Ukraine exposes once again the dangerous notion of ‘good v bad refugees’

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Under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, people seeking safe haven from war and conflict are protected by international law. But as Russian tanks continue to roll into Ukraine, we have once again begun to see the multilateral treaty be put to the test.

Many scenes from the ongoing war in Ukraine are heartbreaking: elderly people shivering in the cold under bridges; young mothers and their infants being tearfully bused away from their homes; young conscripts who look like they should be studying or partying lining up to get guns for a war they do not want.

Among the most shocking are the images of black and brown Ukrainians and Ukrainian residents – many of them refugees from Africa and elsewhere who sought safety from wars in their own countries, or foreign students – being segregated at the Polish-Ukrainian border.

Prior to the fighting, Ukraine had been a safe haven for many foreigners. The International Organisation of Migration has estimated that there are more than 470,000 foreign nationals in Ukraine, including many students and migrant workers. At least 6,000 of them arrived in Moldova and Slovakia over the past week. Many more have crossed into Poland.

But many testimonies of black people trying to flee have followed a familiar pattern of discrimination. One Kenyan student told the Associated Press that the Ukrainian military had moved black people into a separate queue and that they were “treated differently” from white Ukrainians. A Congolese student was left out “in the cold” for 10 hours while buses carrying white Ukrainians passed them standing in the road. “We were really shocked,” she said. Others have claimed to have been beaten severely in their efforts to escape.

Foreigners wait to go to Poland at the Shegyni Ukrainian border post on March 1, 2022. AFP
Foreigners wait to go to Poland at the Shegyni Ukrainian border post on March 1, 2022. AFP

Prior to the fighting, Ukraine had been a safe haven for many foreigners

One Turkish student has said he witnessed Ukrainian border police being “super racist”. The refugees were “never treated like a human”, he reported. Some Indian and Nepali refugees have reported similar experiences.

For many, these scenes will evoke former US president Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban” of 2017, in which foreign nationals from seven predominantly Muslim countries were barred from the US, along with Syrian asylum claimants. Christians from those countries were largely exempt from the bans, exacerbating the sense of xenophobia that ensued and prompting lawsuits from the American Civil Liberties Union. It remains an ugly memory. Imagine fleeing war or poverty and then arriving in a so-called safe zone to be treated with racism and prejudice.

The plight of the black and brown people fleeing Ukraine was especially poignant because they were just as much at risk of injury or death from bombs, bullets and tanks as their white neighbours.

Some Ukrainian MPs have responded to the reports in classic denialist fashion, labelling them “fake news”. The deputy interior minister, Anton Herashchenko, denied that his country was obstructing foreigners from leaving, explaining there is a system in which people have to queue, and foreigners were at the end of the queue. Still, the testimonies of many witnesses and the refugees themselves tell a different story.

The African Union and Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari have condemned the treatment of Africans fleeing Ukraine following the reports.

The wave of refugees is far from over and will continue to rise. Europe may even see a bigger one than it did in the 2015 refugee crisis by the time this conflict is over. The UN Refugee Agency says that one million people have already fled Ukraine for Europe since the fighting began. If the situation gets worse, that figure could reach as high as four million. This will put enormous strains on Poland and other neighbouring states – but it will also test their moral courage about how to respond to desperate people in need.

The experience of anyone fleeing anywhere is deeply traumatic and they must, above all, be treated with dignity. No one ever wants to leave their home until it is often too late. The experience is compounded for many refugees who were in Ukraine having already fled war or post-conflict situations. Now, they are fearful not only for their future, but of the reality that Europe most likely will not welcome them the way they will welcome white Ukrainians.

The dire situation was, perhaps, summed up best by Ben Crump, an American civil rights attorney who represented the family of George Floyd, a black American who was murdered by a police officer. Mr Crump posted a video of a black mother cradling a two-month-old baby in freezing temperatures at the Polish border. “Even in war,” he wrote. “Racism is alive and well.”

Janine di Giovanni teaches human rights at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and is a columnist for The National

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