Europe faces an uncertain winter of crippling new energy and food prices, as well as the continuing war in Ukraine. These worries are particularly acute for those who have had to flee the conflict. For many Ukrainian refugees, especially Roma people, the only certainty this winter is that they’ll struggle to cope with these new challenges alone.
In a dilapidated former university outside of Chisinau, Moldova, 70-year-old Ilia* lives in a single room with her daughter, who is blind, and two grandchildren. One of her granddaughters is in a wheelchair and “has to ask a man” to carry her down the stairs when she needs the shower or toilet outside. Ilia doesn’t have the proper papers which means she can’t get all of the cash assistance she’s entitled to.
In a holiday park outside the city, Laura*, 40, and her husband are renting a cabin after fleeing Odessa with their four children when the shelling got too dangerous. They too now live in the one single room, with one bed and thin sheets. They have no heating, no toys for the children, no internet, no work, and no winter clothes.
Like many in this community Laura* wants to stay in Moldova so they can go home as soon as the war is over. She wants her kids to have a better future, to have access to education, but she doesn’t know how that will happen. Photo: Lottie Stevenson/Oxfam
Both Ilia and Laura are Roma, a minority ethnicity that has faced discrimination in the region for centuries. For many refugees like them, seeking safety from the war is made even more difficult just because they are Roma - groups in society that already face poverty and discrimination invariably also become the most vulnerable of refugees.
Oxfam and its Moldovan civil society partners recently interviewed Ilia, Laura and dozens of other Roma refugees living in refugee accommodation centres and private houses around Moldova. This small country of just 2.6m people has done much to welcome over 600,000 refugees – 65% of them women – who have crossed the border from Ukraine, as well as to support the roughly 90,000 who have stayed in the country since.
Moldova and other countries were criticized when stories broke about the discrimination against Roma refugees. It is still difficult to know exactly how much support is reaching Roma refugees because there is very little data being collected about them. The Moldovan government has taken good first steps to improve, in June establishing a Roma community mediator as part of its Joint Crisis Management Centre with UNHCR, and a Roma Task Force to work directly on issues concerning Roma refugees. However, challenges remain and Roma refugees continue to struggle.
Unsafe and poorly equipped accommodation for the winter ahead
From what we saw, a lot of the accommodation offered to Roma people is often unsafe, inaccessible to shops and amenities, crowded, and poorly equipped for the winter ahead. At one centre there were 10-16 people to a room with dormitory-style beds - “but at least we’re in a safe place,” one person told us. There are not usually enough showers, toilets and hot and cold water, and little access to NGO or government services.
This is worrying because other refugee accommodation centres in the country, like the MoldExpo centre in Chisinau, seem to be much higher quality, but Roma people have shared their stories of being denied refuge at MoldExpo and transferred instead to inferior accommodation for Roma people only.
The atmosphere toward Roma in these centres can be hostile. Roma refugees told us they hadn’t been provided with enough essentials like food, washing powder, and medicines. Staff can make them feel uncomfortable asking for more even of these basic items: “Why are you asking [for this]? You shouldn’t ask.” Others spoke about being treated without respect when they try to complain – “if you don’t like it, go home” – or of casual racism, with some staff saying “don’t talk in your language” when they hear refugees speaking in Romanes.
Moldova has helpfully opened up access for refugees to services like healthcare, including into an insurance program for children to get to see a doctor for free. However, for the Roma refugees we spoke to, this hasn’t always translated into access in practice. They face barriers like lack of information about how to access this healthcare, and high transport costs to travel to appointments. What little money they have or get in assistance they are spending now on covering gaps, but prices are rising fast and people are getting worried.
A makeshift kitchen has been established by residents outside at this refugee accommodation centre (RAC) in Moldova. The RAC consists of cabins at a privately-owned holiday park, which now hosts about 30 families who have fled Ukraine, most of whom are Roma. Residents here are worried about the winter: the cabins they are living in have no heating, and there are no indoor kitchen facilities. Photo: Lottie Stevenson/Oxfam
According to local Oxfam partner Centrul de Drept al Avocatilor, most Roma refugees it supports are wary of applying for asylum - but they do want to stay in Moldova legally and temporarily. “We’re not here because we want to be. We’re here because of the war,” one said. Most told us they want to return to Ukraine - even though it is unclear when that will be a safe option and what will be left when they get there.
Some of the Roma people we spoke to wanted to move on to other places in Europe, like Germany, where they thought work or healthcare access would be easier. But a consistent problem for many Roma people from Ukraine is a lack of identity documents, like passports and birth certificates. We were told that up to 40% of Roma refugees in Moldova lack proper papers, often because they’re afraid of persecution or being linked to one place. This means that travelling further afield or even registering for aid becomes difficult. New documents are costly and complicated to get.
Roma people need to be heard
But perhaps the most important things that Roma refugees need are information and consultation. They need to know where to get aid, or food, or services, how to make complaints, what are their rights – all in a language they can understand. Information needs to be geared toward Roma women, who make up the majority of refugees, and that is sensitive to the Roma culture. And Roma people need to be heard – unless they are consulted about decisions that affect them, efforts to help address their needs will fall flat.
Given this, it is crucial that all the actors involved in the humanitarian response ensure Roma people are informed, consulted and involved in decision-making to address their needs, taking gender differences into account. The Government should take steps to provide improved accommodation adequate for the winter, facilitate educational opportunities for Roma children and adolescents, and improve Roma refugees’ access to healthcare services.
At the same time is important that the international community do not leave the government alone in this task - we need to support the Moldovan government and local organizations, particularly Roma-led organizations and Roma activists, in their efforts in solidarity with Roma people fleeing Ukraine.
*Name changed to protect identity