ECMI Minorities Blog. The Response of International Organisations and Roma Civil Society to the Plight of Ukraine's Roma Refugees in Europe

Olha Sribniak
2022-06-29
Image courtesy: Animaflora PicsStock / shutterstock.com

*** This entry is part of the special section of the ECMI Minorities Blog on National Minorities and the War in Ukraine. ***

AuthorOlha Sribniak   |   https://doi.org/10.53779/WPUA5488

Olha Sribniak is a researcher and practitioner working in the fields of rule of law and democratic governance. Her expertise in minority issues results from experience concerning the implementation of the ECMI’s projects and initiatives in Ukraine. She completed the joint Masters Programme “German and European Studies” of the National University of “Kyiv-Mohyla Academy” and Friedrich Schiller University Jena. Her research interests include human rights and minority rights protection, international development, conflict prevention and resolution.

 

The Russian full-scale military invasion of Ukraine started on 24 February 2022 and has triggered the world's largest human displacement crisis on record. As was reported by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, as of 4 May 2022, more than 5,7 million people have fled Ukraine and further 7,7 million were displaced internally. The main influx of displaced persons from Ukraine is heading towards the neighbouring EU countries and Moldova, although many continue to move towards third countries. While the demographic profile of this group is very distinct - about 90% of the cross-border displaced persons are women and children - its ethnic composition is not recorded anywhere.

According to available estimates, the number of Roma who have fled Ukraine during this period could be as high as 100,000. At the same time, it is assumed that about half of this number moved back to the country despite the ongoing active phase of hostilities. There are several reasons for this. First, the western part of Ukraine, including Zakarpattia, where many Roma live, is almost unaffected by direct military actions. Thus, many displaced people from this region considered it possible to move back. The desire to reunite with the family is the second major cause since, due to the imposition of martial law, most male citizens aged 18-60 are prohibited from travelling outside Ukraine. Finally, another important reason lies in the hardships and discriminatory treatment that many members of the Romani minority face as refugees.

Whereas all the refugees fleeing war are generally subject to heightened vulnerability, the Roma are in many respects particularly at risk due to their initially disadvantaged and marginalised position. Even prior to the war and the subsequent refugee crisis, the Roma population was believed to be the most vulnerable minority group in Ukraine, and, more generally, in Central, Eastern and South-eastern Europe. The war-related humanitarian concerns have significantly aggravated this already difficult situation. Statelessness, along with the lack of valid identity documents, significantly limits the mobility of Roma refugees within the EU borders and poses additional complications to applying for governmental programmes of support for displaced Ukrainians. The possession of Hungarian passports by many Roma of Zakarpattia, on the other hand, also precludes them from claiming public assistance. At the same time, the problems of inadequate education, poor work experience, and poverty prevalent among the Ukrainian Roma population, result in Roma women and children being dependent entirely on relief providers in the host countries. Apart from that, human rights organisations and the media report multiple instances of discrimination occurring at different levels and in different countries, in which Roma refugees face unequal treatment and bias-based exclusion. These may include border crossing problems, segregation in transport and reception centres, provision of poor living conditions in temporary shelters, and difficulties in finding durable accommodation.

In response to the disproportionate impact of the war on groups experiencing intersecting forms of discrimination, including Roma refugees, international organisations stepped in to reiterate the need for thorough enforcement of the already existing anti-discrimination policy documents, as well as strengthened their monitoring efforts.

On 1 March 2022, the UN launched an inter-agency Regional Refugee Response Plan (RRP) for Ukraine outlining a comprehensive joint contribution to protect and assist displaced people fleeing from Ukraine. In a short period, RRP brought together more than 100 actors involved in providing assistance, including UN agencies, governments, non-governmental organisations, and academic institutions. Although this initiative does not directly mention any of the national minorities, one of its tasks is the reinforcement of the host countries' efforts in providing targeted support for vulnerable and disadvantaged individuals, and thus it creates the prerequisites for the implementation of activities aimed at helping Roma refugees.

In addition, UN agencies delivered a number of relevant statements. The UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, Fernand de Varennes, repeatedly emphasised the specific vulnerabilities that Roma and other marginalised minorities faced while fleeing the war, mentioning access to humanitarian assistance, equal treatment when seeking refuge, and negative attitudes along the evacuation routes. Attention was also given to Roma people who are facing multiple forms of discrimination and those with specific needs: "It is of paramount importance to ensure that relief efforts reach extremely excluded Roma people and their families and that specific needs of Roma women, older persons and Roma with disabilities are being addressed. Protection and assistance measures should not be done in segregated arrangements, nor can they be discriminatory or stigmatising in any way."

Another essential component of the European response to the mass exodus of people from Ukraine is the Decision of the Council of the EU on activating the temporary protection instrument, adopted on 4 March 2022. The Decision allows a joint managing of intra-European displacements by enabling immediate and temporary refuge, as well as facilitates the sharing of responsibility for people fleeing Ukraine among the EU member states. The extension of the Temporary Protection Directive on displaced persons from Ukraine gave them a wide range of rights in the EU. The Operational guidelines issued by the European Commission to facilitate the implementation of the Council's decision provide some opportunities to ensure equal access to these rights for Roma and other vulnerable categories of people. In particular, they touch on the issues of stateless persons legally residing in Ukraine, persons with expired identification documents, and vulnerable persons at risk.

Whereas the aforementioned EU regulations outline only the general principles guiding the response to the mass influx of displaced persons, the vulnerability of Roma women was separately addressed in the Resolution on the impact of the war against Ukraine on women (2022/2633(RSP)), adopted by the European Parliament on 5 May 2022. The Resolution urges the European Commission to ensure that Roma women fleeing Ukraine are not being discriminated against and can move within the EU, as well as calls on member states to guarantee their ability to count upon the temporary protection instrument. On the part of the European Commission, Vice-President for Values and Transparency, Vĕra Jourová, Commissioner for Equality, Helena Dalli, and Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi issued the statement urging the member states to implement measures under the recently adopted National Roma Strategic Framework.

The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) emphasised the commitments the OSCE countries made regarding combating discrimination against Roma: "They have pledged to ensure that Roma refugees and others who have been forcibly displaced are provided with the documents they need to receive state assistance. Much more needs to be done to fulfil the promise of their full integration in societies". To achieve this goal, countries were called upon to intensify consultations with Roma communities and civil society before deciding on temporary measures to help those fleeing combat zones, in line with the Action Plan on Improving the Situation of Roma and Sinti within the OSCE Area.

The call for the involvement of the Roma communities in the development of solutions to effectively support Ukraine's displaced Roma, mentioned in the ODIHR statement, is at the heart of many international organisations' activities. Examples include the efforts of the UN Human Rights to assist Roma civil society organisations in developing a project aimed at humanitarian support to Roma refugees in Moldova. This seems to be of particular importance, since the challenges and discriminatory treatment towards Roma coming from Ukraine can hardly be solved exclusively through the efforts of international organisations and national governments.

A significant problem is the lack of representation and resource allocation by international organisations in the field. As Dr Joanna Talewicz-Kwiatkowska, president of the Foundation Towards Dialogue (Fundacja w Stronę Dialogu) and co-founder of the Poland-Roma-Ukraine group on Facebook, reveals in an interview on the situation of Ukraine's Roma in Poland, the ODIHR Contact Point for Roma and Sinti Issues failed to provide practical assistance in those specific situations where it was contacted. The lack of intervention by international organisations in problematic situations can also be noted in the Czech Republic, where state authorities are unsuccessfully trying to relocate Roma from railway stations in Prague and Brno to shelters; their failure  has contributed to the current increase of inter-ethnic tensions.

In addition to these efforts, a substantial share of support for displaced Ukrainians has been provided and coordinated by civil society and self-organised individuals. They determine, at their discretion, the individuals or target groups they wish to assist. Thus, Roma and pro-Roma organisations fill by themselves the lacunae in the protection instruments and resources for Roma displaced from Ukraine.

Therefore, it can be argued that the mobilisation of Roma communities in the host states, to some degree, compensates for an absence of the kin state, which could effectively address the needs of its minority members displaced from Ukraine. Apart from the universal condemnation of Russia's war on Ukraine and calls to the governments, international, regional and European institutions to ensure equal access to humanitarian relief for Roma and other marginalised or vulnerable individuals, many of them have taken over the roles of relief providers, mediators, referral points and watchdogs over the situation of displaced Roma.

In this context, the important advantage of Roma civil society network became its ability to bring an individual approach to solving refugees' problems. Many of the organisations that have become involved in helping the displaced Roma are trying to use their capacities simultaneously across several dimensions – through delivering humanitarian relief, providing counselling and legal support, assisting in dealing with state authorities – or mobilising their partnerships for further referral. Without such a grassroots coordination, the allocation of resources to displaced Roma would be inefficient since information about them could not reach the addressee. An equally significant area of Roma civil society involvement in helping the refugees is maintaining an oversight of the situation of displaced Roma at border crossings and in reception facilities. Statements by international organisations confirm that the recommendations resulting from such monitoring efforts give impetus to respond at other levels.

To conclude, the unprecedented human displacement crisis triggered by Russia's full-scale war against Ukraine significantly exacerbated the vulnerability of the most marginalised and discriminated groups, including Roma people seeking shelter in neighbouring countries. While European states have created unparalleled support conditions for displaced individuals arriving from Ukraine, they are not fully available to many members of the Romani minority. The evidence of structural and direct discrimination faced by many of Ukraine's Roma resulted in a unanimous reaction from the international organisations involved in the protection of Roma rights. In particular, efforts are gradually being made to guarantee that the EU temporary protection instrument and UN Regional Refugee Response Plan become more responsive to the specific needs and problems of Roma refugees. In addition, international organisations have emphasised the need for a conscientious and not tokenistic implementation of the existing anti-discrimination policy documents, such as 2020-2030 EU Roma Strategic Framework and Action Plan on Improving the Situation of Roma and Sinti within the OSCE Area.

However, the crisis is unfolding too quickly for the strategic responses of international organisations to be immediately effective, with their interventions at the field level definitely insufficient for a qualitative change in the situation. On the other hand, it would be fair to acknowledge that some of the problems relevant to the Roma are not amenable to quick resolution by them, such as the rejection and avoidance of Roma by their fellow displaced Ukrainians, or the reluctance of people in the host countries to provide them with relief. In this context, it is difficult to overestimate the role of Roma civil society organisations, which from the first days of the war have been covering the need for humanitarian assistance, information, logistics and referral of Ukraine's Roma.

Nonetheless, despite the support efforts of the international organisations and Roma civil society, estimates of the number of Roma families who decided to return home without waiting for the end of the active phase of the war indicate that truly effective solutions for caring for the displaced Roma have yet to be found.

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