People arrive in Hungary after crossing the Zahony-Chop border. Foreign students say they have found it harder than Ukrainians to get out of the country after Russia‘s invasion © Janos Kummer/Getty
Kenyan medical student Linda Omwenga packed her bags after Ukrainian soldiers told the 24-year-old and her friends “it was not safe” in Kyiv because of the Russian assault.
They rushed, first to the western city of Lviv and then to the Rava-Ruska border crossing with Poland. There Ukrainian border guards separated foreigners from locals. “There was a lot of segregation, I wouldn’t say [just] Africans per se, but foreigners were being given the short end of the stick,” she said, after eventually reaching safety in Warsaw.
Her words echo those of many other people of colour who said they have found it harder than Ukrainians to get out of the country, even as neighbouring countries made it clear they were opening their doors to refugees. With videos posted on social media and sent to Financial Times reporters showing Ukrainian guards refusing to allow black Africans on to trains, African leaders have decried the discrimination against people of colour.
Nigeria’s president Muhammadu Buhari has called for everyone to be “treated with dignity and without favour”. He added that most Nigerian citizens in Ukraine were university students, part of a decades-long tradition of thousands of Nigerians and other Africans studying in Ukraine and eastern bloc countries.
Senegalese president Macky Sall, who is also chair of the African Union, and Moussa Faki Mahamat, chair of the African Union Commission, said “all people have the right to cross international borders during conflict, and as such, should enjoy the same rights to cross to safety from the conflict in Ukraine, notwithstanding their nationality or racial identity”. Kenya’s ambassador to the UN, Martin Kimani, condemned “such racism against Africans and people of African descent”.
More than 804,000 people have fled the fighting over the past week, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said. Filippo Grandi, UNHCR commissioner, said the conflict looked set to create “Europe’s largest refugee crisis this century”. He told the UN Security Council that “at this critical juncture there can be no discrimination against any person or any group”.
People queue to enter Poland at the Shehyni border in Ukraine © Emmanuel Duparcq/AFP/Getty
Africans are not the only group who have reported ill treatment. Yemenis at the Poland-Ukraine border crossing in Medyka told the FT they had been treated badly by Ukrainian border guards.
“They acted like we are criminals. They forced their guns in front of our faces,” said Ahmed, a language student in Odesa. “After we were walking for almost three days continuously, we reached the border and they treated us like animals.” One of his friends was hit three times by Ukrainian border guards, Ahmed said. But he added that they had been treated well once they got into Poland.
“When the Ukrainians took us across the border, it was snowing and the Ukrainians told us we had to wait for four hours. They told their people to go inside and they left us on the street,” said Mazin, a cyber security student in Odesa. “I didn’t expect that they would do this. I really love Ukraine and I love the people. But maybe those at the border are very bad.”
Chizoba Ochei, the secretary-general of Nigerians in Diaspora in Warsaw, which has helped more than 100 Nigerians cross the border in the past week, reiterated that view. “Poland is welcoming everyone, the problem is on the Ukrainian side,” she said. Refugees have told her that Ukrainian border guards had given priority to Ukrainians.
Marcel, a Nigerian who had been studying medicine in Vinnytsia, made it to the Polish border with a group of around 75 other African students. Ukrainians had priority at the border, he said, but added: “They had to move first, but that is not racism, it is [priority for] citizenship.”
On Tuesday night, three Indian citizens were attacked in Przemysl, a city in south-east Poland that has been one of the main stops for refugees arriving from Ukraine. Polish police said that they were “intensively” investigating the attack and in a separate statement also warned citizens to beware of disinformation about refugees. 500,000 refugees have fled Ukraine: UN Subtitles unavailable
“Unfortunately yesterday . . . there was a large amount of fake news about refugees themselves and the alleged criminal acts they were supposed to have committed. This is, to put it simply, complete rubbish,” the police said.
For now, the focus is on getting the remaining people out. On Monday, Nigeria’s foreign minister, Geoffrey Onyeama, said the government was working with Nigerian airlines to airlift 1,000 of its 4,000 citizens living in Ukraine from neighbouring “transit” countries from Wednesday.
The Polish prime minister’s office said more than 474,000 refugees had entered the country since the start of the war and hit out at “untrue information about alleged mistreatment of citizens of certain countries by Polish and Ukrainians services”. “Poland is helping everyone, regardless of their country of origin,” it said in a statement.
South African expatriates in the region have mobilised to help compatriots and fellow Africans, said Lebone Kganyago, founder of Expat South Africa, a network for South Africans abroad. “Unfortunately, South Africans and Africans in general have had a number of challenges just getting on buses and trains,” she said. “They are trying to be as persistent as possible.” South Africa’s foreign ministry has sent its ambassador to Poland to help with crossings at the border.
“Just in general we are a bit shocked, heartbroken in a sense, that this is happening to South Africans,” said Kganyago, who studied in Russia for several years. “You never anticipate such a thing.”