourhoods emptied of people as Romani families left to join more than 2 million other Ukrainian citizens leaving the country as refugees. Unlike their compatriots, Romani Ukrainians were met with hostility, prejudice, and outright discrimination by receiving countries. European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) monitoring missions in the countries bordering Ukraine detailed numerous cases of segregation, violent attacks, ethnic profiling, and discrimination against Romani refugees. Rather than bringing about a moment of solidarity for the plight of all people fleeing war, the conflict in Ukraine only exacerbated the everyday antigypsyism which Romani people are already so accustomed to.

The Moldovan approach: segregated centres, inhumane conditions, and racist attacks.

In Moldova – the poorest neighbouring country to Ukraine, and one with a disproportionately high number of refugees – Romani people were segregated and mistreated from the moment they crossed the border. Segregated buses, misinformation from border officials, and Roma-only refugee reception centres were the policy for dealing with Romani refugees who often only wanted to pass through the country and on to the European Union via Romania. The ERRC documented a segregated reception centre where Romani families had no clean water and were forced to collect water from toilets. Cases of mass food poisoning of Romani children caused by poor quality food were left untreated due to an absence of medical staff. In one case, a Romani woman from Odessa had a stroke but received no medical attention. Later an ambulance came but provided no further medical aid. She told an ERRC human rights monitor “they treat us like dogs.”

In October 2022, security guards in the same refugee shelter attacked Romani families with pepper spray for being in the communal area past curfew. One of the shelter staff members told the Roma in the communal area: “I am fed up with you disgusting gypsies, I want to get rid of you once and of all.” Security guards were called, who also racially abused them, before searching an elderly Romani woman whom the staff accused of hiding drugs in her lunch box. The guards then ordered everyone to leave the common area and go back to their rooms, before switching off the lights and pepper spraying those who remained inside. Several people, including elderly people and children, required medical treatment from paramedics who were called to the scene.

Humiliation and hate from Hungarian authorities.

Hungary’s humanitarian organisations were reluctant to place Roma in refugee centres, and Romani refugees received little or no significant assistance from either the centres or the local authorities. On the contrary, they were received with segregation and discrimination from the moment they arrived. Rather than being sent to humanitarian aid centres, they were sent to the immigration police who then brought them to special refugee centres in the countryside – far from employment or education opportunities.

Romani activists working at the borders emphasised the humiliation and racist abuse aimed at Roma arriving from Ukraine as refugees. Many had to wait days before being allowed to cross the border. Some were denied crossing altogether when racist Ukrainian border guards told them they were only going to “commit wrongdoings like the others.” On arrival in the border town of Záhony, many of the first waves of Romani refugees were welcomed by cold-faced immigration authorities and day-long waiting times without assistance. The local mayor had ordered the municipality to close the municipal and other charity tents on hearing that a train carrying 300 Romani refugees had arrived. Human rights monitors working on behalf of the ERRC witnessed a systemic pattern of prejudice and discrimination, brought about by Mayor Laszlo Helmeczi who publicly insinuated that a certain stratum of refugees (Roma) were travelling to Hungary not because they were fleeing war but because they were trying to escape deep poverty. The insinuation that Roma were not real refugees, but economic migrants, permeated multiple levels of service provision at Záhony and indeed throughout Hungary. As new arrivals were registered, ERRC monitors observed local authorities segregating Roma from non-Roma. Romani refugees were herded into a white tent while the non-Roma were sent to a blue tent. The blue tent had heating, some food, and reportedly relatively quick processing times. The white tent was unheated, there was no food, and the waiting time could be five hours or more. Monitors reported multiple incidents of municipality workers denying Roma access to food on the basis that they are not “real refugees”. 

New country, same shit, for Roma entering the Czech Republic and Poland

Poland saw similar treatment of Roma on both the Ukrainian and Polish sides of the border, with refugees being ethnically segregated and subject to abuse and denial of services. Aid workers and volunteers denied accommodation to Roma and made racist remarks towards them. Administrators of refugee supporting Facebook pages deleted posts concerning aid or accommodation for Romani refugees. Similarly in the Czech Republic, where the response subjected Roma to hate speech from politicians, arbitrary ethnic profiling by the police, segregation, poor conditions, abuse by volunteers, and denial of access to services by local authorities.

The accusation of Roma being fake refugees took on new life in the Czech Republic when high level politicians took time out of their day to incite hatred and discrimination against Ukrainian Roma. Two-time President and full-time racist, Miloš Zeman, managed to muster what remains of his ailing health to make statements clarifying why Czechs support white Ukrainians (“because of their Christian roots and the like”), but also to make a “little exception here in terms of Romani Ukrainians.” The Interior Minister, Vít Rakušan, threw further fuel on the fire by claiming that the Roma “influx” was tied to organised crime and urged the need to combat what he described as  “social tourism.” However, it was the words of the Governor of the Moravian-Silesian Region, Ivo Vondrák, which caused potentially the most damage. Aside from expressing his wish to deport “such sinners” from the residential hotels in his region, he spoke of Romani refugees as people who he found to be “quite inadaptable… so-called Hungarian Roma, i.e. nomadic groups of people, and many of them have dual citizenship – both Ukrainian and Hungarian.”

Those Roma who made it to official refugee centres, who had not fallen through the deliberate cracks left in the system, faced regular abuse and segregation by authorities.

The fabricated story of Romani EU nationals posing as refugees led to widespread ethnic profiling by Czech police officers. Deliberate delays in the vetting process, as well as abusive treatment by authorities, meant many Romani people were left without food and shelter. Hundreds of Romani families took to Prague Railway Station in what rapidly became a humanitarian crisis, drawing the attention of international media. The response from authorities was to build ethnically segregated tent cities where Roma were herded from the train station.

Those Roma who made it to official refugee centres, who had not fallen through the deliberate cracks left in the system, faced regular abuse and segregation by authorities. In the reception centre at the Černá louka Exhibition Center in Ostrava, Roma were treated inhumanely by staff. A volunteer told the Czech Romani news server “When I arrived for my shift, the group of Ukrainian Roma were still there. It was crazy. There were police officers wearing balaclavas, four volunteers, and there was tape strung all around as if a murder or other serious crime was being investigated. Barricades were set up using several tables so the Romani refugees could not move about freely in the space. If somebody wanted to go to the toilet, those in charge grabbed a hold of the person’s shirt collar and took them there like that.”

Worse than silence: denial of discrimination by EU

When issues of Czech government racism were raised at the European Commission’s annual Roma Platform, which took place in Prague under the auspices of the Czech Presidency of the Council of the European Union, they were dismissed by Commission officials. Despite definitive documentation of discriminatory treatment, activists were met with only bland statements from Commission officials about the Czech Republic fairly treating these refugees and that discrimination was completely out of the question here.

Despite widespread claims of harassment, discrimination, and segregation of Romani refugees from Ukraine, EU bodies have been reluctant to even acknowledge and condemn these human rights violations (let alone act against them). Whilst the actions of the EU were strong and non-discriminatory to start with, this support quickly crumbled in the face of human rights activists making accusations of discrimination in EU Member States. 

Human rights activists were told that they should not mention the D word as such unsubstantiated claims only caused fear and panic or, in the case of one European Commission official, that such claims only strengthened Putin’s rhetoric. Activists were told that the evidence was not strong enough, that there was no sign of systemic discrimination, and that if they wanted to make serious accusations, they needed serious evidence – of which there was plenty,  reported by human rights activists and journalists. Evidence which was dismissed as not useful for the cause by EU officials who preferred the myth of a fraternal union of nations responding as one to the menace from the east.

While ERRC human rights monitors at one point numbered close to a hundred people, present in Ukraine and its neighbouring countries for six months following the outbreak of war, the only EU-led field monitoring which took place involved a small team of only a handful of people from the Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) who were present over just a few days. This team seemingly only spoke to three Romani families on their fleeting country visits, who made no complaint to them about unequal treatment. Accordingly, this merited no follow-up investigation into discrimination against Romani refugees in EU member states.

It is just as well that such an army of human rights activists and decent people turned out to help Romani refugees and witness the unequal treatment handed out by European authorities. The successes there were in providing aid, helping families find accommodation, driving people cross-country, recording instances of racism, and providing human rights support; these were only possible because civil society and community workers stepped up where governments and the EU refused to act. These are the people who are still, more than a year after the outbreak of full-scale war, working to ensure equal treatment for refugees regardless of their ethnicity. To them, Romani people are forever grateful.

Featured image by ERRC and Sophio Datishvili, used with permission

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