oDR: Feature

Ukraine’s Roma refugees housed in cold, cramped hostels and denied schooling

‘When local government people visit, they wear masks and gloves, as if they’re afraid of catching something.’

Alexander Faludy
20 December 2022, 10.18am

Children at the Csermajor shelter

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Alexander Faludy

“When local government people visit, they wear masks and gloves, as if they’re afraid of catching something from us. They are quite hostile,” says Anna, a young Roma woman.

Having fled her home in western Ukraine, she is now living with about 40 other displaced people, all Roma, in a refugee shelter in north-west Hungary. The shelter is in a disused boarding school on a remote spot outside the hamlet of Csermajor.

There’s no fighting around their home village near Uzhhorod, on Ukraine’s western border with Slovakia. But living conditions for Roma people, always precarious, have become even harder since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, thanks to the influx of internally displaced people from elsewhere in the country.

Roma activists in Hungary (and non-Roma professionals assisting the community) consistently describe conditions for Roma people in Zakarpattia as even worse than those they encounter domestically, even during peacetime.

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The region of Zakarpattia, also known as Transcarpathia, whose population comprises a complex mix of historic minorities, experienced multiple regime changes in the 20th century thanks to shifting borders. After the USSR’s collapse in 1991, it became one of the most economically depressed areas of Ukraine.

Roma people in the region tend to face double discrimination – for being Hungarian speakers, and for being Roma. Paradoxically, hostility from ethnic Hungarians in Ukraine can be severe, as the latter are keen to distinguish themselves from Roma in the eyes of other groups.

A recent survey of arrivals from Zakarpattia found that 36% of the families had no running water, 33% had no heating, and 38% had no electricity back home in Ukraine. Wartime conditions mean the food situation has become unsustainable. The displaced Roma I met in Hungary have crossed there reluctantly to wait out the duration of the conflict.

Though Hungarian-speaking, all the Roma people from the border region of Zakarpattia I meet hold only a Ukrainian passport and express a strong desire to return to their homes in Ukraine after the war. Looking at their housing conditions and hearing about the obstacles they face, it’s hard to think they would remain here unless they had to. When I ask Anna and others what the hardest thing about their present situation is, the answer is always the same: “Homesickness.”

mother with child square

Mother and young child housed at the shelter

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Alexander Faludy

Cold shelter

It’s cold inside the abandoned school – too cold to remove my coat. It’s late November, but the local authorities still haven’t turned on the heating.

“They’ve told us they’ll only [provide heating] if two families share a room. They’re only prepared to heat half the building because of the cost. What they want is just impossible, though,” 22-year-old father-of-four Aladár says angrily.

Looking at the space Aladár shares with his wife Erzi and their children, it’s obvious he’s right. It’s hard to imagine how six people manage to lie here horizontally at night, let alone more.

By day, people gather in their room because it’s one of only three in this vast, crumbling building to have an electric heater, on account of their one-year-old baby, Ibolya.

Ibolya is ill – her pallor in comparison to her parents and siblings is alarming – and Erzi has just taken her to the doctor. Along the corridor, Ibolya’s four-month-old cousin Péter has a bad cough. There’s an electric heater in his room too, but the bathroom opposite is freezing and has a patina of green mould.

Péter’s parents, Géza and Sára, have taken him to the doctor too, but they can’t afford the medicine prescribed, which costs around £10.

The family is short on food as well as money. Sára is having problems breastfeeding, and gives Péter formula milk from a bottle as we talk. A local social worker brings a small box of provisions daily, including bread, pasta, milk, cheese and eggs, but no fresh vegetables, fruit, meat or fish.

They all say that the tap water is unsafe, and drinking it unboiled will make you sick. The supply of nappies from the local authorities is inadequate – mothers can only change infants twice a day, worsening the already poor hygiene conditions.

living conditions at the shelter

In the corner of a room housing a family, a grill allows to cook food and provides some warmth ; bathroom which wall is covered in mould,

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Alexander Faludy

Hungary’s non-existent asylum system

Hungary’s asylum system was dismantled after Europe’s 2015 migration crisis and the radically xenophobic turn of president Viktor Orbán’s government. Refugees from Ukraine are welcome in theory. But the infrastructure to support them is non-existent.

The central government has relied (correctly in most cases) on the great majority of Ukrainians fleeing the war via Hungary travelling further west to other EU countries. It has done nothing to repair the deficit in provision for displaced people seeking protection since February.

But between 30,000 and 100,000 people (NGOs give different figures) have stayed in Hungary and not moved on. Usually Hungarian-speaking Roma people, or Ukrainains with complex medical needs who have difficulty travelling, these people are perilously vulnerable.

“Civil society [charities and NGOs] and local governments are carrying a heavy load without central state support,” explained Lilla Eredics, a sociologist and lead researcher behind a new report on the situation of Trans-Carpathian Romani Refugees Fleeing Ukraine (published by Hungarian NGO Romaversitas Foundation), when we met in Budapest a few days earlier.

The report outlines the challenges facing Roma refugees from Ukraine. “Discrimination is present structurally and in personal interactions. We see it countrywide across education, healthcare, housing and employment,” said Eredics, who is Roma herself. “Even within civil society, there’s a knowledge gap.”

NGOs usually work in very focused ways, said Eredics, but “Roma refugees sit at the intersection of two issues – migration and Roma integration”.

“This means organisations in both fields can see people in this situation as belonging mainly to each other’s sphere,” she says.

Eredics hopes that the report can help towards “more integrated and holistic approaches”.

“Roma refugees sit at the intersection of two issues – migration and Roma integration”.

“There are a number of important reasons why people may need to leave a country at war. Physical proximity to the fighting is only one of them”, she added.

‘Falling between the gaps’ is a familiar problem for the refugees in Csermajor. They report long, unexplained delays in processing applications for status documents, which means they can miss out on welfare provision and access to services.

After receiving permission to stay in Hungary for the short term (90 days), there is a long wait to get one-year residency status – a three-month gap after the short-term status has expired is typical, it seems.

The consequences can be stark. Pál, another young man currently staying at the shelter with his wife and two daughters, shows me the eviction notice from the shelter he has received. His 90-day residence permit card has expired but despite having applied on time he still hasn’t received his one-year card, which would grant him protection from eviction for 12 months. He has been given five days to leave.

Pál is visibly distressed, but hopes it’s an administrative formality that won’t be enforced. If thrown out, he would become homeless and it would split up the family.

Refugees from Ukraine are entitled to just 52 days of unemployment assistance in Hungary. In desperation, some of the people in Csermajor have ‘commuted’ to other EU countries to claim benefits, but this is no longer possible as EU states tighten procedures. “Only two families still do this,” Anna says.

Some adults have documents allowing them to work legally, but there’s precious little casual employment available off-season. Poor educational opportunities in Ukraine and prejudice towards Roma people in Hungary means better work isn’t available. If they’re lucky, the men can get a few days at the local poultry plant.

Though legal, such work can still cause trouble with authorities. “I made a little money and we went to buy food at the supermarket,” explains Géza. “One of the local authority social workers was there shopping and photographed us buying things, as if to prove we were scamming the system.”

classroom

Nearby, a recently renovated kindergarten includes a classroom specifically intended for short-term use for refugee children preparing for the Hungarian education system, which is used very little.

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Alexander Faludy

Schooling problems

The dozen or so children at the refugee shelter in Csermajor have limited access to education, which also seems to be deliberately segregated.

“It is very upsetting,” says teacher Fruzsina Márkus-Zalatnay, who co-organised a summer school in Sopron [a nearby city] for Roma refugee kids. Forty teachers volunteered to provide intense coaching, to smooth the children’s entry to Hungary’s school system in September.

“In other cases this worked, but with the Csermajor children we were thwarted,” she said.

At the start of the new school year, the local school director refused to admit Roma children to classes alongside non-Roma pupils, claiming their needs couldn’t be met within the normal system.

“Admittedly, there is a problem because these children aren’t fully literate,” said Márkus-Zalatnay. “They can’t be immediately integrated into classes for their age group [but] what’s happening clearly isn’t the best solution.”

Instead, the children receive two hours a day of entirely segregated tuition in an unheated room in their refugee shelter, delivered by a teacher sent by the local school. Children of different ages, from six to 15, are taught in the same group.

Meanwhile, there is a well-equipped and heated kindergarten in another nearby building, renovated jointly by UNHCR and the Red Cross. It includes a school room specifically intended for short-term use for refugee children preparing for the Hungarian education system – but it can’t be used for standard lessons.

There are contradictory explanations as to why, indicating a disagreement of some sort between local social workers and educational officials on the one hand, and Red Cross representatives on the other.

“I think this classroom was meant to be used more, but something went wrong before I started,” explains Erika, a retired teacher who has volunteered to provide some basic literacy tuition at the Red Cross centre three hours a week. She has no contact with the teacher sent from the school and no one on site can explain the situation.

“It’s hard to motivate the children to get up in the morning and go to the cold school room, or to return there after lunch break,” Erzi explained. “It’s sad because the summer school in Sopron was really good for them. They were happy. I’d like them to learn.”

Neither the Hungarian government’s International Communications Office nor the country’s National Roma Self-Government, which represents Roma people in Hungary’s parliament, responded to requests for comment.

Since the time of reporting, a short documentary showing living conditions for Roma housed in the Csermajor shelter has been aired on Hungarian YouTube channel Partizán. Márkus-Zalatnay told openDemocracy this had prompted the authorities to turn the heating on and provide more food to the people housed there.

mother and children

Mother and children housed at the shelter

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Alexander Faludy

Ukrainian journalists share their stories of war

Hear Igor Burdyga and Kateryna Semchuk explain what it's like working in a homeland under threat. Plus British author Oliver Bullough and chair Daniel Trilling.

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