Fleeing from the Russians: Asian and African Refugees at the Ukraine-EU Border
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Fleeing from the Russians: Asian and African Refugees at the Ukraine-EU Border

Photo: ua.depositphotos.com / palinchak
13 March 2022
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Since the Russian army started shelling Ukrainian cities, several million of refugees have fled the country, including tens of thousands of non-Ukrainian nationals. I spoke to foreigners in Lviv who were moving to the EU border, as well as to those who were already in Poland or countries of their origin, about their experience and treatment by Ukrainians.

Improvised shelters and heated tents have sprung up on a recently restored square in front of Lviv railway station building, with hot drinks and food served to the refugees by volunteers. As I approach it, a large, lively group of Indian students emerges from the building.

Kajal Rauniyar, 5th year medical student at Kharkiv Karazin University, tells me they rode on a train from Kharkiv for about two days. Their fellow Indian student was killed by a Russian bombardment of the center of Kharkiv. 

Olga, a Lvivian, helped them find a bus to take them to the Polish-Ukrainian border. Her husband used to work for an agency that helped Indian students enroll in Ukrainian universities. Many students have called him after getting no help from their agencies or the Indian Embassy in Ukraine.

‘If my children found themselves in the same situation abroad, I would be happy to know someone helped them. This is why I am here. They don’t speak Ukrainian and some people can take advantage of them’. 

Olga is helped by Karutha Pandian, an Indian businessman who lives in Lviv. Olga is not familiar with the reports of violence against some non-Ukrainians at the border. She asks Karutha if he heard something about that. He replies, ‘Yes. Why? Because they tried to get to the front of the line’.

Saying goodbye, I enter the station. In the corner of the station, I see a young man clutching a ticket in his hands. Sympathy only came to study in Bila Tserkva, not far from Kyiv, from Ghana, about 3 months ago. He played football for a local team. He only has a small backpack with some food with him.

Sympathy is clearly at a loss, with little visible information available in English. I lead him to a young Ukrainian volunteer who immediately jumps to action. He later confirms in a WhatsApp message that he managed to board the train and crossed the Hungarian border.

As I leave the station, I see an incredibly long queue waiting to board a train to the Polish border. There wouldn’t be another train for the next three hours. 

Boarding the train to the west has been an ordeal to many. Eerie videos from Kyiv Railroad Station show shots being fired in the air as the police tried to stop the panicked crowd from boarding the cram-packed trains.

Dew, an English teacher and founder of a well-liked Te Amo Lviv coffee shop, left for Chelm in Poland on 28th of February, on a crowded Intercity train.

Dew says that all the men on board, Ukrainians and foreigners alike, were asked to leave the train at the border to give way to officials in the packed train and to wait for their documents to be checked in the cold. He says he did not feel treated differently from Ukrainians at any point. Border guards did not speak English, but tried to joke with the foreigners and handed all the passports of foreigners to one of them to distribute. After the check was over, all the passengers boarded the train again.

Two Ukrainian women who crossed the border  one day earlier separately from each other, in local trains from Lviv, confirm that there were many non-Ukrainian nationals among them, men and women alike. At the border station close to Shehyni, all men of foreign nationalities were asked by officials to leave the train and wait for the next one to take them onboard. 

This led to heated arguments with some of the men being insulted and pushed out of the train. Both women separately claim that this was done to let onboard a great number of the women and children who were waiting at the border station.

However, Isidore, a Nigerian national who works as a doctor in Ivano-Frankivsk and speaks fluent Ukrainian, tells me a different story. Together with a couple of Indian friends, some of them women, he took a train to the Polish border that a cashier told was free for all.

After waiting at the border controls close to Shehyni crossing, they received their passports back with no stamps. The armed border guard he spoke to claimed that Isidore was not really traveling on the train and made him and his friends get off it. His attempts at clearing out the situation were met with insults. Ukrainian passengers did not try to help his group. To his knowledge, no-one took their places in the train. 

Having waited for several hours, Isidore and his friends had their passports stamped by a different set of border guards. Isidore and friends let Ukrainian women and children pass in front and board the next train but then were denied entrance again. Eventually they sneaked into the train when the border guards looked away amid confusion and crossed the border into Poland. 

Karim*, a 5th year North African student at Kyiv Polytechnical University, went to Shehyni-Medyka foot crossing to Poland. The crossing saw particularly large crowds of both Ukrainian and foreign refugees. He witnessed some of foreign nationals being beaten and insulted by the border guards. He mentions that at first he thought that there could be a reason for this. 

While there were many who indeed tried to jump the queue, Karim says that aggression from some of the guards was ungrounded. According to him, some guards made foreigners do push ups, dance or repeatedly sit down or stand up for several minutes. If they didn’t agree, they were sent to the back of the line, meaning more hours of waiting in the dire conditions. His attempts at mediating and using fluent English and Ukrainian were met with indifference or aggression.

Karim spent 3 nights at the crossing, two of them in a makeshift shelter offered by a local. Some locals provided him with hot drinks and food, while others refused him service in small local shops. He eventually managed to cross the border by going to another crossing, Krakovets-Korczowa, where he encountered no problems and was treated well.

Another student, IB* from Iraq, was shocked by the treatment he received at the same crossing. He claims that border guards beat and humiliated foreigners. He confirms Karim’s claims that not only Ukrainian children and women were given priority, but European and US citizens too.

More details may yet emerge from other foreigners who are still recovering after an arduous flight to safety and are dealing with uncertainty about their status in Poland and other host countries.

So far reports of maltreatment have primarily emerged from one crossing, Shehyni-Medyka, which probably saw the largest crowds of refugees. 

The official position of Ukrainian authorities is that all refugees are treated equally and those willing to leave Ukraine have been able to do so. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has established a helpline for foreign nationals who are trying to leave Ukraine and has underlined ever since that all foreign nationals are able to cross the border.

Ukrainian activists have also sprung to help. Olesia Mykhailenko, a lawyer, has co-founded a volunteer initiative to provide more information to foreigners in Ukraine. She says that foreigners, especially those who stay in Ukraine illegally and do not speak Ukrainian or Russian, often need help.

The Ukraїner team spoke to hundreds of foreigners who said that they were treated well by Ukrainian officials. They also shared a video by Zhan Beleniuk, the first Afro-Ukrainian to be elected to Ukraine’s parliament, in which he assures that there is no acute problem of racism in the country. He has since been joined by other Ukrainians of African and Asian origin.

Isidore, Karim and IB underline that they have never been treated so badly in Ukraine before, although they have occasionally experienced discrimination. Isidore says that, after 9 years here, Ukraine is now his home. He felt very comfortable in the western city of Ivano-Frankivsk. He says that government officials often appear to be hostile but describes Ukrainians as kind and generous. Yet this makes his experience at the border all the more traumatizing. 

Karim says that he hopes something like this will never happen again. Because “this is not the Ukraine I know”.

*Some names in the article were changed to protect the identities of the interviewees. 

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