Refugees return to Ukraine due to reproductive and sexual problems

According to a study published by the Center for Reproductive Rights, Ukrainian refugees are temporarily returning home to receive sexual and reproductive healthcare after finding their options limited in Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia, while others seek illegal solutions.

A study released Tuesday, the work of nine international human rights organizations, documents the alarming impact restrictive domestic laws have on refugees seeking essential care and support.

The report’s findings stem from more than 80 semi-structured interviews conducted between July 2022 and April 2023. It found that Ukrainian refugees face harmful delays, anxiety, fear, financial hardship, institutional racism and inadequate care, which directly impact their health and overall well-being.

The health and well-being of some Ukrainian refugees are at risk due to a failure to ensure access to urgently needed health and support services, compounding the damage they have suffered as a result of the invasion of Ukraine, the Center for reproductive rights Senior Regional Director for Europe, Leah Hoctor, told EURACTIV.

The European Union has promised to provide protection and treatment for Ukrainian refugees. Yet women from Ukraine [] they often experience a very different reality when they need sexual and reproductive health care [] facing an obstacle course of restrictions, confusion, stigma and discrimination, he added.

Issue of Polish law and anti-LGBTQ+ policies

Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia have very restrictive environments regarding reproductive health care and gender-based violence support services. The report found that women face legal restrictions, cost barriers, lack of information and poor quality care when accessing such support.

Furthermore, women seeking reproductive care often face severe threats, harassment and intimidation in settings where reproductive rights are not a state priority.

Poland has one of the most restrictive environments for sexual and reproductive health and rights in Europe. Following the 2020 ruling by the country’s Constitutional Tribunal, abortion is legal only when the pregnancy is the result of a criminal act or when the woman’s life or health is at significant risk.

The fact that Ukrainian refugees in Poland are forced to return to Ukraine for abortion treatment or to access treatment in other parts of Europe is an indictment against Polish law and practice, said Krystyna Kacpura of the Polish Women’s Foundation and family planning.

Most refugees in Poland seek abortion treatment outside the legal pathways by buying abortion medication online or traveling to other EU member states to access treatment. Some women put off seeking sexual and reproductive health care for as long as possible.

But it’s not just those seeking reproductive assistance who face obstacles. The report found that survivors of gender-based violence often lack essential services and support and face trauma, health issues and other consequences on their own, while Roma and LGBTQ+ refugees face intersectional discrimination and increased barriers.

ILGA-Europe estimates that Poland is a country where living conditions for LGBTQ+ are the worst in the EU. In addition, several local governments have adopted resolutions on zones devoid of LGBT ideology.

Support services for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence in Poland are woefully inadequate, believes Joanna Piotrowska of the Feminoteka Foundation, a Polish organization participating in the study, adding that many survivors do not find a safe haven where they can be supported in the ‘cope with the traumatic experiences they have endured.

In Slovakia, Freedom of Choice’s Adriana Mesochoritisova said there are no services needed to help Ukrainian women.

Slovakia lacks the necessary services to address the needs of Ukrainian women. Whether it’s abortion assistance, contraceptive services, support for gender-based violence, there is so much missing. There are so many barriers in their way.

In Hungary it is the same story.

After the invasion, human rights organizations immediately mobilized to respond to the needs of refugees fleeing Ukraine, said Erika Schmidt, EMMA Association, Hungary. But, one year later, we and other organizations providing sexual and reproductive assistance continue to face significant legal, financial and operational challenges impacting our ability to serve refugees.

Meanwhile, in Romania, gender stereotypes and multiple forms of discrimination are causing problems for refugees, especially when combined with growing momentum against reproductive health freedom.

Access to good quality health and support services for women and girls in Romania. Vulnerable groups always find it difficult to navigate these stormy waters, said Camelia Proca, ALEG, Romania.

The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine has forced more than 8 million people, mostly women and children, to seek refuge in countries across Europe. Poland has received the largest number of refugees among EU states.

Nearly 12 million people have crossed the Ukrainian-Polish border since February 24, 2022, says the Polish border guard. According to government data, around one million Ukrainians are given temporary protection in Poland.

(Aleksandra Krzysztoszek |

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