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UN agency dismayed over reports of racism against foreigners fleeing Ukraine

’Open the door or we die’: Africans report racism and hostility trying to flee Ukraine

Thursday 3 March 2022, by siawi3


World, Russia-Ukraine Crisis

UN agency dismayed over reports of racism against foreigners fleeing Ukraine

Reaction comes following complaints about reports on refugees from non-European countries

Peter Kenny


UN agency dismayed over reports of racism against foreigners fleeing Ukraine

Nyugati Station hosts thousands of Ukrainians after Russian attacks


The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, expressed dismay Tuesday over reports that foreigners fleeing Ukraine amid its war with Russia are experiencing mistreatment and pleaded for more humanity and compassion for non-Europeans and refugees from other nations.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi told journalists that 677,000 people had fled Ukraine since Russia launched its war there on Feb. 24.

Grandi also spoke out about reports that have emerged of discrimination against non-Ukrainian or non-European refugees at some entry points and people’s reference to them using discriminatory or racist terminology.

He quoted UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres as saying that “there should be absolutely no discrimination between Ukrainians and non-Ukrainians, Europeans and non-Europeans,” as all are at risk.

Leaders from the African Union Commission had stated Monday that they are closely following developments in Ukraine and are disturbed by reports that Africans on the Ukrainian side of the border are being refused the right to cross to safety.

Reports had emerged that refugees from countries such as Nigeria, Tanzania and Afghanistan who tried to enter Poland from Ukraine faced being sent back.

The Polish prime minister’s office said such accusations were “misinformation” and that refugees from Ukraine were being admitted to Poland regardless of their nationality.

The Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association (AMEJA) had also called on news outlets to be mindful of implicit and explicit bias in their war coverage of Ukraine.

It said it had tracked racist news coverage that ascribed more importance to some war victims than others in recent days.

It cited a Feb. 26 CBS News segment in which correspondent Charlie D’Agata commented: “But this isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European — I have to choose those words carefully, too — city, one where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen.”

UNHCR spokeswoman Shabia Mantoo was asked to comment at a UN press conference.

Answering questions from Anadolu Agency, Mantoo said: “No one wants to leave their home forcibly and have to flee in search of safety.””It’s really tragic for refugees from Ukraine, refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, and other countries as well. We have to remember that they’re all human.”

She emphasized that hate speech can endanger refugees’ lives.

“It doesn’t matter what their (refugees’) identity is or where they come from. Let’s be a little more humane and compassionate,” she said.

Liz Throssell, the spokeswoman for the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said “it goes without saying that such comments should not exist.”



’Open the door or we die’: Africans report racism and hostility trying to flee Ukraine

Thousands of African immigrants joining throngs of Ukrainians trying to flee the country say they face red tape and discrimination.

Image: Displaced Ukrainians Flee From Lviv Train Station to Poland
A passenger carries luggage on his head Sunday at Lviv-Holovnyi railway station in Lviv, Ukraine, as displaced Ukrainians flee to Poland.Ethan Swope / Bloomberg via Getty Images

March 1, 2022, 11:35 PM CET

By Char Adams, Zinhle Essamuah, Shamar Walters and Rima Abdelkader

Alexander Somto Orah, 25, was among thousands of people crowding a Kyiv train station Friday, hoping to flee Ukraine amid the Russian invasion. He said he and his friends hoped to get to safety at the Polish border quickly but that officials wouldn’t allow the group of Africans to board trains out of the region.

“I was like, ‘You are picking only white people!’” Orah said. He said he and his friends briefly made it onto a second train headed to Poland but were quickly kicked off, with officials telling them “Ukrainians only.”

“I said: ‘You say Ukrainians only, but I don’t see you checking passports. I see you picking white people only.’ The train was not filled before they left, but they never picked us.”

Orah is one of several African citizens living in Ukraine who have reported racist discrimination and abuse at the border. Videos on social media have shown officials appearing to threaten to shoot groups of African students, a woman shielding an infant from the cold, officials chasing groups of people and people reported to be stranded in Ukraine. Representatives from several African countries — Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and Gabon — have condemned the reports, and the African Union said Monday that it was disturbed by the news.

Image: African residents in Ukraine wait at the platform Sunday in the Lviv railway station. Bernat Armangue / AP

“Reports that Africans are singled out for unacceptable dissimilar treatment would be shockingly racist and in breach” of international law, African Union officials said in the statement.

Russia invaded Ukraine last week by land, air and sea following weeks of tension. Explosions have rocked the country, prompting thousands of residents to flee to nearby countries. The European Union recently announced measures to bolster Ukraine in its fight against Russia and imposed bans on Russian aircraft and state-owned media outlets. On Tuesday, an armored convoy made its way toward Kyiv, and a video showed a deadly explosion in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. The blast killed at least 10 people, said Anton Herashchenko, an adviser to the interior ministry.

Scholars have said that amid the invasion and humanitarian crisis, Black and brown people in Ukraine could find themselves at the bottom of the social hierarchy as they try to flee.

The United Nations has acknowledged the discrimination some non-Ukrainians have faced after reports surfaced that African citizens are enduring racism at the border. Filippo Grandi, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, said at a news conference Tuesday that unfair treatment isn’t the result of state policies.

“There should be absolutely no discrimination between Ukrainians and non-Ukrainians, Europeans and non-Europeans. Everybody is fleeing from the same risks,” Grandi told reporters.

Image: People wait to board an evacuaition train from Kyiv to Lviv at Kyiv central train station. Umit Bektas / Reuters

Orah detailed his and his friends’ harrowing journey to the Polish border. They tried to get on train after train out of Kyiv and were able to board one only after they begged.

“The train was already leaving, we jumped in and was holding the door and told them, ‘You either open the door or we die on the road,’” Orah recalled of a Ukrainian official. “He finally opened the door. We were the only three Africans in that particular train. And the train was not full.”

Several African students and other foreigners told CNN that they were ordered off buses to make room for Ukrainian nationals, left stranded in border towns and beaten.

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While the official count of African and Black people in Ukraine has not been updated in 20 years, Reuters reported that there are more than 16,000 African students in Ukraine, citing the education ministry. As of 2020, Moroccan, Nigerian and Egyptian citizens made up nearly 20 percent of all students in Ukraine.

The Foreign Affairs Ministry called on relevant agencies to support foreign citizens but appeared to dismiss the reports of discrimination as Russian propaganda. Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s minister of foreign affairs, tweeted Tuesday that Africans needed to evacuate the country safely.

“However, do not be misled by Russian disinformation,” the statement read. “There is no discrimination based on the race or nationality including when it comes to the crossing of the state border by foreign citizens. The first-come, first-served approach applied to all nationalities.”

MSNBC terrorism analyst Malcolm Nance said both could be true: Discrimination is likely to be occurring and Russian officials may be working to use the news to their advantage.

“Where you’re going to see discrimination is always in a crisis. You can’t stop guys who might be racist inherently from doing something,” Nance said. “This is reflective of the social politics of Ukraine — which is a 99.9 percent white country — in a crisis. This story got amplified by Russia. It’s in the interest of Russia to stoke these perceptions.”

Orah said that after they reached Lviv, he and his friends weren’t able to board another train, so they paid for a taxi to reach the border. However, the car was stopped because of traffic, so the trio continued to the Ukraine-Poland border crossing in Medyka on foot.

There, Ukrainian officials were holding groups of people back with a barricade, he said.

“We were trying to break through. We were pushing, pushing,” defying Ukrainian officials’ orders, Orah said. “They were chasing us with batons. We didn’t care. We were pushing forward, running, and we walked for, like, 30 minutes until we got to the Polish border.”



They Called Ukraine Home. But They Faced Violence and Racism When They Tried to Flee

Photo: Refugees wake after sleeping on blankets and cardboard on the ground on the Polish side of the Medyka crossing, on March 1.
Natalie Keyssar for TIME

Text by AMIE FERRIS-ROTMAN / PRZEMYSL, POLAND | Photographs by Natalie Keyssar for TIME

Updated: March 1, 2022 9:28 PM EST | Originally published: March 1, 2022 7:19 PM EST

For Grace Kass, Ukraine was home. Sure, it could be unwelcoming for a Black woman, and she would never get used to its bitterly cold winters, but it’s where she had lived for the past seven years. The 24-year-old, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, had come to Ukraine’s second-largest city of Kharkiv as an engineering student and stayed on, forging a successful career as a make-up artist.

She knew its parks and fountains, she learned Russian and some Ukrainian, she made close friends—in a word, she belonged. “This was not just a place where I lived, I was making something of my life,” Kass says, fighting back tears in the train station of the Polish city of Przemysl on the border with Ukraine.

Read More: Here’s What You Can Do to Help People in Ukraine Right Now

It was Monday evening and she had fled Ukraine overnight, on Feb. 27, the fourth day of a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. She made it out just in time: a day after leaving Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine, the city was bombarded with Russian rockets that killed dozens of civilians. But when Kass reached Lviv in Ukraine’s west near Poland, joining the heaving crowds desperately trying to board trains for safety, she says she encountered hostility from the Ukrainian military, who were dividing people into two groups: those who were white, and those who were not.

Photo: Fatima Ezzahra shows a message to TIME using Google Translate at the Medyka border.
Natalie Keyssar for TIME

“We entered the train last,” Kass says, describing how she and other African women were forced to wait outside as snow was falling, while white women and children were allowed to board before them. She believes her gender is the only reason she was spared being beaten. Groups of Nepalese, Indian and Somalian men described to TIME how they were kicked and beaten with batons by Ukrainian guards who later begrudgingly allowed them to cross over, on foot.

Later, when Kass’s train stopped for 17 hours at the Polish border, she says Ukrainian train guards gave out bread and sausages to passengers. But they passed by Kass and her African friends. “By the time it was our turn, they threw us the ends of stale bread,” she says. After spending more than a third of her life in Ukraine, she felt let down. “It was a traumatic experience.

Photo: Enock Tshimanga, a student from Congo, at the Medyka crossing on March 1.
Natalie Keyssar for TIME

The Crisis Media Center in Lviv did not respond to a request for comment. Ukrainian MP Lesia Vasylenko denied Ukrainians were being given preferential treatment. “There is no fast track,” she tweeted on Monday, describing the reports of maltreatment as fake news.

More than 660,000 people have left Ukraine for Europe since the Russian invasion began on Feb. 24, according to the U.N.’s refugee agency. (Fighting-age Ukrainian men have been ordered to stay behind and fight Russia.) Up to 4 million more could flee if the situation deteriorates further, the U.N. says, creating a migrant crisis not seen in Europe since World War II. Poland, Ukraine’s largest neighbor after Russia, has received around half of those refugees so far. Tents with food and medics have sprung up along the border to deal with the massive outflow of people.

Photo: Refugees await transportation on the train platform in Przemysl, Poland, on March 1.
Natalie Keyssar for TIME

Read More: Despite Decades of Tension, Romanians Are Embracing Ukrainian Refugees

Though a majority-white country, Ukraine has a diverse, multiethnic population including Tatars, Jews and Roma, as well as small communities of Black and Asian Ukrainians. In recent decades, the country earned a good reputation among the mostly African and Asian nations who send some 80,000 of their citizens there to study. And while Ukraine provided them with a relatively comfortable life, many now feel betrayed. TIME spoke to several dozen people on the border with Poland who described discrimination by the country that had once welcomed them with open arms.

Photo: Refugees sleep on the cold ground on the morning of March 1 on the Polish side of the Medyka crossing
Natalie Keyssar for TIME

Now safely across the border, refugees of color were also dismayed by the continued preferential treatment for Ukrainians in the official Polish response and from ordinary Poles. On Tuesday night, NGO Humanity First Germany said members of its team were attacked by a group of Polish men in front of the Przemysl train station and told to “go back to their country”, Polish liberal news site reported.

In recent years, Poland’s right-wing government has taken a hard line on asylum-seekers trying to enter the EU nation. This culminated in a showdown with neighboring Belarus over the winter, when the Polish army continually pushed back asylum seekers into a forested area in freezing temperatures. Over 20 people have died, according to Medecins Sans Frontieres.

Photo: Karen poses for a portrait at the Medyka crossing on March 1. Karen had her nails done for Valentine’s Day and couldn’t believe how much has changed since.
Natalie Keyssar for TIME

The beneficent response to fleeing Ukrainian citizens represents a marked departure. “There’s a difference in welcoming Ukrainians not just for the political reasons—you know, to counter Russia being the aggressor here—but also because Ukrainians are largely white, Christian Europeans rather than Middle Eastern and African individuals who are seeking safety,” Daphne Panayotatos, advocate for Europe at Refugees International, told TIME on Feb. 23.

In the Polish border village of Medyka, where recent arrivals from Ukraine threw polyester blankets onto bonfires to keep warm in the freezing cold, others reported discrimination at the border on their way out. “Ukrainians treated us alright as they saw us as money,” said Ashraf Muslim, a 23-year-old from Morocco, sitting on the curbside with his wife, dentistry student Lina Kuretta. Their pet Pomeranian searched for discarded pieces of kielbasa amongst the trash. Muslim was in the final year of his medicine degree in the central Ukrainian city of Poltava, where tuition costs $10,000 a year. “The moment we became useless to them, they turned us into bums,” he said. Muslim and Kuretta spent 60 hours in their car at the border pleading with Ukrainian officials—in fluent Russian—to allow them to join the column of vehicles snaking out.

Photo: Refugees at the Przemysl train station await transportation on March 1.
Natalie Keyssar for TIME

Nearby stood 22-year-old medical student Ahmed Mohamoud Abdullahi, who was trying unsuccessfully to call his parents in Somalia to let them know he was alive. His cell phone’s screen was smashed, the victim of the previous night’s skirmish with an armed Ukrainian border guard. He had arrived in Ukraine in December after an arduous visa process, and was just getting to grips with the language when the invasion began.

Read More: ‘It’s Our Duty to Help.’ Eastern Europe Opens Its Doors and Hearts to People Fleeing Ukraine

Once in Poland, people with Ukrainian passports are able to take advantage of Kyiv’s visa-free access to neighboring E.U. countries, a policy in place since 2017. Now, support from Poland since the invasion means that Ukrainian nationals can access Polish trains for free, and some medical services. Solidarity between the Slav neighbors, which share a similar language and a border that stretches for more than 300 miles, has extended to villagers lending their bedrooms and homes to total strangers, and volunteers ferrying stranded Ukrainians back and forth from border towns to the larger cities.

Photo: Parvinder Singh from India said he spent three days waiting to cross the border without food, water, or sleep, while white Ukrainians passed through much more quickly
Natalie Keyssar for TIME

In normal circumstances, people from African and Asian countries need to apply for a Schengen visa to enter most E.U. countries, but the European commissioner for home affairs, Ylva Johansson, said on Monday the borders are open to people from third countries who were in Ukraine, and want to travel to their home countries.

Poland’s border guard has said it is welcoming all refugees from Ukraine, regardless of their nationality. But at the train station in Przemysl, Africans and Afghans were being forced back into lines for trains going west. “Unfortunately, Ukrainians are being given priority,” said Oscar Broz, a 30-year-old Polish volunteer. He said he advised foreign citizens to pretend they had lost their passports to be allowed onto Polish intercity trains. Polish authorities are “aware of some problems” surrounding access to official help for non-Ukrainian citizens, Marcin Sośniak, head of the Equal Treatment Department of the Human Rights Commissioner, said in written responses to questions from TIME.

Photo: Refugees at the Przemysl train station attempt to board a crowded train to Krakow on March 1.
Natalie Keyssar for TIME

For Kass, the makeup artist who escaped with a small leather bag without “even a single make-up brush,” the thought of returning to her hometown of Matadi on the DRC’s Atlantic Coast is not an option. She will go to the Polish capital, Warsaw, and from there, try to move to a French-speaking country in Europe.

In Kharkiv, her clients were mostly African students. Lavishly making up women for weddings was her favorite part of the job. “I wonder where they are now,” she said. “I hope they are still happy. I hope they are out.”

With reporting by Jasmine Aguilera/New York