Black African people living in Ukraine are apparently struggling to flee the country as Russia invades, exposing racist attitudes towards refugees across Europe

Social media footage has shown Africans struggling to leave the fighting in Ukraine, with campaigners expressing concern that black Africans are facing discrimination and ill treatment at the country’s borders. 

The scenes come as UK and US media commentators have expressed sympathy for Ukrainian refugees and civilians who “seem so like us” because they are “European”. Writing in The Telegraph, former MEP Daniel Hannan said: “war is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations. It can happen to anyone”. CBS presenter Charlie D’Agata has had to apologise after saying Ukraine is more “civilised” than other countries impacted by war, such as Iraq and Afghanistan – places with majority Muslim populations. 

While the footage coming out of the border is patchy and handshot, there are now too many first-hand accounts to be discounted. 

“This is the black community here. They are not allowing black people to enter inside the gates,” one man says in a video shared on Twitter. It appears to be filmed at the Ukraine and Poland border. “We are all here. It is only Ukrainians they are allowing in. Even the ones with kids, they are not allowing them in. We could be here for days and no one is asking any questions. Only Ukrainian women and kids they are letting in through the gates. All the places blocked and all are full of blacks, from different communities and different countries. Nobody is talking to us.” 

The footage shows a young mother cradling her baby. It’s winter in Eastern Europe still, with temperatures dropping to at least three degrees.

“The officer now, is now telling the Ukrainian border, they close it” says one man, with a West African accent, on footage shared on the #AfricansInUkraine hashtag. He is trying to get into Poland, which has promised to accept one million refugees. “They have no programme to accept us.” 

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Other footage shows black Africans being unable to get on trains out of the country – although it is important to note that many, many people are struggling to access public transport in the chaos. “They have left without taking the blacks,” says one man in a short video clip, as black African people wait, afraid and uncertain, on the empty rail tracks. 

A WhatsApp chain shared on Twitter reads “my sister has been stuck at Lyiv train station all day … she said there’s been three trains and they kicked out black people”. Another reads: “they’re pushing black guys away” and a final message explains: “they are now allowing blacks to enter the train to Poland.” Osarumen, a Nigerian national and father-of-three, told The Independent, that he was told “no blacks” when trying to board a bus. They were ejected from the vehicle. 

In distressing scenes, black African students at the Ukraine-Polish borders shouted “we are students, we don’t have arms, check out our phones”. Armed police arrived, leading to calls of “you are fighting Russia, not us.” 

Thankfully, some footage has been shared of black Africans arriving across the border into Poland. Photos have also been posted of Zambian students safe in Warsaw. 


The Wider Crisis

Poland’s decision to open its borders to one million refugees from Ukraine has won praise from human rights activists. Romania, Moldova, Hungary, and Bulgaria have also said they will welcome refugees from the country, currently being bombarded by air and land from Russian forces. 

The Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov said last week: “These are not the refugees we are used to… these people are Europeans. These people are intelligent, they are educated people. … This is not the refugee wave we have been used to, people we were not sure about their identity, people with unclear pasts, who could have been even terrorists … there is not a single European country now which is afraid of the current wave of refugees.”

Petkov’s comments expose a worrying hypocrisy on Ukraine’s borders, exacercebated by the treatment of black Africans fleeing the country – as nations that have been antagonistic to refugees from predominantly Muslim countries respond with compassion to white Christian victims of war. 

Back in 2017, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbàn referred to refugees from Syria as “Muslim invaders”, comments he refused to retract when meeting Boris Johnson last year. The far-right leader, who faces an election next month, used the excuse of the Coronavirus to suspend asylum seekers’ rights in 2020. 

Similarly, Poland’s far-right Law and Justice Party has cracked down on refugees entering the country in recent years. As recently as last year, as tensions broke out on the Polish/Belarussian border where refugees from the Global South tried to cross into Europe, the Government passed a legal amendment allowing migrants to be pushed back at the border and for asylum claims made by those who entered “illegally” to be ignored. Romania has also been accused of pushing refugees back.

Meanwhile, the UK, the Government continues to come under fire for its response to the growing number of refugees fleeing Ukraine. The Home Office has said that “multiple official visa routes are available for Ukrainians who are not dependents of British nationals”. Ukrainian nationals already in the UK can extend their leave. However, the Government has not waived visa requirements, as Ireland has, while Home Office minister Kevin Foster was under fire over the weekend for recommending the “seasonal worker scheme” for Ukrainian people wanting to come to the UK. 

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