Date: 16-05-2023

Working Toward Inclusion for Roma Refugees in Hungary

Since February 2022, ISSA Member Partners Hungary Foundation has been heavily invested in supporting refugees entering Hungary from Ukraine. While they jumped into action, they kept a finger firmly on the pulse of the context in which they worked. Their staff took stock of the needs of children and families and noticed rising tensions between marginalized Roma living in the country and those arriving from Ukraine. ISSA Program Manager, Francesca Colombo, sat down with Eva Deak, Managing Director of Partners Hungary, to discuss the current climate in Hungary, how alliances at the municipality level can help tackle exclusion, and what children need the most right now. 

Francesca: What are the existing and emerging needs of young children and refugees from Ukraine, and do they differ from those of other minority groups in Hungary? 

Eva: It’s a very complex question. The existing need is definitely access to what children need at an early age. By this, I mean access to free play, proper tools, appropriate spaces, as well as being together with other children, socializing, and adequate places for children to be together with their families and relatives. These are constant needs for each child, wherever they are, especially for children coming from Ukraine. They need safe places. They need to experience that they are safe now because there are a lot of fears around them. Many of them are coming to Hungary, leaving family members behind. I would highlight safe places and appropriate tools to be able to live as a child. I think that’s the most important thing. 

Each place where children are differs. Some children are living in shelters. That’s a challenge. It is a challenge at shelters because these shelters were mostly things like hotels before – not necessarily with proper places for children to play. Some shelters were functioning as homeless centers or elderly care centers. Some have outdoor facilities for children to play, which is very advantageous, but you cannot guarantee that these places have such facilities. So, I think those taking care of the children and families have to provide the appropriate tools for these spaces. But, as I said, that differs from place to place. 

Francesca: Where do you think the social conflict in Hungary now comes from, and how can it be best addressed? 

Eva: Hungary is in a unique situation among the countries neighboring Ukraine that are helping the refugees because most people coming and staying in Hungary are from the Carpathian region or the Sub-Carpathian region. And they are Ukrainian-Hungarians or, mostly Ukrainian-Hungarian, Roma. This means that they speak Hungarian. Some of them are Hungarian citizens, so they are not refugees in the legal sense. But they are refugees in terms of having fled from war and have fears about the war impacting the place where they lived. So, I think this makes for a very special situation in Hungary since most of these refugees are Roma and in Hungary, Roma are the largest minority. Unfortunately, there is still discrimination in education, the labor market, housing, and everywhere. 

Since the biases are prevalent against Roma there is a double effect on the people who are coming at the same time. When the war broke out, people, primarily civil society organizations but also individuals, stood up and started to help. Many, many Roma people also started to help. But from the point of view of Roma people who have been living in Hungary for hundreds of years, facing discrimination, seeing the situation through their lens, you might understand why they often tell us, “how come if we’ve been living here for centuries, and now a group of people is coming, and they get accommodation, they get food, a lot of people are listening to their needs, would like to fulfill their needs, and we are here and who cares for us?” 

Their perspective is absolutely relevant. Those of us working in this field have to consider their perspective. We have to deal with that, and we have to deal with that on the municipal level. We have to deal with that when we provide services for children, for families. So, from a professional perspective, we have to consider this problem no matter what we do in the field. 

Francesca: And how do you see the possible longer-term impact of this issue if it’s not appropriately addressed? 

Eva: Although the war is terrible, I always like to see opportunities. And that is Partners Hungary’s approach in our activities – let’s see the situation from the point of opportunity to strengthen inclusion. We can see that there is a lack of resources not only serving the people arriving in Hungary but also serving those who are already in Hungary because the capacity of our social system and education system is very low. From this point of view, we can see the opportunity to look for what we can do better, under our circumstances, to be better able to serve all of our children and our families. I believe that one potential approach is for professionals working on certain problems to get together and try to find a solution. 

Building such alliances is an opportunity. We see many good initiatives where different kinds of organizations unite to unify their forces to solve problems. The municipal level is a very important level where we can think about these problems. People live in municipalities, and municipalities are responsible for certain services. For example, they are responsible for kindergarten services and social services. While the national government governs some services, like healthcare and school education, what happens on the local level is still the responsibility of the local municipality. So, a good starting point is to work with the local municipalities to provide proper services for all the people who live there, focusing on young children and their families. This idea is very well related to Primokiz. 

The work of ISSA and Partners Hungary Foundation in this area is supported by Minderoo Foundation.