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An entrance to the FRISPA center where most Romani refugees from Ukraine are accommodated.

Witness: In Moldova, Romani Family Fleeing Ukraine Faces Discrimination

“Yes, We are Roma but We are Normal People”

An entrance to the FRISPA center where most Romani refugees from Ukraine are accommodated. © 2022 Adri Salido/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Olga, the grandmother of a Romani family, her daughter Maria (all names changed), and her three teenage granddaughters fled their home in Ukraine about a month ago and sought refuge in neighboring Moldova. They look exhausted after a ten-hour bus trip from a village in the north to the capital, Chisinau.

Now they are in the country’s largest refugee center, MoldExpo, where they hope to register for a flight to Germany or Belgium and get some rest after the long trip.

But we can see they are clearly not welcome there.

One of the poorest countries in Europe, Moldova has shown tremendous generosity in welcoming more than 471,000 refugees from Ukraine, the highest per capita influx to neighboring countries. But it appears Roma may be excluded from this hospitality, Human Rights Watch research shows.

A woman working at MoldExpo’s registration desk stands up, leaning on her knuckles against the table, frowning at Olga’s family through her thick glasses. We are standing nearby, witnessing the exchange. She sounds like an interrogator as she looks at their Ukrainian identity papers and batters them with questions: “Where are your international passports? Where are the stamps confirming you crossed the border? How can we be sure you actually crossed? What have you been doing in [that Moldovan village] this entire time? Well, where are your belongings then? You cannot stay here [at MoldExpo] for a long time, you know.”

We wonder, is this woman hostile because she assumes they are Roma?

Olga, wearily and calmly, responds that they never expected the war to happen and force them to leave Ukraine, so they have no international passports. She assures the woman that they do not want to stay at the center for a long time. She explains they have already been through a lot. She quietly wipes away the tears that start running down her cheeks, prompting the staff to offer her a blue plastic chair.

After about an hour of waiting, Olga goes outside for some fresh air and sits down on one of the suitcases her family left next to the entrance. My colleague and I follow the family and start a conversation, asking about their experiences in Moldova.

Olga tells us that after fleeing Ukraine, the family learned about free flights abroad for Ukrainian refugees departing from the capital. As they had no money, locals bought them bus tickets to Chisinau. She tells us that a volunteer who seems nice put them on the waiting list for a flight to Germany.

But then she was also told they couldn’t stay at MoldExpo.

Maria holding a piece of paper on which MoldExpo staff had written the address and phone number of FRISPA center. © 2022 Hillary Margolis, Human Rights Watch

Maria, who followed her mother outside, shows us a piece of paper on which MoldExpo staff had written the address and phone number of another center, saying they should go there instead. The address is “Testemiţanu 18,” a previously abandoned university building, where the Moldovan government houses mostly Romani people and some foreigners living in Ukraine, effectively segregating them.

“We’re sorry to ask this, but can we confirm that you are Roma?” We explain that we are looking into the treatment of Romani refugees in Moldova.

“Yes, but we are normal [people],” Maria responds.

Her answer says a lot about her experience as a member of the Roma community, both in Ukraine and now in Moldova, where Roma face pervasive bias and persistent discrimination.

“We just want to arrive to [some kind of] a final destination,” Olga says. “We heard about [discrimination against Roma here]. We are really afraid of that. We are all of us women here. We have no protection. We don’t have money or anything.”

The truth is, as MoldExpo staff confirmed separately to Human Rights Watch, that day MoldExpo had plenty of free spaces which should have been available to all Ukrainian citizens and foreigners with a Ukrainian residence permit.

And MoldExpo is a display of Moldova’s hospitality. Staff, volunteers, and people from international organizations offer assistance. There are playrooms and trampolines for children, as well as psychological support, free excursions, hot meals, and humanitarian aid. MoldExpo’s director proudly shows foreign journalists around.

A young non-Romani woman in a cozy robe who is standing outside with us, sighs, “It’s terrible.” In the two weeks she had been at MoldExpo, she said she hadn’t seen a single Romani family accepted for housing. Her Romani friend from Ukraine, a mother of five, she said, was turned away for the same reason: no room.

Meanwhile, a taxi arrives to take Olga and her family to FRISPA refugee center, an acronym for the previously abandoned university building for faculty of international relations, political sciences, and public administration.

Romani refugees housed at FRISPA told us that, when refugees first arrived, there was only one shower. Several people complained about receiving too little food and food of poor quality: the residents were not given breakfast until volunteers and Roma rights activists demanded it. Residents felt like they had to fight for better conditions. For instance, after making demands they finally got a microwave – there is no kitchen – and they now have showers in containers outside.

There are certainly no trampolines or free excursions offered at FRISPA.

FRISPA residents are most likely not aware of another center for people who fled war in Ukraine in a university dormitory just a five-minute drive away. When we visited, its coordinator said all the residents were “Ukrainian,” which excludes Roma, regardless of their citizenship status. Conditions here seem more suitable for long-term stays, with rooms intended for living as well as kitchens and showers on each floor. The bright corridors smell like fried garlic, and we see a teenage boy cooking for his pregnant mother. Charlie, a well-fed tabby cat, peaks through the door of the room where he lives with his owner, a young woman who has her own room after arriving recently to join her large family.

The story of Olga and her family shows the difference in treatment that Romani refugees from Ukraine get in Moldova. Just a few hours after Olga was turned away from MoldExpo, we spoke with one of the staff members who had rejected them, and asked her general questions. The staffer assured us MoldExpo had plenty of free spaces. In response to my question about the necessary documentation for obtaining accommodation she said, “Look, we cannot kick people out to the street, right? Our doors are open to all refugees from Ukraine.”

But are they?

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