Roma from Ukraine apprehend a winter in Europe facing hostility and discrimination

Interview of a volunteer helping refugees on the Polish-Ukrainian border near the city of Przemyśl

Europe is likely to face a tough winter due to multiple increases in energy and food prices triggered by the ongoing war in Ukraine. Ukrainian refugees may find themselves in a particularly difficult situation. Among them, the Roma are the most vulnerable. Many of them face discrimination and xenophobia from volunteers and government services already by the time of crossing the border. With the onset of cold weather, without urgent help, their situation can become catastrophic.

On October 30, 2022, volunteers helping refugees on the Polish-Ukrainian border near the city of Przemysl told ADC Memorial that the situation with refugees worsened immediately after the start of massive missile strikes by the Russian Armed Forces on the critical infrastructure of Ukraine. It is especially difficult for the Roma, who continue to be refused admission to major humanitarian centers and are not provided with humanitarian aid.

“After the start of massive shelling of Ukrainian cities, the flow of refugees has increased again, and now we are working at the limit of our capabilities. Our shelters cannot keep up. Only in our tent, which is designed for 18-19 people, at the moment there are constantly up to 30 refugees. All Roma usually come to us, as Tesco (humanitarian aid center in the city of Przemysl) and other large centers refuse to accommodate them. They are not even taken to the room of the mother and child at the station – it is said that there are no places there.

Sometimes a Roma family comes to us, having just crossed the border. They need to go somewhere. We call Tesco and ask if they have a place for a refugee family. If they answer that there are places, we agree that they will arrive now. But as soon as we bring them and the Red Cross staff sees that they are Roma, they are immediately refused, and the police are called on the volunteers for bringing the Roma. They don’t even look at whether the Roma are adequate or not, poor or not. For them, Roma are Roma. If you are Roma, then we will not accept you. The Roma are not given any humanitarian aid either, neither warm clothes nor food. They are simply turned around and told to wait for transport in which they can go to another place.

If they are lucky, the Roma might go somewhere on the Hanoverian train. If not, they stay here and we try to accommodate them in private shelters and tents. Now, until the cold comes, there are not so many problems with this, but in winter I don’t know how we will survive. All private centers are holding on only due to donations and the personal initiative of volunteers. Now we can hardly find the money for generators and heating tents. We only turn them on at night to save some money. In winter, their capacity will not be enough, and the refugees, including the Roma, of whom we have a lot, will simply freeze. Many of them do not even have warm clothes, and no one but us will provide them with them.”

Another volunteer told us that Roma who were denied accommodation at Tesco have to wait for several days for a train from Przemysl to Hannover, which remains the only free option to leave Poland for Western Europe. Many of them have nowhere to spend the night, and they try to stay overnight in the railway station building, from where they are chased away by the guards. Volunteers fear that with the onset of winter, the Roma waiting for the train will simply freeze on the street.

The situation in host countries is not easy. For example, despite the efforts made by the government of Moldova and humanitarian organizations, due to the difficult economic situation in the country, it is not possible to solve all the problems, and refugees from vulnerable categories, in particular the Roma, continue to live in difficult conditions. Oxfam and their Moldovan civil society partners published a report with dozens of interviews with Roma refugees living in accommodation centers and private homes across Moldova.

So, not far from Chisinau, in a dilapidated former university building, a Roma family consisting of 70-year-old Ilia, her blind daughter and two granddaughters lives in a single room. One of her granddaughters is wheelchair-bound and unable to move downstairs on her own when she needs a shower or toilet outside. Ilia is not properly documented, which means she cannot get the cash assistance she is entitled to. Among other things, the building in which they live has not been repaired for a long time and is not suitable for living in the winter.

Another Roma family from Odessa, 40-year-old Laura, her husband and four children, live in a recreation park outside the city. They rent a one-room cottage with one bed and thin sheets. They have no heating, no internet, no toys for children, no winter clothes, and no jobs.

Oxfam’s report says that many of the housing options offered to Roma are often unsafe, lack accessible shops and amenities, are overcrowded and poorly equipped for the coming winter: there are not enough showers, toilets, hot and cold water, and little to no access to assistance from NGOs or government services.

Other refugee accommodation centers in the country, such as the MoldExpo center in Chisinau, appear to be of much better quality and prepared for the cold, but the Roma say they are denied asylum at MoldExpo and are instead housed in less-equipped Roma-only centers.

Oxfam experts note that renting private houses could be the most acceptable type of accommodation for Roma, but Roma themselves reported that for most of them this option remains unaffordable due to the prohibitive cost of rent and utilities, which will increase in winter. In addition, Roma report discrimination from many landlords who do not want to rent out their houses to Roma.

In order to equalize the situation with the access of Roma refugees to assistance in winter conditions, positive measures from the governments of the countries bordering Ukraine and hosting the largest number of refugees as well as the efforts of humanitarian organizations are needed.