CHIȘINĂU, Moldova – People clutching passports and birth certificates ran to the volunteer standing on the ramparts of the sports stadium, as the woman shouted through a megaphone that a bus would take them to Germany. But Maria Todorovich stayed sitting on her bed, knowing that any hope she had of leaving the refugee centre was futile.
Manejul centre, which accommodated over 10,000 refugees since war broke out, has hosted many members of the Roma community with nowhere to go, just like Todorovich. It closed its doors the day after VICE World News visited. Refugees are being housed elsewhere, but Manejul’s health standards and treatment of the Roma has raised serious concerns for discrimination they may face elsewhere Moldova.
Todorovich, who is from Donetsk, was among a number of undocumented refugees from Ukraine sheltering at the centre in Moldova’s capital.
Like Todorovich, most of the refugees in the centre, came from Ukraine’s 400,000-strong Roma community, an ethnic minority that is routinely discriminated against across Europe. Few people here had the biometric passports that were needed to travel onwards; many would jump at the chance of a bus but when asked for a passport, would be forced to return to Manejul and unpack. As a result, many spent weeks here in a sports stadium without sanitation, food hygiene or heating. Aid workers believe they were being given worse treatment than other people fleeing Ukraine because of their Roma ethnicity.
Todorovich tried several times to get a Ukrainian passport that would let her and her four children travel out of Moldova. The only evidence of her Ukrainian identity are ripped up documents, held together only by her hands, which show her photograph and the names of all her kids. One of the only Moldovan volunteers to be found in the entire building, a tired man called Vlad, asked what he can do for her; she had already spent five days at the Ukrainian embassy for a passport, only to be left hanging again and again. She spent three weeks at Manejul. Her four children who are with her have had no school since leaving home, while a son and a daughter remain back in Ukraine. Things were so bad that Todorovich even considered returning to Donetsk.
Vlad – who didn’t give his surname – had a sore throat from the cold weeks volunteering in this massive space with poor heating. A few nurses and health staff floating around between Swiss and Israeli humanitarian efforts said that lots of the residents have suffered from food poisoning. In the kitchen, a box of rotting apples and donated food left outside of the fridge suggest why. Martina Paletova, a Czech nurse, said that last week she witnessed residents opening up yoghurt pots that looked congealed.
It was a very different scene compared with other government centres, such as Moldexpo, which was first an exhibition centre, then a COVID centre and is now a refugee shelter for women and children. Volunteers flit about, washing machines are a constant background hum and there is information all over the walls about services and transport options available to refugees. Here, everyone is given a small room, a stark contrast to the Manejul centre, where mattresses were piled up into bed forts to give some privacy. On VICE World News’ second visit, there was only one volunteer for the entire building.
“Many monitoring reports from Roma civil society at the Moldova side indicate a clear differential treatment and approach by border and national authorities towards Ukrainian Roma and other [minorities],” says Isabela Mihalache from ERGO Brussels, which is monitoring the situation of Roma refugees from Ukraine. She has been contacted about the poor standards at Manejul several times.
“It is concerning. In Ukraine before the war started there were 400,000 Roma living [there], out of which I think 35,000 Roma are stateless and a lot of them that don’t have documents. Not just birth certificates – anything. Because there has been an unwillingness, a failure of national and local authorities to put Roma people in legality. So many Roma now without identity documents that have crossed the border are at risk of becoming stateless, for which it is much more difficult to get international protection.”
Increasingly, humanitarian corridors appear to be opening, and some NGOs report that undocumented Roma have been able to pass through to other countries. But weeks have already passed in which thousands of Roma coming through the border have not been monitored properly or guided by appropriate NGOs.
The day after VICE World News visited the centre, it was closed down, creating more uncertainty for groups trying to assist the Roma. Non-profit Khalsa Aid had been donating food, but was told to stop last week as the centre was closing despite it still accommodating several families. The remaining 80 refugees in the camp have been shifted to other temporary centres, local authorities announced on Wednesday.
Hope4, an NGO run by Chris and Zoe Lomas who moved to Moldova from the UK originally to support orphans and tackle trafficking, has been responding to the refugee crisis by raising donations, some of which they used to purchase utilities for the centre like fridges. When Chris Lomas saw the food left out, he opened the fridge to see that it was hardly being used.
“I've visited the centre on a number of occasions, and find it cold, dirty and ill equipped,” he said.
“What constitutes a refugee centre? The presence of beds, or an environment that provides for all the basic needs of the desperate. Where you're placed in Moldova will depend on how comfortable or uncomfortable your stay is. The Manejul centre is perhaps one of the poorer examples, and perhaps whether unintentional or otherwise, the one ethnic minorities find themselves shipped to.”
Mihalache added that they have been able to improve monitoring at the borders, and trying to get more Roma-specific NGOs on the ground. It may make all the difference for women like Todorovich, fleeing a war zone and hoping for protection, no matter what her passport says.