Fleeing war, facing racism: Refugees from Ukraine meet challenges at Europe's borders

Discrimination is adding to the violence of the Russian invasion of Ukrainian lands. Now, citizen collectives are mobilising to help the millions fleeing.

Published 16 Mar 2022, 16:08 GMT
Amoakohene Ababio Williams, 26, originally from Ghana, says he was separated from his Ukrainian wife, Sattennik ...

Amoakohene Ababio Williams, 26, originally from Ghana, says he was separated from his Ukrainian wife, Sattennik Airapetryan, 27, and their one-year-old son, Kyle Richard, along with other Black men, just before reaching the Polish border after fleeing Odesa. “I was thinking, that’s all. Maybe I will not see her again.” He made it.

Photograph by Anastasia Taylor-Lind, Davide Monteleone

For Ukrainians, the last few weeks have been physically and emotionally traumatic. To date, the United Nations counts more than 2.8 million refugees fleeing the Russian bombs, leaving behind their entire lives. Many of these refugees come from countries around the world. Some are students from Africa, India, the Middle East and elsewhere. And since the first attacks on Ukrainian soil, testimonies of discrimination at the borders have multiplied.

"It was a nightmare.” “The authorities were ‘sorting’ us”. “They turn us away because we are Black”. Just a few testimonies of foreign students experiencing different and disrespectful treatment while they try to flee the war.

“They let the Ukrainians through first, and then the rest. We have heard of different treatment, some people even say they were beaten, but we are not on location to confirm this,” explains Sarah Bourial, a young Moroccan woman who founded the citizen's collective Collectif Maroc Ukraine to help Moroccans stranded in Ukraine.

Several videos posted on social media show hundreds of Black, Arab and Indian students enduring the Ukrainian cold for several hours, hoping to finally leave the besieged state – which Russia invaded on March 15 – and enter the border countries.

Bourial clarifies the context of these discriminations. “There is a nuance. Some people explained that it was Ukrainian soldiers who did not necessarily let students leave the country. When you arrive at the border crossings, there is a border post to leave Ukraine, and then a border post to enter Poland. Some of them explained that they were blocked to enter Poland”.

National Geographic contacted Céline Schmitt, External relations officer for Human Rights Council (UNHRC), an inter-governmental body within the United Nations system, to find out if the European authorities were intervening to prevent these racist acts. "One case of discrimination, of racism, is one case too many," said Schmitt. "We have been raising alerts on several occasions, to ensure access to safety for all people fleeing the war in Ukraine. We insist that there should be no discrimination against any person or group."

Schmitt referred to the words of UN High Commissioner Filippo Grandi on March 8. “With regard to reports of unacceptable discrimination of people fleeing Ukraine, I raised my concerns with relevant authorities as any acts of discrimination or racism must be condemned and all people must be protected. All authorities fully agreed and have given assurances, at the highest of levels of government as well as from those operating on the ground, that states are not and will not discriminate or turn away people fleeing Ukraine.”

“A bombing is still a bombing. There should be no difference.”

Sarah Bourial

“UNHCR has been alerted to situations of people facing difficulties at the border between Ukraine and Poland and we have called for access to safety for all, regardless of their legal status, without distinction related to nationality or origin,” adds Schmitt.

Sarah Bourial said she was not surprised that discrimination and racism were emerging at the borders in the midst of the chaos. “You should know that in normal circumstances, a Moroccan does not have the right to access the Schengen area [a cohort of European countries where passport control has been abolished] without a visa. And Ukraine is not part of Europe, nor of the Schengen area. Therefore, if you are a Ukrainian resident, you are not allowed to travel to the EU.”

According to Bourial, racial discrimination at the borders is closely related to legal issues. “A Ukrainian has recently been granted a 90-day right to tourism in Europe, without a visa. This is not the case for a Moroccan, an Indian, or an African. We need a visa. [...] However, we are still in wartime and a bombing is still a bombing. There should be no difference.”

“The Moroccan embassies in the bordering countries intervened on the issues of discrimination, they sent buses to the borders. In Slovakia, the ambassador himself moved to the borders to ensure the smooth reception of Moroccans,” says Bourial.

Citizens and embassies side-by-side

“We are so far away, how can we help them?” is the question that this collective of Moroccan citizens tried to find answers to. “We got organized in the bordering countries. We tried to bring together small communities of Moroccans in Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Romania. At first, we wanted to house them and finally, I found myself in contact with the embassies. We became a relay for the embassies, to facilitate the arrivals. They took care of booking hotels for the refugees, while they waited for their flight back to Morocco,” explains Sarah Bourial.

“I did my duty as a citizen”, says Bourial, who lives in Paris. The day after the first Russian attack, she and a group of volunteers joined forces to create their online platform. They provided medicines, food, water, psychological support and sometimes even financial support. “These people were in great distress. They had to leave everything, from one day to the next. We even called on volunteer psychologists who were there to listen to them. Some of them explained to us that their university had been bombed and that in three months they were going to become doctors,” she says.

“It started with the idea that as long as they were in Ukraine, we could do nothing. [...] We ended up being a relay to call a cab, provide train schedules, give news of embassies. We intervened to get them across and to help them after the border: they had to be housed, they had to be able to eat. Some of them did not have passports. So we acted as a liaison with the embassies for the passes.”

Volunteers from neighbouring countries offered shuttles from train stations to hotels. “There was a medical dimension. We had a case of a person who needed insulin, and another day a person with haemophilia who had been injured and needed assistance. In this case, we got in touch with the NGOs on the spot. Many were also suffering from having walked a lot.”

On WhatsApp, Telegram, Instagram, according to the volunteer, there are many groups to connect refugees, families, NGOs, embassies. On their website, the collective offers two forms, “one for volunteers and one for those who need help.” Thanks to the relays of influencers and some acquaintances at the borders, “we had a contact, and behind this contact, there were 15 people. [At the beginning], we were counting them and then it grew so much that it was no longer possible”.

“It became more fluid in the last few days. Last week, for three days in a row, I didn't put my phone down, I didn't sleep. The volunteers did a fabulous job: at night, they went to look for people, they took them to hotels.”

Even though “the majority of Moroccan refugees wishing to leave Ukraine have now succeeded,” there are still many migrations. Some Ukrainian and people from other nationalities are still stranded in cities besieged by the Russians, such as the city of Mariupol, cut off from the rest of the world.

The United Nations indicates that “humanitarian agencies note the urgent need to provide food, water, shelter and basic necessities, especially for those trapped in cities under active hostilities.” Multiple organisations are listed for financial or material donations, or for offering to host refugees. In the UK, the government recently opened the Homes for Ukraine scheme to help house refugees fleeing the conflict, which continues.

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