For Ukrainian Romani, Hungarian Passports are a Trap, says Jan Černý from People in Need

Published: May 18, 2022 Reading time: 5 minutes
For Ukrainian Romani, Hungarian Passports are a Trap, says Jan Černý from People in Need
© Foto: Reuters pictures

In the Czech Republic, Roma refugees are assisted by local Roma organisations whose staff are experienced in assisting Czech and Slovak Romani people and speak various Romani languages. Using funds from the SOS Ukraine Fund, People in Need supports this work from a hub at the main train station in Prague, Czech Republic. We also help Roma organisations cooperating with the Krajské asistenční centrum pomoci Ukrajině (KACPU) or the Regional Assistance to Assist Ukraine, in English.

Read the interview with our Social Work Program Director, Jan Černý, about what makes the situation of newly arriving Roma families from Ukraine difficult and why they can’t just receive “temporary protection” from the EU like other war refugees from Ukraine. 

How is it that Czechia has managed to cope with this huge wave of refugees from Ukraine when, a few years back, they refused to help just a fraction of the people fleeing from the war in Syria?

It is because of our experience with the Soviet occupation in Czechoslovakia and the fact that there were Ukrainians with permanent residency already living in Czechia even before Russia attacked their country, conflict-free coexistence, similar historical events. It was also important that most politicians took a clear stance on the contact and that there was clear communication between government parties and ANO.* However, with ANO, you can now see that they are drawing attention to certain problems and criticizing the actions taken by the government as the autumn elections draw close. 

“As long as Putin’s regime keeps killing Ukrainian civilians and continues occupying Ukraine, I believe the feeling of solidarity will endure.”

Do you think that the positive attitude that Czechs have towards Ukrainian refugees will last, or will it sour due to growing social and financial difficulties in the Czech Republic due to the continuation of Russia’s war in Ukraine?

As long as Putin’s regime keeps killing Ukrainian civilians and continues occupying Ukraine, I believe the feeling of solidarity will endure.

Is there a difference in the positive attitude toward Ukrainian refugees among Czechs from bigger cities and those from poorer areas, for example, at the border?

People in Need has been operating in the former Sudetenland for a long time, and we do not notice any difference. We have to realize that women and child refugees from Ukraine usually live on private premises, so solidarity is strong throughout the country

The Czech attitude towards refugees and coping with crisis seems to be split into two ideologies. First, the attitude toward ‘typical’ Ukrainians, and second, the attitude toward Romani Ukrainians, against whom there are numerous prejudices. Do you think Czechs refuse to admit that Romani Ukrainians are refugees in the same war as other Ukrainians?

A few days ago, one of our workers witnessed police brutality involving dogs at the central train station in Brno. The policeman prevented Romani Ukrainian refugees from getting off the train, so they needed to continue to Prague. Thanks to this PIN employees’ initiative, this policeman’s actions are now being investigated. In addition to being problematic, such actions are also inefficient as they lead to the accumulation of refugees, for example, at the main train station here in Prague.

Why do Czech public and local authorities have a problem helping Ukrainian Roma, of whom there are not many?

In many respects, Czechia has very decentralized management, and many municipalities and regions are given considerable autonomy. This means that they often only need to consult the federal government on some legal items. Even then, there is a complex system of supervision, instructions and deadlines for rectification. So, on topics that remain unpopular on a local level, such as co-education, social housing, and homelessness, municipalities and regions are usually reluctant to fulfill central government requirements. We can clearly see this in helping Romani Ukrainian refugees — municipalities and regions are sending them back and forth like hot potatoes. And instead of taking action on this issue, the mayor of Prague writes to the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic to see if he could solve this situation somehow. I doubt that the Prime Minister will go to the main train station and order another train to be used for sleeping in or that another tent town be built. This is meant to be coordinated on a regional level, not federal.

Does the division of power make solving these crises more complicated?

The division of power in our state is useful on many levels, but yes, there are limitations to what it can do when it comes to dealing with such major crises. That said, municipalities and regions would never allow responsibilities to be transferred away, so instead, we see them haggling about how much the government will pay. The Ministry of Interior is negotiating with the Hungarians to shorten the deadline for lustration.** This would help speed up negotiations on whether to follow Lex Ukraine when addressing homeless EU citizens in Czech territory and taking into account the international obligations to protect children.

So, is there an objective reason on the part of the Ukrainian Romani which complicates the situation of this group of Ukrainian refugees? By this, I mean the passports which the Hungarian government was giving away in the Transcarpathian region.

Yes. Viktor Orbán and his political agenda for building a Greater Hungary by distributing citizenship to foreign nationals now complicates the situation for many Ukrainian families. As people with citizenship of a country in the EU, they have a different status. It was their decision to take the citizenship and the passport but little did they know, Putin was about to start a war. And they also did not anticipate that Budapest only really cared about the number of Hungarians living abroad and did not intend to take care of them when they got into trouble. Of course, this does not apply to everyone. When we take children into account, basic humanitarian needs must be provided regardless of whether they are refugees or just “poor Hungarians on vacation”.

If you’d like to continue with Luboš Palata’s interview with Jan Černý in Czech, please visit Dení

* ANO or "Akce nespokojených občanů" (Action of Dissatisfied Citizens, in English) is a Czech political party founded by Andrej Babiš in 2011.
** Lustration refers to the progress by which certain government official in Central and Eastern Europe are forcibly removed from public office.  

Autor: Luboš Palata, Deník

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