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Ukraine’s Roma refugees are being locked out of Hungary’s healthcare system

A new report by EMMA Association has highlighted the discrimination Romani women have faced after fleeing the war

Refugees fleeing Ukraine arrive at the border train station of Zahony, Hungary. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Roma refugee women and girls fleeing the war in Ukraine face significant and discriminatory barriers in accessing sexual and reproductive health and rights in Hungary, a new report has found. 

Published by Emma Association, a national organisation working for women’s fundamental rights and social equality, the report’s researchers interviewed 21 women, ranging from age 16 to 46 and found multiple cases of treatment being denied and verbal abuse. 

Of the 21 interviewed, 15 were Ukrainian citizens while six held Ukrainian-Hungarian dual citizenship. Often, the latter proved more trying for caseworkers to secure assistance. 

“As dual citizens, these individuals are not entitled to receive temporary protection status, as they are already the citizens of an EU member state, despite never lived in Hungary, often they do not have family ties or any other relationships here,” explained Anna Iványi, the report’s translator and head of international relations and advocacy for EMMA Association. 

She added: “Their Hungarian citizenship is a symbolic gesture, having been granted as members of the Hungarian-speaking minority in a neighbouring state. However, they do not have permanent residence and social security in Hungary. They meet serious challenges if they want to get registered employment or a registered address.”

This was the case for Kati, who found her dual citizenship status a barrier to accessing proper support. “When I was living in Pest, because I was a dual citizen, they wouldn’t give me any help because I didn’t have a refugee card and they said you don’t qualify because you’re a dual citizen,” she said in the report.

“We were living in a shelter there, and they wouldn’t register my residence. I couldn’t even get my basic allowance because I didn’t have an address. I couldn’t even get anything for the children because I didn’t have an address. Everywhere I went they just wanted my address. 

“Now I have some support, but this too requires an address in Pest. I talked to them, and they told me to at least bring a document to prove that I was temporarily living in Pest. But I couldn’t because there was no such document.”

Éva, who fled Ukraine in May last year when 19 weeks pregnant, also experienced similar treatment. In June, an EMMA field worker accompanied her to her prenatal appointment where the doctor confirmed healthy pregnancy. However, she was then denied free healthcare as she could not provide a social security card.

When the field worker informed the doctor that the law permits Ukrainian citizens residing in Hungary access to free prenatal care, the doctor leave her office and wait in the corridor. She added that she would only change her position if she received written instructions from the office of the director-general. 

It was only months of back and forth, after Éva’s pregnancy had been declared high risk and had experienced a premature birth, that the field worker was able to secure free healthcare for her.  

From the moment they cross the border, Roma women are left in the dark about what support they are entitled to. At the border, EMMA Association care workers have seen Roma women not informed of where and how to access support. 

Moreover, informational leaflets are written in a way that requires a detailed understanding of Hungarian, and, despite many of the women speaking the language, their different dialects leave them unable to fully grasp its complexities. 

In addition to this, Roma women are often humiliated and disrespected when spoken to. Kriszt told EMMA Association that when she went to the hospital to give birth, the midwife failed to examine her properly and spoke to her “like a dog”. Once she had left the room, she heard her say in the corridor: “I brought a refugee, she’s going to have her kid and we’re going to pay for

bringing it up.” Kriszt then heard another doctor instruct her to treat another patient first. 

The findings of the report were not surprising to researchers. Health spending in Hungary is below the EU average, both in terms of spending per capita and as a percentage of GDP. This has meant that poor infrastructure and poor medical care are common and, as a result, the system has become a breeding ground for mistreatment, especially for Roma women whose experiences of discrimination have been long documented. 

In 2003, research conducted by the European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) found 44 cases of “Gypsy rooms” used to segregate Roma women in maternity wards. In one hospital in Miskolc (Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén County), the testimony of one Romani woman explained that, despite free beds being visibly available in rooms with other women, she was placed in a room by herself. 

Another stated that, after being placed in a separate room, she was told to clean it herself after her stay. The ERRC also found 30 cases of negligent treatment of Romani women by medical professionals and 16 cases of Romani women being offered healthcare services by medical professionals who were, by law, underqualified for the treatment they were providing. 

“This report aims to amplify the voices of Roma refugee women and girls who have been historically marginalised and to advocate for their rights to equitable healthcare,” said Julianna Kupcsok, lead researcher at EMMA Association. She added: “It is crucial that we address these disparities to ensure that everyone, regardless of their background or status, can access the sexual and reproductive health services they need.”

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