‘Ugly, Unprofessional’: International Students Describe Racism at the Ukrainian Border

ukraine-border - Credit: AP Photo/Pavlo Palamarchuk
ukraine-border - Credit: AP Photo/Pavlo Palamarchuk

Since Thursday, Feb. 24, when the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, more than 660,000 people have fled Ukraine, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Among them have been thousands of international students who came to Ukraine for college or medical school. At least two students — from India and Algeria — have been killed by Russian shelling in Kharkiv. As droves of people flee toward Ukraine’s western border, reports of racist behavior by authorities at the entry points to neighboring countries have proliferated on social media.

Twitter users have said that in an effort to evacuate Ukrainians ahead of other refugees, officials were segregating people by race to decide who got to pass through the border. Videos went viral purporting to show Black people from African nations being left stranded at Ukrainian train stations or being blocked from boarding trains, and groups of African and Indian students being menaced with guns and vans and pushed and beaten at the Polish border. Civil rights attorney Ben Crump shared a clip that showed a Black woman cradling an infant in a crowd at the Polish border, according to the caption, where the creator of the video said Black people were being denied passage and shelter. One Nigerian student told the BBC that an official told her “if you are Black, you should walk.” She had made it into Hungary and was trying to get a ticket home to Nigeria as quickly as possible. “If your skin is dark, you’re at a disadvantage,” she said.

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Another Nigerian student who fled to Hungary told Rolling Stone he had such a hard time at the Poland border, he’d had to turn back and try a different way out. “I eventually left the Poland border due to the inhumane behaviors of the Ukrainian soldiers, and the acts of racism,” says Coy Emerald, 26. “I went back to Lviv and chose another route to Hungary.” He says he’d walked for 10 hours only to be left “unattended” at the border to Poland by people who he claims were Ukrainian soldiers. He said he’d had several “unexpected, ugly” interactions with the officials. “I thought they were trained to protect lives,” he says, adding that the “unprofessional conduct” of officials at the border was a threat beyond the crisis of war that he had not seen coming.

Ismail Adedolapo, a 23-year-old Nigerian who was studying in Ukraine before fleeing to Poland, says he experienced some racism as he traveled, and that officials only allowed Ukrainian women and children to leave. Still, he has sympathy for the Ukrainian people who have endured Russian aggression since the 2014 annexation of Crimea. “I was subject to racist treatment at the Ukrainian border, but it’s kind of excusable considering they have experienced the war firsthand for the last eight years,” he says. “At the same time, everyone deserves a chance at life because we were all trying to escape certain death.”

Nazish Ehtesham, a 19-year-old student from India, also says he saw officials separating people by nationality at the border to Romania. “I don’t know whether to call that racism or what, but they were allowing less foreigners as compared to Ukrainians,” he says.

On Monday, several African nations on the U.N. Security Council denounced the reported discrimination against African citizens. “We strongly condemn this racism and believe that it is damaging to the spirit of solidarity that is so urgently needed today,” Kenyan U.N. ambassador Martin Kimani said, in part. “The mistreatment of African peoples on Europe’s borders needs to cease immediately.” The U.N. ambassador from Gabon said the reported racism was “unacceptable.” In a statement, the African Union said, “Reports that Africans are singled out for unacceptable dissimilar treatment would be shockingly racist and in breach [of] international law.” The AU urged all countries to “show the same empathy and support to all people fleeing war notwithstanding their racial identity.”

Those traveling towards other countries have been quick to add that they’ve been met with kindness and aid along the way, too. “One thing I must appreciate [is] that locals and NGOs were very helpful,” Ehtesham says. “They were distributing all the necessary foods and stuff on both sides.” Nze, the Twitter user who posted videos of students being threatened with guns and vehicles, also Tweeted an update on Monday saying citizens had been kind to him and other refugees during their travels. “Polish people provided healthy foods for us, blankets and many things,” he said. “They provided everything for free, including buses and trains. Ukrainians also offered us foods on the road [because] we were all trekking. Only their law enforcement officials were terrible.”

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