The 23rd of February 2023 marked one year since the start of the attacks in Ukraine. During this one year, it is estimated that over 8.1 million people escaped Ukraine as refugees. Funds and volunteers have gathered around the world aiming to hamper this crisis, yet even in a moment of such crisis there has been space for further discrimination. Indeed multiple human rights organisation have reported the discrimination of Romani refugees from Ukraine. The Roma community has long been one of the most marginalised and discriminated-against groups in Europe, facing poverty, exclusion, and persecution in many countries. This has been especially true for Roma refugees from Ukraine, who have faced numerous challenges as they seek to rebuild their lives in new countries. Allegedly, Ukrainian Roma are not as welcome as other ethnic groups in countries where they seek refuge. This has created a tragic situation for the Roma, who are being forced to escape Ukraine without certainty that they will be accepted anywhere else due to their ethnic identity.
Romani people are an ethnic group often known in English as “Gypsies”. This term is considered negative by some Roma due to its negative connotations and associations with negative tropes. Romani people usually adapt to the language and culture of the countries that they inhabit, but nonetheless have their own language and national anthem. They originally spread from the Indian subcontinent, and dispersed throughout various countries especially in Eastern Europe and in the United States. In the past, the Roma have often been victims of hate crimes, discrimination, and ostracisation from society due to the negative stereotypes associated with their culture. These stereotypes ostracise the Roma from the governing societies of the countries they inhabit, putting them at greater danger. During the second World War, historians estimate that between 250000 and 500000 Romani people were killed during the Holocaust due to their ethnicity - the Roma call the Romani genocide the Porajmos, meaning the Devouring. This discrimination has left traces in pop culture as well, see for example Esmeralda from The Hunchback of Notre Dame faces for being Roma or shows like My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding that profit from the stereotype around Romani people while claiming to investigate their culture. In addition, in August 2020 the UN reported concern over the rise of crimes against Roma, and since the war in Ukraine began the Ukranian Roma have faced even more struggles.
A Romani minority has been present in Ukraine since the 15th century (SOURCE), and had faced discrimination even before the start of the war, in their own country. On October 17 2021 , a group of far-right radicals went around the streets of the Ukrainian city of Irpin, near Kyiv, going door to door and calling for violence against Ukrainian Roma. Members of this hate group chased after children and women with rocks, and burnt down tents in a Roma settlement. Thus, the Roma in Ukraine were already forced to face hatred and discrimination in their daily lives before being refugees. And now, they are being forced to suffer even more in the process of finding a new place to call home.
Episodes of discrimination against Romani refugees have been reported in many countries. A 2022 UNHCR report on the situation of Roma refugees in Poland reported the presence of many Roma refugees that had been refused entry to camps due to their ethnicity. CNN tells the story of Luiza and of other Roma refugees, who having left their home in Ukraine were sent to dirty repurposed immigration detention centres rather than being helped in finding more comfortable accommodation alongside non-Roma Ukrainians. In May 2022 Human Rights Watch announced that Romani refugees in Moldova were being housed separately from non-Romani Ukrainian refugees and were often denied housing. Human Rights Watch also reports on the story of Olga and her family (names changed to protect the family’s privacy), who faced discrimination upon arrival in Moldova from Ukraine. The family was not allowed to stay at the main building for Ukrainian refugees in Moldova, and was instead sent to stay at a previously abandoned university building that Moldovan authorities were using as housing for Romani people from Ukraine, along with other foreigners previously in Ukraine. When HRW asked Olga to confirm whether their family was Roma, her reply was “Yes, but we are normal (people)”. This heartbreaking reply shows the reality of Romani refugees, forced to face an already harsh situation with fear of being discriminated not only because of their status as refugees, but also because of their ethnic origins.
The experience of a refugee is hard enough without additional discrimination: Roma refugees have been forced to face language barriers and cultural differences, with an additional layer of difficulty caused by the stereotypes built against them. Already hardly integrated in their previous communities, they have been forced to leave the place they used to call home and go somewhere where they are even less wanted. This leads to a feeling of exclusion and marginalisation that isolates Roma communities even more, and makes it harder for the individual Romani refugee to seek help. Studies have shown that up to 40% of refugees suffer from PTSD after seeking asylum: isolation makes people more vulnerable, not only to physical threats, but to mental health problems that are much harder to combat in solitude. In addition, the Roma might feel forced to give up their traditions or hide their ethnicities. This, in the long run, could lead to the erasure of the culture and identity of thousands of people. And indeed, if integration requires erasure of fundamental parts of one’s person, is it really integration?
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Veronica is a first year Classics student at Oxford University. She researched and wrote this article as part of the Oxford University Micro Internship programme.