Powerful, first-hand accounts and evidence gathered by local NGOs show how Roma fleeing Ukraine’s war have been frozen out of the support offered to many other refugees. Padmini Iyer and Sarah Redd introduce a new report that reveals the scale of discrimination facing Roma seeking refuge – and set out five actions that could transform their lives.
Kasandra and her new-born baby live in refugee accommodation in Bucharest infested with cockroaches and mould. “It’s all over the room, under the radiators it’s black” she says. “I’ve spent more than a month trying to get them to move us.” But when the 28-year-old Roma refugee from Ukraine requested a different room, the response from staff was harsh: “One woman said to my mother, ‘If you Roma were educated you would not be so stupid to be here’. ”
Kasandra’s experience as a Roma refugee is one of many collected by local NGOs in Ukraine, Poland and Romania that are drawn together in our new research report Further into the Margins. These powerful, first-hand accounts are part of broader research in three different countries – conducted by Aresel (Romania), The Tenth of April (Ukraine) and Foundation Towards Dialogue (Poland), in partnership with Oxfam – and show how much Roma displaced by the conflict in Ukraine have been excluded from accessing some of the services and aid that they and their families need. Today, they face widespread discrimination; negative impacts to health, education and incomes; and lack of access to basic support, services and jobs. In this blog, we set out the key challenges now facing Roma refugees and displaced people and five ways aid actors can better support them.
The challenges: prejudice, documentation and inadequate services
An estimated 100,000 people from Roma communities have fled Ukraine since the escalation of the war in 2022, and a similar number have been displaced within the country. Even before the war, they often had to live in dire conditions marked by systemic prejudice, poverty, segregation and poor services. Our report reveals how this marginalisation and prejudice has been exacerbated for those Roma seeking refuge. Key challenges we identify include:
- Lack of legal identification such as birth certificates and passports that blocks access to basic services such as housing as well as life-saving humanitarian assistance.
- Negative impacts of the war on key socioeconomic indicators among Roma communities in Ukraine, which were already very low.
- The struggle for Roma refugee women to find jobs in their new context, with key barriers including lack of formal work experience, education, inability to speak the official language, and lack of childcare support.
- Pervasive discrimination not only from authorities and officials, but also volunteers, aid actors and fellow refugees. This is happening across the whole refugee journey, at border crossings, and on arrival in safe states. Such prejudice hampers access to protection, basic services, as well as harming refugee wellbeing.
- Specific discrimination when renting accommodation from private citizens in Romania and Poland. Even in Romania, which offered financial incentives to those accommodating large Roma families, the withdrawal of such programmes swiftly led to renewed hostility from hosts.
Five things NGOs and donors must do to help Roma refugees
So how should humanitarian organisations, donors and governments respond to these challenges? Our report proposes five key actions:
- Make sure undocumented people can access vital support and services
Ensure Roma communities can access vital services without identity documents and fund programmes that improve their access to legal services and social benefits.
- Invest in Roma-led organizations and platforms
Roma volunteers, community members and Roma-led organizations have played a critical role in supporting Roma communities displaced by the war in Ukraine. Humanitarian donors, the UN and INGOs must provide funding and support to Roma-led organizations and ensure that Roma staff and volunteers are involved in supporting those displaced by the conflict. A key recommendation in the report is to support the creation of a transnational network that can offer comprehensive assistance and support to Roma people across borders.
- Challenge prejudice in humanitarian response and tailor it to Roma needs
The report reveals how Roma refugees from Ukraine face pervasive discriminatory behaviour from volunteers, staff, local and national authorities, representatives of social services and others participating in humanitarian efforts. Aid organisations must challenge such prejudice and take proactive steps to ensure staff and programmes are inclusive for Roma communities. They need to understand cultural sensitivities and establish targeted inclusion measures such as more support for Roma families with children.
- Involve Roma communities in decision making
This means not just consulting with them, but actively including their voices and perspectives so they can shape the policies and programmes that support their communities. That includes new coordination structures in the Ukraine response as well as taskforces and targeted liaison with communities to ensure the unique experiences and needs of Roma communities are reflected in the design and delivery of humanitarian aid.
- Ensure Roma refugees can access communications and hold organisations to account
Refugees and organizations agree that effective communication is essential to inform refugees and guide them to access vital services and support. That means making sure there is communication in languages used by Roma communities, formulating more inclusive communication strategies and ensuring information is available in accessible formats (ie. non-digital). That same inclusive approach also needs to be applied to ensure refugees can feed back and hold organisations to account for the services they provide.
It is obvious that a more inclusive approach is urgently needed back at the refugee centre in Bucharest, where Kasandra says Roma people are often excluded, even being left out of distributions of essentials such as soap. “It’s not distributed fairly,” she says. “If you’re Roma you’re going to be waiting a long time.”