Lack of documents, difficulties during the evacuation, denial of humanitarian aid and social support – all this is the daily routine of Roma families who fled the war. The Zmina Human Rights Center published a report that collected their stories.
Since February 2022, about 100,000 Ukrainians of Roma origin have been forced to leave their homes. Roma families, mostly women with children, tried to leave Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Kharkiv, Donetsk and Luhansk regions for other countries, but not all of them were able to become refugees. After all, many Roma did not have documents or money, and some simply did not have enough time to leave the occupied territories.
One of the heroines of the Zmina report is Ekaterina from Melitopol. On February 24, the peaceful life of a mother of four children turned into a nightmare: an overnight stay in a bomb shelter, constant fear for the lives of her children:
“When the constant explosions began, we ran to the school and hid in the basement there. There was no food or water there. I can stand it, but how can I explain this to children? So we sat there for four days. Slept in clothes. I couldn’t even run home because of the shelling. And in addition, one of the kids had a fever due to anxiety, up to 39–40°C. When everything calmed down, we were able to leave. The children were exhausted, hungry, pale.”
When the explosions died down, the family returned home but were always ready to run for cover, as the city was shelled every night. Melitopol was occupied a few days after the start of the invasion. In the captured city, Catherine lived with her children for four months. Then they decided to leave – it worked out the second time, and they managed to get to Zaporizhzhia on hitchhikers. The road from Melitopol to the regional center at that time cost 5 thousand hryvnias per person (before the war – 200 hryvnias). The money for the evacuation of the family was provided by the Roma Women’s Fund Chiricli.
“Actually, I still don’t understand how we survived. We were under terrible fire. Once, the windows in the car shattered inward from the explosion and fell right on us. The driver’s wheel fell off. I thought we were going to die. I covered four children with myself and began to pray that if our day and time had come, God would take me away and leave them,” Ekaterina recalls the evacuation.
In Zaporizhzhia, the family was placed in a kindergarten for two weeks, where they were provided with everything necessary. They then had to look for other temporary housing with the help of Roma mediators. “Now I am ready to live with my children even on the street, if only not in the occupied territories,” says Ekaterina.
It is the hardest time for Roma women
In August 2022, a special department was created in the office of the Ombudsman of Ukraine, working on issues of national minorities and indigenous peoples. The purpose of the department is to draw the attention of the state to the protection of the rights of national minorities, including Roma.
“The approximate number of Roma living in Ukraine before the full-scale invasion, according to various estimates, ranged from 200,000 to 400,000. Almost half of them are women. And it is they who are constantly subjected to multiple discrimination. They are harassed because of their vulnerable social status, as well as because of their ethnicity. It is even harder for pregnant women, persons with disabilities and IDPs,” said Elvina Kurtalieva, Deputy Director of the Department for Monitoring Observance of Equal Rights and Freedoms, Rights of National Minorities, Political and Religious Views of the Secretariat of the Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights.
The monitoring of the department in compact Roma settlements in Odessa and other regions in September 2022 registered such problems in the implementation of the rights of Roma as denial of employment due to ethnic origin, poor living conditions and isolation from social services, limited provision of medical services, inadequate documentation and inefficient involvement of children in the educational process in a remote format.
Roma integration strategy should work now
After the outbreak of the war, a significant number of public organizations changed the direction of their work and began to solve “military” problems: the provision of humanitarian and material assistance to those in need, the search for housing for migrants, etc. Roma organizations are no exception.
For example, the Chiricli Foundation provided humanitarian aid, while Roma activists distributed it to Roma families who had resettled from the occupied territories. Local volunteers also provided significant assistance.
“From those terrible stories that Roma families told us, one could write a whole terrible book. Russians came to one family living in the occupied city at night – they started looking for warm clothes, and took all the food from the refrigerator. People were very scared. The invaders left, and the next day the family tried to leave for the territory controlled by Ukraine. The Russians kept them at the checkpoint for a week, but still let them through,” says Larisa Domchenko, an employee of the Roma fund Lacho Rum.
The chairperson of the Roma National Society “Romen” in the Donetsk region, Rada Kalandia, tried to leave Vuhledar in the Donetsk region in March. She had to persuade the volunteers to drive up to the basement, where Rada was hiding from the shelling along with her aunt, who could not independently reach the place where the evacuees were gathered.
“I received a lot of phone calls from the Roma people I worked with. They said that they could not evacuate because they were not taken on trains: the conductors closed the doors in front of them precisely because of their nationality. The level of discrimination has increased significantly,” says Rada.
She stressed that today, more than ever before, the problem of the lack of documents among the Roma is acute. According to her, passport offices, registry offices and migration services do not want to help Roma people even despite the war and complicate the procedure for obtaining documents in every possible way. They require everything to be done in person, without using digital technologies (even when the application can be filled out online). State institutions are silent about information about simplified procedures and require personal presence. As an example, Rada spoke about a case in which a 25-year-old Roma woman with only a Ukrainian birth certificate tried to obtain a passport. The woman’s parents live abroad, but at the passport office, they demanded their personal presence to process their daughter’s passport. The video call or other alternatives did not satisfy the workers.
“People are in trouble, they freeze and die. We help each other and want the authorities to react. How can we expect non-discrimination from society if the authorities ignore our needs? No national minority suffers like Roma. They go abroad because they cannot find housing and work here because they do not have documents,” Rada says, noting the need to implement the Roma strategy.
The Cabinet of Ministers approved the Strategy for Promoting the Rights and Opportunities of Persons Belonging to the Roma National Minority for the period up to 2030 back in July 2021. The strategy should cover such areas of work as legal protection and combating discrimination, access to quality education, access to healthcare services, improving the quality of living conditions, employment, social protection, Roma culture, history, art, and language. However, the full-scale war made its own adjustments both to the life of Roma and the work of human rights organizations, as well as to the implementation of the strategy itself. Human rights activists admit that the document needs to be finalized, taking into account the conditions of martial law. The strategy should work now, not after the end of the war.