Amid the hostility to Roma refugees, an act of compassion

Padmini Iyer Conflict, Refugees and IDPs, Research

When Nadia went into labour just two weeks after fleeing Ukraine for Poland, local people rushed to her help. But Oxfam’s research shows that such acts of kindness are still too rare in a refugee response often blighted by anti-Roma discrimination, says Padmini Iyer in a blog for World Refugee Day.

Ukranian refugee Nadia, 28, from Lviv Oblast found support with her baby but has struggled to find a place to live in Poland because of discrimination against the Roma community (picture: Lottie Stevenson/Oxfam)

Nadia from Lviv Oblast, Ukraine,had only been in Poland for two weeks when she went into labour. Her five other children had become so scared of the constant air raid sirens at home in Ukraine that she decided they must leave for their safety. So, by the time her contractions started, she was staying in a hotel with her other children and two sisters. With only a basic grasp of Polish, she was scared about going to hospital to have her baby. Luckily for Nadia, the woman who owned the hotel realised what was happening, called an ambulance, and accompanied Nadia to hospital where the baby was delivered safely.

But Nadia and her family then faced another challenge: they are part of the Roma community and struggled to find a place to live because of anti-Roma discrimination. Nadia’s experience with housing is typical of so many Roma refugees. Deeply entrenched anti-Roma and racist attitudes among community volunteers, landlords and local authorities has led to a discriminatory and differential response to refugees from the same war.

Although no reliable data are available, estimates indicate that approximately 100,000 from the Roma community have fled Ukraine since February 2022. Unlike many others among the nearly 14 million people displaced both inside the country and across Europe, they have often not been welcomed with open arms.

Oxfam has been working to understand and shine a spotlight on the needs of these Roma refugees. Our rapid assessment of Roma refugees in Moldova in July 2022 called for the Moldovan government, UN agencies, and NGOs to plug gaps in basic needs such as decent housing, health and education services; for more services to be tailored to their specific needs; and for Roma people to be involved in decisions about how these needs can best be met. We are now working with partners Foundation Towards Dialogue (Poland), Aresel (Romania), and the Tenth of April (Ukraine) to publish a regional report on the state of assistance for Roma refugees in the coming months.

A history of discrimination

Even before the war, discrimination was already a daily reality for millions of Roma people in Europe who experience physical, verbal, and structural violence. Roma communities in Ukraine live in dire conditions marked by high levels of poverty, segregation, substandard and overcrowded housing, and lack of access to essential services such as health and education. The concerns of Roma communities have generally taken a backseat in Ukraine, particularly because of the economic, social, and geopolitical issues affecting the wider population.

As refugees from the war, Roma communities now face overt discrimination at Ukraine’s borders and at refugee reception points, as well as segregation from other refugees. Communities receiving refugees have been unwilling to house them, and Roma people have had poorer access to basic services. Whereas other Ukrainians have been welcomed, Roma refugees face structural violence at home as well as in refugee hosting countries, where negative stereotyping of, and prejudicial beliefs about, Roma communities are still rife today.

Building on compassion for Roma refugees

Valentina, a Roma IDP in Luhansk, Ukraine, has been moving continuously with her family since her home was destroyed. It has been challenging to find somewhere big enough to accommodate her, her son, daughter-in-law and eight children. In the winter, the family were given permission to live in an empty house on the edge of a village in the Berezivka region. Valentina says the local community has been kind to them, donating food for the family and clothes for the children, but she hopes to return one day to the place she grew up. (Picture: Lottie Stevenson/Oxfam)

Oxfam and partners’ previous and ongoing research shows that while EU member states continue to be in solidarity with Ukrainians forcibly displaced from war, many groups of people are being left behind. These include not only Roma communities, but also non-Ukrainian refugees and stateless persons.

But as Nadia’s and Valentina’s (pictured above) experiences show, there has also been kindness, support and compassion. This World Refugee Day, we want to highlight such solidarity among host communities in refugee-receiving countries and civil society actors across the globe. So, in the coming months our reports and campaigning will not only challenge entrenched racist and xenophobic attitudes towards Roma refugees and other displaced people, but also share stories of compassion and solidarity.


Padmini Iyer

Padmini Iyer is Research Lead – Rights, Resilience and Response at Oxfam GB.

Find out more: read about our interviews with Roma refugees in Moldova in this blog and look out for new research looking at the experiences of Roma refugees across the region. Follow our Policy and Practice account on Twitter to keep updated on the latest research.

A version of this blog has also been published on Oxfam International’s website.