An ITV, a correspondent in Poland said: “This is not a developing third world nation. This is Europe.”
It has been reported and denied that African and Asian leaving Ukraine are being prevented from fleeing to safety as Russian attacks continue to devastate the country, one Polish official branded it fake news. Simultaneously, Western media coverage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been blasted as racist, drawing criticism for its ‘appalling, offensive’ reporting. African and Asian students make up 20% of the student population contributing to the Ukrainian economy.
Black people living in Ukraine say they have been abandoned. Osarumen, a father-of-three, said he, his family members and others were told to disembark a bus about to cross the border on Saturday and told, “No blacks”. Despite challenging the driver and military officers’ orders, they were ejected from the vehicle.
“In all of my years as an activist, I have never seen anything like this. When I look into the eyes of those who are turning us away, I see bloodshot racism; they want to save themselves and they are losing their humanity in the process. I cannot imagine a scenario where white Ukrainians would ever be denied asylum so how they’re treating us is unwarranted.”
Osarumen, a Nigerian national who has lived in Ukraine since 2009, said he was currently stranded at a train station in Kyiv, the capital city, along with thousands of others and unsure of his next move. “This isn’t just happening to black people – even Indians, Arabs and Syrians,” he added, “and that shouldn’t be the case.”
Another man, 30, received a video call from his friend at the Medyka border crossing, where he claimed to have seen Ukrainian military personnel preventing hundreds of African and other international citizens from going to Poland.
“No English, no Polish, no blacks, they told my friend. This is about racism,” the man said.
“Equal rights is something that everyone should have; Africans don’t have equal rights with white Ukrainians. We should not discriminate – we’re all human. This is war.”
Twenty-four Jamaican students who yesterday arrived in Lviv from Kharkiv by train are now being forced to walk 20km to Poland. The country’s foreign affairs minister, Kamina Smith, said they were blocked from boarding the bus that was carrying the students to Poland.
African students trapped in Ukraine say they face extra challenges as they try to escape the war, including being blocked from getting off trains or barred from crossing borders to neighbouring countries.
Roughly 20 per cent of Ukraine’s foreign students are African, including 4,000 Nigerians. African activists and students have been raising awareness of their plight through the Twitter hashtag #AfricansInUkraine, as well as creating group chats on WhatsApp and Telegram to organise assistance.
Hundreds of Africans – including some in Ukraine, people in countries including Nigeria and Ghana and members of the diaspora in Europe – also talked for more than 16 hours in an online discussion held through Twitter spaces, sharing advice on logistics and strategizing about how to help.
In less than 24 hours, more than €23,000 was raised by organisers who connected on Twitter. “There are still many black students and families who live and work in Ukraine who are stuck there,” the description for the campaign read. “Many more have made it to Poland to face horrific anti-blackness and racist Ukrainian and Polish soldiers and police officers.”
African embassies came in for early criticism for not planning to evacuate their citizens. One Nigerian medical student, who had been studying in Dnipro and asked not to be named, said the British students he studied with were bused to the Polish border by university authorities, while Africans were left behind. By Sunday he was driving in a four-car convoy towards Romania, where they heard they would be allowed to cross. “The black students, the African students are completely neglected. We are humans too,” he said.
“When the shelling started, a lot of people made their way towards Poland as an impulse reaction … When they got to the border they realised it was just Ukrainians getting access into Poland … We tried contacting the embassy but we got no reply. We just need to cross the border and know that we’re safe and within a short period of time we will find our way back to our country.”
Polish authorities have said publicly that third-country nationals will be allowed to enter. On Saturday, the Nigerian embassy in Poland also said it would have staff waiting at four locations to meet its citizens with buses and vans.
On February 24th, the Ghanaian ministry of foreign affairs tweeted that it was “gravely concerned” about the security and safety of our over 1,000 students and other Ghanaians in Ukraine. It later gave contact numbers for officials who could help them cross borders, while warning citizens to “be wary of unscrupulous persons posing as designated officials for the evacuation exercise”.
At least 368,000 people have fled Ukraine to countries including Poland, Hungary, Romania and Moldova, according to Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees.
“Black Africans are being treated with racism and contempt in Ukraine & Poland. West cannot ask African nations to stand in solidarity with them if they cannot display basic respect for us even in a time of war. Ignored in a pandemic and left to die in war?!! UNACCEPTABLE,” Dr Ayoade Alakija, a special envoy at the World Health Organisation, said on Twitter.
“It is obvious that we Africans are regarded as lower beings,” said Nze, a student, who’s been forced to walk several hours to a Poland border.
While attempting to board a train in Kyiv prior to his trek, he said he observed a racial hierarchy of those being organised to board: children first, followed by white women, white men and then Africans.
“This means that we have waited for many hours for trains here and couldn’t enter because of this. Majority of Africans are still waiting to get to Lviv,” he tweeted on Friday along with an accompanying photograph of the crowds.
“We had to start shouting and pushing African women to the train, so they had no other option than to allow them since they said women and children first. It wasn’t the case earlier.”
In addition to the racist treatment of black refugees in Eastern Europe during this crisis, major news outlets have been criticised for racist coverage of the invasion.
Russia’s offensive has attracted constant coverage from international media outlets, and as the war has unfolded, numerous firms have aired racist views.
“They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking,” wrote journalist and former Conservative politician Daniel Hannan in Britain’s Telegraph newspaper on Saturday.
“Ukraine is a European country. Its people watch Netflix and have Instagram accounts, vote in free elections and read uncensored newspapers. War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations. It can happen to anyone.”
On Friday, CBS’s senior correspondent, Charlie D’Agata, said in Kyiv that “this isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades.
“This is a relatively civilised, relatively European – I have to choose those words carefully, too – city where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen.”
He later apologised.
NBC News correspondent Kelly Cobiella also came under fire from fellow journalists after she stated on air that “these are not refugees from Syria, these are refugees from Ukraine… They’re Christian, they’re white, they’re very similar.”
On France’s BFMTV on Friday one analyst said that “we’re not talking here about Syrians fleeing the bombing of the Syrian regime backed by Putin, we’re talking about Europeans leaving in cars that look like ours… to save their lives”.
“We are in the 21st century, we are in a European city, and we have cruise missile fired as if we were in Iraq or Afghanistan, can you imagine?” said another commentator on the channel.
One French sociologist pointed out how Ukrainians fleeing the conflict are being described as “refugees” while Afghans fleeing their country last year were described predominantly as “migrants”.
And Jean-Louis Bourlanges, a member of France’s National Assembly, said during a broadcast that Ukrainian refugees would be “an immigration of great quality, intellectuals”.
Over on Al Jazeera English, a presenter sharing his observations of Ukrainians fleeing the fighting in their homeland said that “what’s compelling is, just looking at them, the way they dress, these are prosperous, middle-class people.
Later on Sunday, Al Jazeera acknowledged that one of their presenters “made unfair comparisons between Ukrainians fleeing the war and refugees from the MENA region” and apologised. “The presenter’s comments were insensitive and irresponsible. We apologize to our audiences worldwide and the breach of professionalism is being dealt with,” the news agency said in a tweet.
On Saturday, David Sakvarelidze, Ukraine’s former deputy general prosecutor, spoke to the BBC, suggesting that it was harder for him to watch white people fleeing conflict.
“It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed,” he said.