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Roma refugees from Ukraine begin new life

29 July 2022

Gábor Csanádi/HEF

A child at the HEF Roma Refugee shelter in Budapest

A child at the HEF Roma Refugee shelter in Budapest

I’M EXCITED to be learning to read and write at last. I sit with my grandchildren while they are being taught, and learn, too,” Marianna says as we talk in the corridor of her emergency housing in southern Hungary.

Marianna left Ukraine three months ago. She shares the accommodation with a daughter, son-in-law and seven grandchildren. There are no beds — just mattresses on the floor — but the bungalow is clean. The family has three meals a day and the beginnings of an education. Like many Roma arriving from Ukraine, they are illiterate.

Marianna shows me into the room she shares with two other family members. Initially, she has to be encouraged to take a seat at the table with me and the interpreter, rather than sit below us on the floor. Being treated as an equal by non-Roma is a new experience.

Her portrait of Roma-life in Ukraine, even pre-war, is bleak. “Sometimes we had jobs, working on farms or washing cars, but for chunks of the year we had no work and sometimes went hungry,” she says.

Now things are worse. “There are no jobs and no food. Some of my other children are still in Kárpátalja [Ukraine’s border region with Hungary]. They can’t feed their animals — there’s no grain. They want to leave, but first they must sell the animals — if they can.”

Marianna has bad memories of hostility towards Roma in Ukraine from other groups. “They hate us,” she says. According to the Open Society Foundations (OSF) Roma Initiative, right-wing paramilitary groups such as C-14 “frequently attack Roma neighbourhoods . . . chant hateful slogans and publicly call for violence against Roma”.

Worse, Ukrainian state institutions “do not react or protect Roma” — even when attacks turn lethal. The murder of the Kharkiv Roma community leader Mykola Kapitsky in 2017 remains unexplained. As mysterious as the death is the police’s lack of interest in investigating it.

Transcarpathia is far from the fighting in East and Southern Ukraine. Understandably, though, since February, many Roma-people have fled rather than risk starvation or ethnic tension sharpened by competition for scarce resources.

Crossing the border is easier said than done. OSF reports that Ukrainian authorities segregate Roma into separate, longer queues at the western frontiers. Russia invaded in winter, and most Roma lack suitable clothing. In March, one Roma baby died of exposure after an extended wait at the Slovakian border.

The Council of Europe estimates that before 24 February the Roma population of Ukraine numbered about 400,000. Gauging the number who have fled since 24 February is challenging. “No one knows for sure, but the prevalent best-guess in NGO circles is around one third [133,000],” Zeljko Jovanovic, the director of OSF’s Roma Initiatives, says.

“Strangely, almost no one is talking about this issue, or how to help with the specific needs of the Roma community. Roma seem invisible in the refugee flow — and they risk falling through the gaps.”

Roma from main body of Ukraine predominantly flee west, heading for Germany and the Czech Republic. But Roma from Transcarpathia are Hungarian-speaking, and inclined to stay in Hungary. Most, however, are stateless, having never had their births registered with the Ukrainian authorities. Arrivals often possess only a baptism certificate, but many don’t even have that.

Under Hungary’s 2010 Nationality Law, they have a claim to Hungarian Citizenship based on their linguistic-identity. It remains to be seen, however, what attitude Viktor Orbán’s nationalist government, known for its anti-Roma sentiment, will take towards their applications.

Gábor Csanádi/HEFA child at the HEF Roma Refugee shelter in Budapest

UNHCR reports that about 1.3 million people have entered Hungary from Ukraine since the outbreak of hostilities in February. However, the overwhelming majority of these refugees have since moved on elsewhere.

Only about 25,000 people from Ukraine have registered for refugee status in Hungary. That statistic may, however, be misleading. Informally, migration NGOs think the number of long-term stayers is now approaching the 100,000 figure projected in March by Hungary’s Maltese Charity Service.

Aid workers at several organisations estimate that 90 to 95 per cent of arrivals are Roma. “As Hungarian speakers they tend to disappear from view in public awareness,” Mr Jovanovic says. “They are basically indistinguishable from local Hungarian Roma, so are often not perceived as refugees.”

Given the level of educational assistance and help to integrate these arrivals need, the potential for strain on public and voluntary services is significant.

“Hungary’s social-care system was already at breaking point beforehand. It has no slack to deal with maybe another 100,000 people needing support,” says Ákos Surányi of Menedékház Alapítvány (Shelter Foundation) in Budapest’s 11th District.

Menedékház, a long-time partner of St Margaret’s Anglican Chaplaincy in Budapest, recently received a grant of £30,000 from the relief fund administered jointly by the diocese in Europe and USPG.

The grant will cover about half the cost of accommodating and supporting five families for a year. These are likely to be Roma. Costs are high because of the size of family groups. “Typically, we are talking about two parents and eight children,” Mr Surányi says.

“It’s wonderful we can do this thanks to the support of the Anglican Church. However, this help needs to be replicated many times over across Hungary. I fear it won’t be,” he says.

“Just now, many Roma are accommodated in wooden huts at Lake Balaton. Normally, Budapest boroughs use these for kids’ summer camps. They aren’t suitable as winter accommodation, but it isn’t clear there are enough proper housing units to move people into.”

The vulnerability of Roma is often compounded by their lack of experience of the world beyond their favela-type settlements on the edges of Ukrainian villages.

This puts them at heightened risk of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. Friendly, but inauthentic “helpers” wait at border crossings offering car and bus rides to Roma-arrivals, together with promises of “good work”. Sometimes, they try and convince churches that they have suitable accommodation to move Roma on to from the temporary reception centres.

“I’m desperate to get our families into proper accommodation, but had to turn several offers down,” says Eszter Gerendas, Refugee Co-ordinator at the Hungarian Evangelical Fellowship’s (HEF’s) Budapest Office.

“People know we take in Roma arrivals; not all churches do, alas. Sometimes, people without honourable intentions make contact. I’ve had a few people become evasive very quickly when I’ve asked for information for background checks or asked to see accommodation. That made me suspicious, and I ended the exploration.”

Marianna and her family are more fortunate. From a temporary shelter near the border, they moved into accommodation provided by Hungarian Gypsy Missions International (HGMI) at its headquarters in Békés, southern Hungary.

HGMI is not just a mission organisation but an autonomous, Roma-led, diocese of the Hungarian Pentecostal Church. Pentecostalism has had a modest presence in Hungary since 1928, but has grown since the fall of Communism in 1989, especially among Roma. Presently, HGMI accommodates about 150 people in ten centres.

“We think it is good for these people to be with us,” the president of HGMI, Albert Durkó, says. “Being with other Roma is reassuring for people who have suffered bad experiences from wider society where they come from. With us, they are also surrounded by the love of a Christian community.”

VIVIEN FILO/ HGMIMarianna and her family in emergency accommodation in Hungary

But Mr Durkó is also aware that there is a balance to be struck between providing appropriately tailored services and not reinforcing segregation. “We try and teach them skills which will help them integrate into wider society over time,” he says.

HGMIs also employs non-Roma staff to help with its social and educational work. This can help arrivals to build trust between Roma and non-Roma people — something that is significant.

“One little boy in our shelter said something strikingly sad,” Ms Gerendas says. “He told me, ‘It is strange: my daddy is scared now because of the war, and he’s not usually even afraid of people.’ The implication was that being afraid of people was normal.”

Aid workers working with Roma arrivals have their own fears, though, especially about money. Even before the war, many of the NGOs now offering assistance functioned at the margin of viability. They are not optimistic about domestic fund-raising. Roma are not a popular cause in Hungary.

“Hungarian society’s response to refugees from Ukraine was initially very generous, but it started to decline fast once people saw it was mainly Roma who stayed,” the Roma-rights activist Aladár Horváth says.

Ms Gerendas agrees. “In the first month of the war [HEF] got about £30,000 of donations from the public, but there’s been almost nothing since. Even what we got then was really only about one month’s funding for this work; presently, we’re helping around 50 people in Budapest shelter.”

HEF has long been under pressure from Hungary’s authoritarian government (News, 25 February); so the situation is doubly difficult. “We’re doing our best, but the challenges for us are existential,” she says.

Yet people helping Roma arrivals also emphasise the blessing that comes with it. Mr Durkó says: “If there is one thing I want people outside the situation to know, it’s this: these people are God’s precious gift to us to look after, for a time.”

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