Demonstration At Brno City Hall Over Treatment of Ukrainian Roma Refugees
Yesterday, Tuesday, June 21, demonstrations were organized by the informal feminist collective SdruŽeny and volunteers from Food not Bombs Brno to protest the inadequate support offered to Ukrainian Roma refugees. Various protests took place throughout the day in front of Brno city hall, aiming to highlight the “selective solidarity” and “systemic racism” of the Czech authorities. Photo credit: Coline Béguet / Brno Daily
A report from Mélis Karabulut, Jack Stephens and Coline Béguet. Written by Coline Béguet.
Brno, June 22 (BD) – From 7:30am yesterday, demonstrators gathered in front of the New Town Hall to protest against the insufficient support given to Ukrainian Roma refugees. Activists created a “walk of shame” in front of the building’s entrance through which municipal representatives had to pass to enter the council chamber. After that, most of the participants attended the council meeting, during which they were able to ask questions and discuss the situation. The demonstration then continued in the afternoon with a protest at 4pm in Dominikanske namesti.
Since the start of the war in Ukraine and the arrival of refugees in Brno, many rumors have spread about Roma families, especially those stationed around the central station. The main narratives concerned the alleged dual Hungarian nationality of some of these refugees, as well as the housing offered by the municipality they were said to have refused. Both of these assumptions are only a partial representation of the reality.
Hungarian economic migrants or Ukrainian refugees?
Some of the Roma refugees in Brno do indeed have dual Hungarian and Ukrainian citizenship, which would make them ineligible for refugee support, but these people represent less than 5% of the Roma who have recently arrived in the Czech Republic due to the armed conflict. Of 5000 individuals vetted by Czech authorities, only around 150 people had Hungarian citizenship in addition to their Ukrainian passports. The Czech authorities kept this figure secret until recently, only stating that “many” of these people had dual Hungarian nationality and that this justified their exclusion from the Czech refugee assistance system, as the Hungarian authorities were therefore responsible for them.
Another element feeding this rumor is the fact that many of these Roma from Ukraine are Hungarian speakers, but they are from the Hungarian-speaking border area of Ukraine, established in the 1930s and 1940s by Roma people fleeing Nazi occupation in wartime Hungary. In addition, the Hungarian government of Viktor Orban, with the intention of bringing together ethnic Hungarian and Hungarian-speaking minorities living abroad, has widely offered Hungarian nationality to those outside the country, and many Ukrainian Roma have therefore received a Hungarian passport. This situation has also created tensions between Ukraine and Hungary, which led to the expulsion of a Hungarian consul from Ukraine in 2018, qualified as “persona non grata” due to activities inconsistent with his diplomatic status.
Accommodation refused by Ukrainian Roma refugees
Rumours have spread widely on social media that the Ukrainian Roma refugees staying at the Brno train station allegedly refused the help offered by the Czech authorities. This claim is only partially true. While most Ukrainian refugees are offered individual accommodation, those of Roma ethnicity were transported to the former detention center Vyšné Lhoty, in the Frýdek-Místek District of Moravian Silesia. The official justification for this differential treatment was that the Roma were arriving in larger groups, and that Vyšné Lhoty was therefore the most appropriate place to accommodate them. However, this is only true in exceptional cases; most Roma refugees are mothers with their own children who could easily be accommodated as families.
The prison-like appearance of the remand center, surrounded with barbed wire, frightened many of these refugees, given their unstable and stressful situation as refugees, as well as the history of genocide that the Roma community has suffered. Those who were unwilling to stay in this accommodation have been excluded from the refugee assistance system and are therefore left without resources or assistance, and end up homeless and begging on the streets of Brno.
After many weeks of the issue being passed back and forth between the municipality and the region, an alternative solution was proposed, according to which military tents were set up on a vacant lot opposite the Hotel Grand. However, the organizers of yesterday’s demonstrations have strongly denounced the poor hygiene conditions of the camp, as well as the sanitary danger for the people staying there, many of whom are children or pregnant women. The residents have no access to running water and the only toilets available are dry toilets. The families all sleep together in large tents.
“People always try to find excuses for their systemic racism.”
The SdruŽeny collective became engaged in the situation as “it is hard to not notice it because it is in the center of the city. I think everyone noticed it,” according to Maja Vusilović, the organizer of the protest. Like other volunteers and activists, she was already close to the Roma community before the war. “I used to work in a Roma organisation. That’s how I know a lot of Roma people.”
As for the rumors, Maja thinks they have spread because “people always try to find some excuses for their systemic racism,” in this case the difference of treatment between Roma and white Ukrainian refugees. “Did we ask this question, if they had also another citizenship, about white ukrainian refugees?”.
According to Maja, the situation for Roma people was already bad before the war. This is why her feminist organisation was in contact with Roma organisations. “We are all connected, we cooperate and we want to cooperate even more”. For yesterday’s protests in front of the Brno city hall, the SdruŽeny collective “wanted to offer our organisational skills, but to give the space for Roma people to speak.”