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How Hungary Abandoned Roma Refugees

In Hungary, attacks on support for refugees and prejudices aggravated by Orbán have left Roma people who crossed the border from Ukraine facing a future of deepening exclusion and insecurity.

Roma people wait at a temporary shelter at the Tiszabecs-Tiszaujlak border crossing as they flee Ukraine on 27 February 2022. (Janos Kummer / Getty Images)

In a community centre in the north of Hungary, eighty Roma refugees silently marked the six-month anniversary of leaving Ukraine. With the men having left early in the morning to find work, the women took turns to look after the children of those out on shifts, chatting as they swept the long corridors that connected their rooms. ‘Some of them have been here six months to the day, since day Russia invaded on 24 February,’ the centre manager, Bence*, told me. ‘It seems they had little they felt could protect them in Ukraine.’

Though the vast majority of the 1,240,000 refugees who fled across the Ukrainian-Hungarian border have moved onto more affluent countries, a number of Ukrainian Roma have remained. As native Hungarian speakers, sometimes holding Hungarian citizenship as a result of Orbán’s mission to appeal to Hungarian-speaking minorities in Slovakia, Serbia, Romania, and Ukraine, and with a larger number of migrant workers already having settled in the country before the war, Hungary was a natural choice.

These facts notwithstanding, many Ukrainian Roma feel abandoned by Hungary. ‘Though access to healthcare in Hungary is free, in practice doctors often refuse to treat Roma or send them home with nothing more than painkillers, failing to make any substantive referral,’ Máté*, a social worker at the centre, told me. That same day, tragedy had already struck; a pregnant eighteen-year-old resident of the centre complained of excruciating stomach pains and called an ambulance. Paramedics only arrived an hour and a half later, at which point she had given birth to a stillborn baby. She told her social worker she could feel a distinct change in tone when the operator realised she was in a centre housing Roma people.

Roma refugees’ access to educational services is no better, Máté said. He explained that many Hungarian teachers, due to deep-seated prejudices aggravated by Orbán, refused to teach Roma, and one of his colleagues told me that she had struggled to even register Roma children for school. ‘They tell me they don’t have enough spaces for new students—but what they really mean is that they don’t want any more Roma children.’

Speaking to one of the mothers, it seemed that her difficulties enrolling her children at school awakened memories of her childhood in the Caparthian region of Ukraine, from which many Roma hail. ‘Teachers always used to sit me at the back of classroom, far away from the other children, and would send me out whenever they could,’ she said, ‘often because I didn’t have schoolbooks or pens with me, because my parents couldn’t afford them.’ She left school in the second grade, as did most of the women in the centre. Bence estimates that fifty percent of the centre’s residents had been left functionally illiterate by their lack of access educational services.

The Broader Picture

The situation of Roma in Hungary, regardless of whether normally resident there or not, has long been difficult. Many Roma have been relegated to essentially segregated settlements in a desert of state services that offer few employment opportunities. Just twenty-six percent of working-age Roma in Hungary are employed, while life expectancy for Roma born in Hungary is some ten to twelve years less than for non-Roma. The situation has only worsened since Orbán’s second spell as prime minister; in 2020, the supreme court ruled that segregation of Roma children in church schools was lawful.

A director of a charity working for Roma inclusion felt that Orbán’s strategy to address the segregation of Roma was to downplay the problem as much as possible by marginalising Roma’s engagement in public life, relegating them to the fringes of society. Estimates of the number of Roma in Hungary vary—census data suggests that Hungarian Roma constitute 3.6 percent of the population, though academics have suggested that that it could be as high as 8.82 percent, due to Roma being fearful of self-identifying as Roma in front of state officials.

What is not measured is invisible, and Roma have thus been cut out of aid for decades. The Hungarian government has failed to publish a list of the Ukrainian Roma centres across the country—a situation exacerbated by the fact that many Ukrainian Roma hold Hungarian citizenship, and therefore are not recorded under the refugee population—leaving charities scrambling to locate Roma desperately in need of their support. ‘We only heard about some of these settlements when the family members started to visit each other,’ the programme director of a Hungarian charity told me. ‘It makes it impossible for us to fundraise, to plan, to work out which staff to hire.’

Refugees in Hungary

Government services for refugees are scant, regardless of whether the recipient is Roma or not. Hungary has spent the least on refugees fleeing Ukraine out of the V4 countries, disbursing just 22,800 Hungarian forint (56 euros) per month, less than half of what refugees fleeing Ukraine receive in Poland. The government has also refrained from cooperating with any international organisations, including the UN, and therefore life-sustaining cash grants disbursed by the UN refugee agency in Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Moldova, and the like haven’t been available to those in Hungary. This has long been interpreted as a signpost to leave the country: in the words of one Roma inclusion expert, ‘Short of actually saying it, less than 60 euros a month makes clear that they’re not welcome here.’

More worryingly, the space in which charities operate is shrinking. A 2018 ‘Stop Soros’ law—a common anti-Semitic trope that links the existence of a global cabal interfering with Hungary’s internal affairs to NGOs helping refugees—outlawed helping undocumented migrants to lodge an asylum claim. A twenty-five percent tax on charities supporting migrants was launched in 2018, and though rarely enforced, this has left small organisations live in fear of falling foul of the law when the government suddenly demands said tax.

Attacks on the charity sector have also spilled out into ad hominem targeting of employees. The government circulated a blacklist of NGOs, with individual names of charity employees working with refugees and/or Roma even published in newspapers. One such charity worker working with Roma told me that she only found out about the existence of the blacklist when her children came home from school asking why their mother had been singled out as a ‘bad person’ in the newspaper. This has contributed to an atmosphere of suspicion in Hungary, with charity workers refraining from coordinating or sharing what small data there is—no longer discussing sensitive topics on the phone, and leaving their devices at home when meeting with colleagues outside of their office.

Uncertain Futures

With extensive humanitarian need, vulnerabilities that Roma have carried with them from Ukraine into Hungary, and a charity sector hampered from responding to the crisis, the outlook for many Roma looks bleak. As winter approaches, many are fearful that the municipality centres that have housed them for the last six months may no longer be able to sustain the high gas and electricity bills. Even for the centres who have committed to remaining open—often due to co-funding from a charity or church—social workers seem pessimistic about what kind of future can be provided other than a roof over their heads.

‘To rent a flat you need a bank account, and for that you need a proof of address in Hungary,’ Máté told me, ‘and this is something that Roma born in Ukraine don’t have. Since they’re Hungarian citizens, they’re not considered refugees and can’t get around their lack of address through alternative documentation. It’s encouraging refugees to leave Hungary through bureaucracy.’

Even where their paperwork was in order, discrimination often stood in the way. That same week, two fathers who lived in the centre had tried to find shared accommodation for their families with proof of address from their time as migrant workers in Hungary, to no avail. They had been told by all landlords that Roma children ‘bring crime to the flat’, and therefore with more than one child it’d be near impossible for them to rent anywhere.

Bence was now convinced that, though designed initially as emergency shelter, his community centre would be around for quite some time to come. ‘It’s incredibly hard for Roma to find work where their employers actually give them their salary at the end of the month,’ he said. ‘Many of the families probably won’t have anywhere to go until the end of the war, and even then, what will be left of their homes in Ukraine?’

Some had already returned to Ukraine, and had called to say that their neighbours’ houses had been looted, repurposed, or that the situation was so poor that even an intact house was not enough to return to. Bence imagined that even long after the war had ended, many men would end up staying in the centre as migrant workers—and though it was dispiriting for them to live there indefinitely, it would still be better than the overcrowded migrant hostels with twelve beds to a room that they had stayed in before the war.

The centre’s residents weren’t sure of their future. One woman mentioned that at least in Hungary she had a social worker from the municipality to help her enrol her child in school. Otherwise, as one teenage girl told me, ‘we’re just focussing on getting enough food for the moment.’