5th Mar 2024

Roma refugees from Ukraine face Czech xenophobia

  • Roma refugees from Ukraine in Prague train station (Photo: William Nattrass)
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Tucked away in a waiting area by Platform One at Prague's main train station is a sight that belies claims of generous help for all Ukrainian refugees in the Czech Republic.

Sleeping bags are strewn on the floor and plastic bags full of clothes pile high. Sweltering in the early summer heat, children let off steam by charging up and down the empty platform before collapsing disconsolately on wooden benches.

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  • Ukraine-Roma tent camp outside Prague city centre (Photo: William Nattrass)

This is the limbo into which hundreds of Roma refugees have been thrown. While waiting for judgement from the Czech authorities on their right to a temporary visa, they cannot get accommodation from the state. They simply sleep on the floor at the station, and wait.

Volunteers working here say they've never seen refugees of other ethnicities in the same dire circumstances.

Viktoria Varga, a refugee from Kropyvnytskyi, central Ukraine, says she's been staying in the station for four days now, having come to Prague from Poland, where she could not get a visa.

"I don't know where to go now," she tells EUobserver. "Some of us receive offers to stay in private accommodation, but we're scared to stay with strangers. We want official accommodation from the state, but there's no help — only a piece of bread."

With her is Elizaveta Chernyavets, also from Kropyvnytskyi, who says: "We're living like dogs. This is worse than it was for us in Ukraine, where we stayed in underground shelters. I'd prefer to go back there now than stay here like this."

A baby starts crying.

"She's one-month old," Elizaveta says. "There's not enough food here and the children are hungry. But without a visa, we can't get accommodation or any other help."

Volunteers say the state also will not pay for refugees stuck here to be transported to other parts of the country where accommodation is in greater supply.

Between 150 and 200 refugees sleep in the waiting room every night. As more keep arriving, the government has also opened a "tent city" with capacity for 150 refugees further out from the city centre.

Stationed on a patch of grass sandwiched between a concrete plant and a motorway, the camp is sealed off from prying eyes.

The roofs of military-style tents can just be glimpsed peeking over the top of a solid metal barrier, and police officers guard the two entrances, which are locked and covered in black plastic.

'Nothing to see here'

When EUobserver asks one of the guards whether journalists can gain access, he chuckles.

"You won't see anything here," he says. "It's closed off for photos, everything. TV crews come and film the black plastic wall here by the entrance, and that's it."

He confirmed that the tent city is only being used for Roma people.

EUobserver also spoke to Hana Nguyen, from the Organization for Aid to Refugees, in a side room back at the train station, next to a crate of ham sandwiches wrapped in plastic on the floor — the refugees' next meal.

I ask her why Roma people seem to be having a harder time gaining visas and accommodation than other refugees from Ukraine. Her response is immediate: "Institutional xenophobia".

"People refuse to accommodate them as soon as they hear they're Roma. And if they're granted official accommodation, they're put in detention centres, which are basically like prisons. If they refuse such accommodation, they get no more help from the state," she says.

The different treatment of Roma people is being openly endorsed by political figures.

Czech president Miloš Zeman claimed earlier this month that while refugees from Ukraine should be welcomed, he "would make one little exception in terms of Romani Ukrainians. I'm not sure whether they aren't economic migrants."

It's been suggested that some of the Roma refugees arriving in Prague are part of the Hungarian diaspora from western Ukraine, and that they also have Hungarian citizenship.

Czech interior minister Vít Rakušan has described the arrival of Roma people from Hungary as "a big problem."

But Nguyen says many of the refugees staying in the Prague train station do not fall into this category.

Besides, she claims those put on trains back to Budapest simply get turned around and sent to Prague again.

Suspicions of economic migration elicit a harsh response amid intense strain on accommodation and services.

A spokesperson for Prague City Hall told EUobserver the capital has no more capacity to host refugees and that the country needs "a nationwide mechanism for the distribution of refugees among the regions."

Yet it isn't clear that rural Czechs would be happy to share the burden.

A recent study suggested 60 percent of the population think support for refugees has been too generous, and that Czechs will pay the price.

And, as ever, negativity is particularly acute when it comes to Roma refugees.

Health minister Vlastimil Válek said creating emergency accommodation for Roma is a problem because "many citizens living in the area will go on strike."

In many ways, war in Ukraine has brought out the best in the Czech Republic, with the country helping the vast majority of refugees while supplying the Ukrainian armed forces.

But faced with war at home and hostility abroad, Roma refugees are falling between the cracks of Central Europe's great humanitarian effort.

Author bio

William Nattrass is a Prague-based British journalist and Visegrád Four current affairs commentator, who has written for the Independent, the Spectator and Cap X.

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