Mar 8, 2022 - World

#AfricansInUkraine: Escaping students describe rejection at border

A Ukrainian refugee arrives by train in Poland

Ukrainian refugees arrive in Poland March 1. Photo: Maciej Luczniewski/NurPhoto via Getty Images

A number of Black people living in Ukraine, many of them exchange students, report being blocked as they tried to board trains to escape the war.

Why it matters: The racist incidents — some documented on video, as the hashtag #AfricansInUkraine flooded Twitter — added individual agony to the desperate nationwide exodus.

Zoom in: Among the more than 1.5 million people who have fled Ukraine since Russia's invasion is Alexander Somto Orah, a 25-year-old Nigerian student who told Axios he witnessed three separate incidents of racial discrimination against evacuees by Ukrainian authorities during the long journey from Kyiv to Warsaw.

  1. At a Kyiv train station, police officers said they'd prioritize entry to women and children, Orah said. But they denied access to a group of African women — some of whom were pregnant — even as African men pleaded with authorities to let them pass.
  2. At a station in Lviv, officers said only Ukrainian nationals could pass, "but I saw them take only white people," Orah said. The authorities didn't respond when he and others confronted them to ask how they knew who was Ukrainian without checking passports, he recalled.
  3. At the Ukraine-Poland border, white and nonwhite people were separated by a barricade, Orah said. Authorities allowed the white group to move quickly and in large numbers, while mostly ignoring people of color.

Orah said white Ukrainians and Poles have been kind and helpful to their fellow refugees who are nonwhite: "The problems were only with the authorities."

  • Officials in Ukraine and Poland have vehemently denied there has been racism, and suggested the reports were part of Russian disinformation campaigns.
  • But Ukraine, in what appeared to be an acknowledgement of the reports, said Wednesday it has set up hotlines to help "African, Asian and other students wishing to leave Ukraine."

Zoom out: Accounts like Orah's have sparked fears that Eastern Europe's often-forgotten minority groups could be treated as second-class refugees.

  • Europe is reeling from the continent's fastest mass migration since World War II.
  • The governments of Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Gabon and leaders in Africa have denounced the incidents, with the African Union calling it "shockingly racist and in breach of international law."

An attack on refugees of color who came from Ukraine by Polish white supremacists last week, first reported by the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza (Polish), could heighten fears about how refugees of color will be treated.

  • Local police in Poland acknowledged the attack, but warned of fake reports of violence toward refugees aimed at deterring them from coming.

The context: Kimberly St. Julian-Varnon, a historian and University of Pennsylvania doctoral candidate who studies Ukraine’s Black population, told Axios: "Unfortunately, as a person who’s worked on the region for over 10 years, this is not surprising."

  • "What we’re seeing is a culmination of racism that has always existed in this region, and it’s being exacerbated by the chaos of war," St. Julian-Varnon said about the accounts of discrimination as people fled Ukraine.
  • Racist groups are likely to feel emboldened to commit acts of hate amid the chaos of war, St. Julian-Varnon said. While they are representative of their countries' populations, they get an outsized amount of media attention.
  • St. Julian-Varnon, who's been communicating with Black students fleeing Ukraine since the war began, said they've seen less discrimination since condemnation started pouring in from around the world.

What we're watching: Marta Udoh is a Polish-Nigerian lawyer based in London who is co-author of the Instagram page @blackispolish, which has sought to build visibility and community among Poland's relatively small Black population.

  • She and the three other Black-Polish women who run the page have provided resources to Black Ukrainians looking to evacuate, and found housing once they've arrived.
  • Udoh told Axios more than a hundred people in Poland have told the group they'd be willing to house a refugee a sign that Polish people will be empathetic toward all refugees, she said. The country has accepted nearly a million refugees since the invasion.

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