“Be careful out there, in that Gypsy district” – anti-gypsyism in a war situation

According to the European Agency for Fundamental Rights data, Roma are the most persecuted minority in Europe. During the 49th session of the Human Rights Council, the international organization Minority Rights Group (MRG), operating in Ukraine, alarmed that human rights violations against Roma and Roma women have significantly increased since the beginning of Russian aggression. In the wake of the war in Ukraine, according to NGO estimates, approximately 10 000 Roma have reached Poland. There are no precise figures, as information on ethnicity or membership of minorities is not collected. How are Roma refugees treated? What exactly is anti-gypsyism and how does it affect the perception of minority groups referred to as Gypsies? Who are the Gadje? You will find more on this topic in the analysis by researchers and activists Elżbieta Mirga-Wójtowicz and Kamila Fiałkowska:

Tkest o antycyganizmie


Two weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we visited reception centres on the Ukrainian border. As we were visiting one such place in Korczowa, we heard “be careful out there, in that Gypsy district”. These words came from one of the guards, who spoke to us, seemingly innocently, knowing that we were making our way to Roma refugees from Ukraine. Something that – to a casual observer – could have seemed like a crude joke, a harmless comment made without much thinking, is essentially a symptomatic proof of the thing that was at the heart of our visit.

Ukrainian Roma, just like other residents of Ukraine, are among the refugees who have been fleeing Ukraine to Poland, among other places. Often, the Polish service personnel had first contact with them in the reception centres mentioned above. There are some 400 thousand Roma in Ukraine itself. The official data regarding the size of Roma communities in Europe is usually underestimated, and so the final number of Roma from Ukraine could be higher.  

In the context of fleeing war, it would make sense to remind ourselves of the situation of Ukrainian Roma prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The situation impacts the approach and fears of Roma vis a vis Ukrainians in various spaces – reception points, the border, or towards volunteers. Since April 2018, five attacks on the Roma have been noted in Ukraine. The attacks targeted women and children in various parts of the country, including Kyiv, but also in Kharkiv, Ternopil and Lviv. Camps and belongings were destroyed, families were chased away. In 2018, on the night of the 23rd of July, a violent attack took place on a Roma camp on the outskirts of Lviv. During the attack, a 23-year-old Roma man died, and four further people were injured, including a 10-year-old boy and a woman. On 2 July 2018, a Roma woman was murdered in the region of Zakarpattia: the attack took place just 9 days after the previous murder outside Lviv. This was also noted by mainstream European media. These dramatic events from four years ago have a huge influence on the situation of Roma people today, and the relationships between refugees from Ukraine.

According to the estimates by NGOs, some 10,000 Roma have arrived in Poland. No exact data exists as information about ethnicity or membership of a minority is not collected.

Let’s return to the guard and his statement: what hides behind it, and what his warning, even if it’s silly, tells us about the so-called Gypsies (i.e., the Roma, one of the groups of Ukrainian war refugees), or, on the contrary, what it tells us about the majority society – the world of Gadjos, proud of helping refugees, and the cracks that appear in this image. The cracks are not new. Gadjo is a word commonly used in the Roma language and refers to non-Romani persons. The prejudices and stereotypes towards Roma (among others) are, after all, an immanent part of European culture.

The expression of the guard from Korczowa said it all. In a nutshell, we shouldn’t go there, because there’s Gypsies out there. He didn’t mean that they were Ukrainian refugees, who, along with their compatriots, had fled bombs and death, who needed help, whom we can feel compassionate about and can show solidarity with, just like we do towards others who have fled their country. The key fact was that these people were Gypsies. Another crucial part was the unspoken assumption that we thought alike and had a common definition of the situation – we all know that they’re Gypsies, and we understand what it means. And it doesn’t mean anything good in popular perception. Through his behaviour, the guard, who was most likely an average representative of Polish society, demonstrated stereotypical thinking about the Roma. Based on the narratives, information and knowledge imprinted in him through politics, the church, media and society, he grouped, classed, racialised and ethnicised the representatives of Ukrainian refugees as Roma. From the outset, he attributed to them a set of negative characteristics associated with Gypsies. And he warned us – there they are, you know what to expect, right? Everybody knows, and so – be careful out there.

Even in the Polish Language Dictionary, the word “Cygan” (Gypsy) means a cheat, liar, swindler, and the verb “cyganić” (to “gypsy”) means to cheat. Gypsies steal children, Gadjo grandmothers would say to their Gadjo grandchildren when they wanted to discipline them. The attitude of the guard is symptomatic and, as such, is not isolated. At the same time, his words show how deeply rooted the stereotype of a Gypsy is in people’s consciousness.

What we’re dealing with here is classic anti-gypsyism. This term is used interchangeably with Romaphobia or anti-Roma racism. Romaphobia consists of negative convictions, judgments, approaches, emotional attitudes (e.g. dislike, fear, contempt, hate, disgust) towards the Roma and Sinti (people colloquially called Gypsies). Romaphobia finds sustenance in stereotypes and the perception of Roma people. Consequently, it leads to the acceptance of a conviction that all members of the Romani community display pathological characteristics and behaviours. According to a definition suggested by the Alliance Against Anti-Gypsyism, anti-gypsyism is a deeply rooted, historically stable and multifaceted, specific type of racism against Roma, Sinti, Travellers, and all those who are labelled as Gypsies. There are a number of key concepts related to Roma people that are all linked to anti-gypsyism, such as orientalism, nomadism, rootlessness and backwardness. Anti-gypsyism is a theory based around stereotypes, which “homogenises and essentialises perception and description of this group”. This approach is homogenising, which means that all members of a given group are seen as the same, and as behaving in a particular way. They are usually attributed deviant, negative characteristics, and more rarely positive ones. This attribution of “gypsy” characteristics to a group or people, declares them as a circle or persons treated as “abnormal”, “foreign”, as those who are unable to adjust and position themselves as members of the dominant society.

Aside for perceiving themselves as Roma, Romani people identify themselves through other categories, such as national origin or religion, or a relationship to the space of a village, city, state. The recognition by majority societies of this fact still remains a challenge. There is an established belief among Gadjos (non-Roma) of a group without any roots, a people without history, impractical and carelessly living in the “eternal present”. A situation where the Roma are rooted, both sociologically and in the context of their identity, is therefore a challenge for the majority society, a cognitive dissonance, to which it reacts negatively, and the Roma are perceived as a threat to public order because, stereotypically, “Gypsies” are people who “live differently”, “have no roots”, are “nomads”, who are “inclined towards crime” and “do not adhere to social and legal norms”. This image of carefree Gypsies, long nurtured among Gadjos, has been one that challenges western culture, a culture disciplined and structured around maintaining the memory of the achievements of their own civilisation.

Such stereotypical statements and convictions are present in social, scientific, political and media discourse. On the other hand anti-gypsyism also manifests itself through attributing to the Roma population cultural characteristics or behaviour that many perceive as positive. And so Gypsies and Roma are often spoken about as “free birds”, “romantic lovers”. Consequently, for example,  the image of Roma women has become sexualised, even though, regionally speaking, there are more similarities than differences, for example, in the sphere of moral issues among Roma and non-Roma (for example, the socially constructed value of virginity in patriarchal societies, treasured in many European societies). It is likely that due to social distance and the unavailability of Roma women, a grafting of fantasies of non-Roma on the subject of Roma women occurred, which both objectified and humiliated them in the eyes of the majority society. The image of “mysterious”, and yet fun-loving “musical people” became bacchanalised, and the Roma were simultaneously fascinating and repulsive. They were placed outside the “correct” and “proper” social culture shaped by the majority society. And accusations of the alleged violation of moral norms caused the Roma to be seen outright as a threat.

And so, also positive stereotypes have negative consequences because they are based around the assumption that the Roma are markedly different from non-Roma (Gadjos), and these differences cannot be bridged. A logical consequence of this statement is a conviction that a harmonious co-existence and communication between the Roma and Gadjos is impossible, because the Roma have a specific culture, which excludes the sharing of common values. All of the above only confirms that “anti-gypsyism has a collective, and not an individual nature, and it is aimed at everyone perceived by society as Gypsies or presented as such by the majority”.

The guard’s “warning” reveals that stereotypes and prejudices against the Roma are very much alive and no professional or social groups are immune to them. In theory, state authorities should remain professional and follow the principle of not profiling arriving refugees in terms of their ethnicity. Unfortunately, we do know that things do not happen this way. Still, it is puzzling that even in the face of war and the threat to life, the victims are differentiated and prioritised based on stereotypes and prejudices. Such superficial and generalising narratives about the Roma, and not only them, are created, repeated and kept alive through public discourse and some media. This process translates directly into the construction of public policies and the functioning of state and social institutions.

A blatant example of this is the currently observed schizophrenic state narrative on the subject of refugees and aid in Poland, relating to the starkly different treatment by the authorities of the humanitarian crises on the Belarussian and Ukrainian borders. Since the summer of 2021, the situation on the Belarussian border has not been referred to as a humanitarian crisis. There is only talk of refugees as an instrumentalised element of so-called “hybrid war”, which is used as a pretext to legitimise aggression and the violation of international law on international protection, illegal pushbacks and the refusal to accept asylum applications or provide aid to refugees. At the same time, we are also experiencing the criminalisation of providing help – an issue faced by local and visiting activists who carry out activities on the Polish-Belarussian border. The area around the border was previously declared a state-of-emergency zone (until 1 March 2022), and is currently covered by a prohibition from entering (from 2 March until the end of June 2022), which means that entering the area has been made difficult for persons who are not local residents and requires permission to enter from a commanding officer of the Border Guard.

The narrative relating to the Ukrainian border and aid provided to war refugees is entirely different and speaks of giving help regardless of the circumstances. In this context, we see a mobilisation and a touching scale of generosity, solidarity and help on the part of Polish men and women. At the same time, the law of 12 March 2022 on aid for refugees clearly defines who it refers to – the citizens of Ukraine. All other residents of Ukraine who remained on its territory prior to 24 February 2022 are not covered by the official state aid and can only count on help and the grassroots initiatives of Polish citizens and non-governmental organisations. They can also travel to other EU member states, or return to their countries of origin, if at all possible.

The national rush to provide aid to refugees from Ukraine that we have been witnessing since the beginning of war has shown a great outpouring of positive attitudes among Polish society, but it has also revealed something else. Namely, displays of racism, whether towards Roma people or black students, all of whom were also fleeing war. The presence of Roma among refugees from Ukraine has proven to be a challenge, one related to the simplified perception by neighbouring countries of Ukraine and its residents as an ethnically homogenous state, and to a limited knowledge of the Roma community, the specifics of its culture, the great variety among these peoples, and their regionally dissimilar histories of discrimination, persecution and pogroms. This has resulted in an array of protective mechanisms being developed among the Roma communities, which are either not understood, or misinterpreted, by the outside world.

In this context, it is also important to point out that general knowledge about the Roma was, and still is, shaped mostly by the non-Roma. The circle of social researchers, for example of Gypsylorism ( cyganologia - a field of research straddling ethnology and linguistics), but also sociologists, anthropologists or political scientists who take up Roma issues in the context of their disciplines, are all dominated by the non-Roma. Romani researchers in Poland are a small circle. Their critical voice rarely reaches the wider public, especially seeing as they undermine the almost dogmatic findings of respected authorities in Gypsylorism. The academic field is one of many that produces distorted knowledge on the Roma, but we can also find simplifications and misinterpretations in journalistic texts or statements made by politicians. What these domineering narratives lack is a critical approach and a questioning of the essentialising, ethnocentric discourse. There are no thematically varied and interdependent narratives, and there is no interdisciplinary approach that would reflect the socially complex reality of Romani people. But most of all there is no voice or opinion of the Roma themselves.

As for representation, language and the question of who is speaking (a Roma or a non-Roma, a Gadjo), one of the most widely discussed (and contested) subjects in the area of etymology is whether a person speaking is a Roma or a Gypsy, what is politically correct, and whether all people described as Gypsies really want to be called this. It is worth pointing out that the Roma themselves have made their own statement on the topic. This of course does not mean that all Roma support this position. Let us remember that Romani communities are very diverse and have varying historical experiences, customs and traditions. During the first World Romani Congress in London in 1971, the word “Roma” was adopted as a term to encompass all Romani groups while respecting the varied panorama of Romani communities around the world. This move was also an element of developing and consolidating the new Romani political identity. It is a relatively late form of shaping political recognition of the Roma in Europe. The idea of change in this area was taken up by the movement for the “transformation of ethical identity”. It thrived in the 1990s and is represented, among others, by two Romani intellectuals and activists: Nicoleae Gherorghe and Andrzej Mirga. The idea was expressed in Gherorghe and Mirga’s political manifesto, “Romowie w XXI wieku. Studium polityczne” [The Roma in the 21st century. A political study]. The authors promoted the use of the word “Roma” in order to better the status of the European Roma, to eliminate the usage of abusive terms, to strengthen the positive Roma identity and, simultaneously, effect the symbolic transition from the status of “slave” and “pariah” to that of a citizen in their own right, and proud Roma.

From a “stolen” tank to self-advocacy and the construction of a transnational solidarity for the Ukrainian Roma

The tank, seized outside Kherson by the Roma, or “stolen” as we first heard from the Ukrainian, and then the Polish, information agencies, became a wartime symbol of Roma resourcefulness, of outwitting Gadjos. Outwitting a Gadjo was simultaneously outwitting the enemy. These Gadjos were Russians. When focusing on this event, reports stressed how finally the “Gypsy guile” benefited the country. Yet the very wording about the theft of the tank chimed in with the image and stereotypes of the Roma. While other unarmed civilians, or Ukrainian farmers, could valiantly seize or take over the tank from the occupiers, the Gypsies stole it, as is allegedly their custom. The Polish president Andrzej Duda described the situation on Twitter in the same vein, additionally sprinkling it with laughing emoticons. What we are dealing with here is the effect of a stereotype, which in this case undoubtedly warmed the image of the Roma. However, the positive message about this group is based around a trait attributed to the Roma that makes them the least likeable social group. This reveals a kind of paradox, a psychological mechanism. When war forces us to confront the great unknown, with the moral order turned upside down, we seek familiar patterns and interpretations. In a world that had lost all predictability, that became the domain of chaos, violence and cruelty, the thieving Roma brought back a certain fixed component from the normative order of the old world. After all, what else can we expect from the Roma? Not bravery, not heroism, but theft.

Allegations of theft have accompanied the Roma at every stage of their refugee experience. A resident of Kyiv, posting on social media about her evacuation, described a scene she’d witnessed at a Kyiv railway station. In the queue for an evacuation train, someone called out for people to be careful and mind their belongings because there were Roma there, and they could steal things. “Yes, we’re Gypsies,” a response came, “but we are also Ukrainians”. The agitated crowd calmed down thanks to a resolute and firm response from an older Roma woman who pointed out that the Roma, just like all other residents of Ukraine, are not only affected by the Russian invasion, but that they are, most of all, also Ukrainians. In reception centres across Poland, Roma women are viewed with suspicion when they take clothing or food. There is the insinuation that they don’t do so because their families are hungry or in need, but because they simply want to take the items and sell them at a profit. No such case has been noted, but the allegations of these women abusing the aid system are certainly present.

There are no official reports on the discrimination against refugees from Ukraine. However, the communication between Roma and non-Roma activists in Poland, reports by journalists, and statements from the Ukrainian Roma themselves show that they all too often fall victim to unequal, discriminatory treatment and racist practices. For example, when calling places offering accommodation to refugees, we find out the beds are no longer available. They are not available to Roma families, but, as it sadly turns out, they are available for other Ukrainians. We don’t find this out directly, but all it takes is to make a call again and not provide information that the accommodation is needed for Roma people. Some say outright that they are unable to accept Roma, because they do not have stamps in their documents (or have no documents at all, which is raises suspicion as to whether the Roma can prove their Ukrainian citizenship), because they steal things, or because “we don’t want to take Gypsies in because they have head lice”. There have already been interventions in such cases by representatives of the Polish Ombudsman, and the Ombudsman himself has pointed out this growing problem to the Polish Government Plenipotentiary for War Refugees from Ukraine.

We have much evidence to show that Ukrainians of Roma heritage are treated as second-class refugees. At the same time, the authorities are convinced that as much as everyone should help refugees from Ukraine, it is the Polish Roma that should care for the Ukrainian Roma (just as a reminder, there are as many as several dozen thousand Roma in Poland, according to various estimates). Individual non-governmental organisations and local governments work together and help to coordinate aid for refugees, call up activists to ask for help in resolving housing issues and mediation in conflict situations. Even experienced NGO staff who work with migrants and refugees seem to have no idea how to help Romani refugees. Even though many NGOs declare that they provide help to all those seeking it, they clearly expect Roma NGOs to look after Roma refugees in the hope that it will be the Roma who will solve this difficult situation.

The relatively small group of Roma activists in Poland, supported by Gadjo allies, has remained on high alert ever since the full-scale war began. During interventions, knowledge of Romani, but often also Russian and Ukrainian is required. What is also needed, or perhaps most of all, is contact with other Roma, so that Ukrainian Roma are able to overcome their fear and concerns, make contact with volunteers and build an understanding with them. On the basis of pre-existing activist networks, new initiatives have formed. Through social media, these groups are able to remain in contact, coordinate their activities, network, and mobilise their resources.

In the current situation, personal networks and professional contacts play an important role in building this social capital and coordinating aid. The aid is spontaneous, effective, despite being quite chaotic at times, depending on where it is needed, who can provide it, where the people are and when they are available. Let us not forget that in this work we are there to support the state, and not to do its job. The cooperation with local governments or NGOs is necessary, but it is chiefly the state that has both the human and financial resources to provide aid in the most professional and responsible way.

Tensions and conflict among refugees, transnational racism

Accepting Ukrainian refugees who have crossed the Polish border (almost 3 million people have crossed this border since 24 February 2022) and securing their needs is a huge challenge, both logistically and in terms of supplies (at the moment it is difficult to determine how many people actually remain in Poland, and how many have left; so far the number of applications to assign a national identification number – PESEL – is close to 1 million). Differentiating between refugees in terms of their ethnic background is one of the biggest issues when it comes to accepting refugees from Ukraine. Unfortunately, this is not an unfamiliar issue for the Roma, Roma activists and human rights activists. It is more of a continuation of anti-Roma prejudice. In moments of crisis, pronounced social traumas and tensions that have been observed up until recently in the case of the Covid-19 pandemic, and that are seen now in the context of the war in Ukraine, the strongly marginalised minorities are usually burdened the most with exclusion, violation of their rights, or are even blamed for various negative consequences of the events that are beyond their control.

There are frequent tensions among refugees themselves, which the Roma are blamed for causing. Roma activists attempting to help Roma refugees are attacked verbally or blamed for insufficient care of the “problem”, i.e., the Roma. Children playing too loudly are Romani children, other children do not play loudly. The washing machines used by female Romani refugees are not so keenly used by other female refugees from Ukraine, as if using them threatened them with some indelible social stigma.

We spoke to some Roma who were taken from reception centres and driven to Berlin, Germany, without a word of explanation, or any support. It looked as if somebody wanted to remove them as quickly as possible. They returned to Poland within a few days and informed others not to go to Germany, saying that no one there provided them with any care. This is problematic in the sense that it makes cooperation difficult with trusted partners from Germany, predominantly Romani organisations, which are ready to accept refugee families from Ukraine, both Roma and non-Roma. Romani families feel anxious about travelling to Germany after hearing frightening information from other Roma.

A volunteer from Korczowa told us that a while ago a group of 100 Roma from Ukraine disappeared one day. From pieces of information, the volunteer was able to establish that regional and local officials attempted to send them on a morning train to Berlin. It looks like the group was forced to travel to Germany and to the north of Poland in order to board a ferry to Sweden. Officially, no one knows where these people are, there is also no information about who took care of them. The same volunteer also informed us that the people who come to the border to offer accommodation react badly to Roma families and are not interested in giving them help. They say: “We don’t want any Gypsies”.

Transnational mobilisation of the Roma for the Roma

The negative information has led to an incredible consolidation and mobilisation of the Roma community, both in Poland and abroad. A number of hugely important transnational initiatives have been established, to name just a few:

- The documentation initiative of ERIAC: following the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture ERIAC decided to give its support to Roma in Ukraine and Romani refugees from Ukraine, and to document and build Romani historical memory of the war. One of these initiatives is the “Roma for Roma” digital archive, whose aim is to document the oral history of Romani refugees from Ukraine, as well as the work of Roma organisations and activists that have reacted to the humanitarian crisis. In order to record and document the situation of Roma fleeing Ukraine as well as Roma-led actions to help refugees on the borders of Ukraine, ERIAC has deployed documentation teams in Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia. The teams are building a digital archive to document the Roma historical memory of the war, focusing on stories of survival, resistance, solidarity, and humanity, as well as providing reliable evidence of cases of mistreatment and discrimination experienced by Roma refugees. The aim of the project is to provide reliable, first-hand accounts on the experiences of Romani refugees, with a special focus on transnational, civic cooperation between the Roma.

- Hot meals in Ukraine – The ERGO network and the Roma Women Fund “Chiricli”, together with other organisations, prepare and give out hot meals in metro stations, in the streets and in other places in Kharkiv, Odesa and many other locations in Ukraine. The food is prepared by Hare Krishnas. Chiricli organises the purchasing of food products for preparation, and also informs the Roma and other groups that are in a difficult situation about when and where the meals will be handed out. These hot lunches are available to all those who need them.

The European Roma jointly refuse to accept unequal treatment and fight for their voice to be heard across different forums. A particular example of this approach is the speech by the Ukrainian refugee Natali Tomenko at the OSCE. The meeting focused on the situation of Roma in Ukraine and of Romani refugees. Natali herself had fled Ukraine with her family just a few weeks previously as a refugee. She only had a few minutes to give her presentation. During her speech, the meeting host told her that she had to wrap up. Natali stubbornly continued her speech, stressing the difficult circumstances in which they are trying to help people by delivering food and medicine, how they evacuate large groups abroad. She shared her experiences of the great support they have received from international Romani NGOs. Her message was emotional, but fully justified. Natali stressed that she was speaking in the name of the Ukrainian Roma and she shared her most traumatic experiences. At the same time, she called upon Russian Roma not to repeat the Russian propaganda and false information at a time when Ukrainians, including Ukrainian Roma, die as a result of the Russian invasion. When the host rushed her again, Natali responded firmly: “I’m sorry, but as a victim I have the right to speak for a few more minutes,” and continued with her presentation. She finished with these words: “Roma are Ukrainians that are defending their country. They stand shoulder to shoulder with Ukrainians and fight for their future together. I have a dream – to rebuild a strong, beautiful Ukraine, where future generations will grow and live without fear. Where altogether with friends and colleagues, I will be able to build a strong civil society. Where we, the young leaders, can support the youth of all ethnic minorities and communities. Barikane Roma! Khetane ame Zorale! Slava Ukraini!” (Great Roma! Together we are stronger! Glory to Ukraine!). The content of her speech and her attitude is symbolic. It shows the hardships of the Roma throughout centuries, but also defiance and resilience.

Khetane ame Zorale (Together we are stronger!) – future challenges related to working with the Ukrainian Roma

This text shows how the perception of the Roma by majority societies translates into their situation during the war and refugee inflow from Ukraine. The topic of course has not been exhausted, but we have shown how racism towards minority communities works in countries that are not targets of mass migration, but whose pasts have a rich history of anti-Gypsyism. A long-term challenge will be therefore to work on the attitudes of majority societies. Longstanding work on the various aspects of “integrating” Roma into societies they live in without the cooperation of these societies will forever be unfinished work.

Interim goals, the needs for today and tomorrow, can be boiled down to supporting Romani and other migrants from Ukraine, taking account of the needs they raise and maintaining their autonomy. However, everything that is being stressed in the case of other refugees from Ukraine becomes a problem to majority societies when it comes to the Roma.

The cooperation with social partners, Romani NGOs and activists, and the Roma who join in with volunteering work all provide invaluable support in this process. It would seem that linguistic needs are the most crucial at the point of first contact. Sometimes, however, it transpires that Romani is insufficient. We have observed that the dialect of the Carpathian Roma is not always fully understandable and that communication in the Lovarian dialect has given better results. Ukrainian Roma speak Russian (eastern Ukraine) and Ukrainian, which means the volunteers who know these languages greatly support communication. The very presence of the Polish Roma helped in making contact and breaking the barrier of fear and distrust. It was much simpler to continue with conversations, find out what mothers with children needed, what was happening with their families that remained in Ukraine or with their sons, fathers and husbands who were unable to leave the country.

It is commonly observed that the Roma arrived in Poland in large groups, typically branched-out, multi-generational families with many children, organising their evacuation together and joining each other at different stages of their journey. The transport from the border to the reception centre is secured by local authorities. In reception centres, it turns out that these large groups of Roma do not wish to separate for the fear that they will lose contact with each other or that something bad will happen to them. A group provides security – something that is particularly important if they’re made up mostly of young women and children. Large groups are a challenge on a practical level – finding transport and accommodation for a dozen (or a few dozen) people is not so straightforward. There is great demand for volunteers in reception points along the border who would help the Roma, speak to them, provide them with information and explain what options they have: to remain in Poland or travel to Western Europe. Specifically, these are volunteers/coordinators who are familiar with Ukrainian/ Russian/ Ukrainian Romani dialects (best case scenario) and/or also speak Russian and Ukrainian, and for whom working with Roma is not an issue. Their regular presence at railways stations, mainly in large cities, is required. Currently, not many volunteers of this type are signing up. Sometimes, volunteers themselves call up Roma activists, complain about large groups of Romanis and suggest that they should “do something about them.”

Another important need is the creation of a Roma-friendly space (not necessarily exclusively for the Roma, but ready to accept Roma refugees on a longer-term basis). The refusal to accept Roma in public places and spaces is seen more and more frequently. Having observed various forms of segregation for many weeks, activists are tired of fighting non-Roma prejudices, with all the other problems present as well. At the same time, there is growing fear for the safety of Roma refugees. Their traumas only get deeper. Ultimately, we may witness them living in the streets, which would be a repetition of the scenario of the Roma migrating from Romania after the fall of Ceaușescu’s regime. Should this happen, Romani refugees from Ukraine would not only not function within a safe space, but would find themselves outside of any system support.

In summary, practically the entire system of aiding refugees in Poland is based around a grassroots civic movement and the work of NGOs. In this sense, it is the NGOs (both non-Roma and Roma) that provide aid to all refugees. State structures have only recently granted help to this process. Roma refugees should receive the same kind of support as other Ukrainians, but in practice they are left to their own devices. Large cities almost entirely lack accommodation for refugees, and if some is available, it is not to the Roma. The responsibility for Roma refugees falls on Roma organisations and activists. Most people, even those sympathetic to Roma refugees, expect Roma organisations to solve the problem by providing aid to the Roma. Sadly, this is not always possible. Roma activists mediate, provide linguistic and accommodation assistance, but we all need to combat the problem of systemic discrimination.


 Please note that the views expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.