For displaced Roma, the conflict has exacerbated existing patterns of discrimination – and left them without an income

Viola Popenko

At of the end of May 2022, just over three months since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, more than 6 million people have been forced to flee the country. However, there is no clear data on how many Roma are included in this number. Nevertheless, as one of the most marginalized communities in Ukraine, long subjected to issues such as segregation, lack of documents and discrimination, the challenges they face in displacement are especially acute. This includes accessing livelihoods, given that many Roma have relied on informal employment and temporary work to make ends meet. 

Segregation, whether in schools, maternity wards or other public spaces, has long characterized the lives of Roma in Ukraine. However, with the outbreak of war, this has taken on a new dimension: the segregation of Roma from non-Roma in refugee reception centres. This is evident in Moldova where, despite the government’s supportive stance in receiving Ukrainian refugees, Roma have been housed separately alongside a small number of other ethnic minorities in three main facilities in Kishinev: Manej sports arena, the Moldova State University study block and the municipal hospital for tuberculosis. The sub-standard living conditions there, confirmed by monitors for European Roma Rights Centre, include poor quality food, cold water, no warm clothes and limited medical assistance. 

Furthermore, lack of personal documentation — an issue for significant numbers of Roma even before the war — is now playing a pivotal role in their access to asylum and humanitarian assistance. According to a number of complaints received by the Roma Women Fund ‘Chiricli’, some Roma women and children have been barred from crossing the border into Moldova, Poland and Hungary to seek asylum. 

In Ukraine itself, too, in the northern Chernihiv region, there have been cases where humanitarian aid was dependent on being able to provide a passport — meaning undocumented Roma were again left with no means of survival. 

Before the current crisis, Roma activists estimated that as many as 30,000 in Ukraine were undocumented, restricting their ability to access education, employment, housing, health care and other public services. This now has profound ramifications for displaced community members, both in the country and abroad. For internally displaced Roma, fleeing areas where hostilities are most intense for the relative safety of other regions, their lack of paperwork has meant their status as internally displaced persons (IDPs) is not officially recognized: as a result, they have been denied the emergency financial assistance available to support IDPs. In neighbouring Moldova, meanwhile, undocumented Roma refugees have been left in limbo, unable to move on to countries in the European Union. Their only options are either to return to Ukraine or remain in the centres, waiting for the passports and children’s birth certificates that will supposedly be issued by the Ukrainian embassy. 

How, then, are Roma continuing to earn a living in these impossible circumstances? In one study mapping out employment prospects within the community, published in 2021 by the Vox Populi Agency with the support of the International Renaissance Foundation, 1,400 Roma respondents were surveyed in seven regions (Cherkasy, Donets, Kharkiv, Luhansk, Odesa, Volyn and Zakarapia). The findings demonstrated that at the beginning of 2020, more than three quarters (77 per cent) of household income derived from informal and temporary employment such as waste recycling, wild foraging, small-scale farming, street vending and other activities, such as seasonal labour. Maintaining these livelihoods was difficult enough during the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, but since the outbreak of war — when Roma families in affected areas have been trapped for weeks in bomb shelters under constant bombardment, unable to earn an income and dependent on their rapidly dwindling personal savings — the situation has become even more precarious. 

This dependence on local informal work makes it almost impossible for Roma to find employment in other areas of Ukraine or abroad. In the main regions where IDPs are now located, such as Lviv, Transcarpathia and Chernivtsi, it is difficult to find any sort of incomegenerating employment. For most Roma, the few opportunities available are likely to be low paying because of their widespread lack of education and professional training. Discrimination, always a significant barrier for Roma seeking employment, is also a factor. Many, then, have no option but to wait for government support — for weeks, in some cases — and hope they will soon be able to return home to resume their informal employment activities. 

Roma churches and NGOs have played a pivotal role in seeking to address these gaps. The Roma Women Fund ‘Chiricli’, for instance, is helping Roma access food, Ukraine: For displaced Roma, the conflict has exacerbated existing patterns of discrimination – and left them without an income medication, sanitation products and other vital humanitarian needs. It is also transporting and housing displaced Roma, including some who have been left out of other voluntary initiatives due to discrimination. Another organization, the Youth Agency for the Advocacy of Roma Culture (ARCA), is distributing funds locally to the most vulnerable Roma and non — Roma families to access food, health care and accommodation elsewhere. In Uzhhorod, the Charitable Fund ‘Blago’ has deployed funding from the International Renaissance Foundation to set up a reception centre hosting over 100 people. The NGO Voice of Romani has also been organizing buses to evacuate Roma refugees from Lviv to Germany. Other initiatives beyond Ukraine include an informal network of Roma and non-Roma churches in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and the United Kingdom, working together to help refugees from Ukraine. Their activities are an important affirmation of compassion and humanity at a time when both principles are likely to be sorely tested: for Ukraine and its many international allies, ensuring the equality and security of Roma and other marginalized groups must be a top priority.

Photo: Roma women talk to each other at the entrance of the previously abandoned university building where Moldovan authorities send Romani refugees from Ukraine for accommodation. Chisinau, Moldova. Credit: Israel Fuguemann/SOPA Images/Shutterstock

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