While Africans worldwide have generally expressed support for Ukraine, Africans fleeing the conflict have encountered discrimination at the border while fleeing the warzone.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has forced Ukrainians and foreigners, including Africans, Carribeans, and Asians, to take to the border between Ukraine and neighboring countries such as Poland, Hungary, and Romania.
But footage posted on social media appears to show discrimination against the Black and Brown refugees.
Emily, a Kenyan medical student, told The Guardian she spent hours waiting for the Ukrainian border guards to let her into Poland because they prioritized Ukrainians.
“We had to wait five hours, but we were lucky: we met some people there who had spent days waiting in the foreign national queue,” she said according to The Guardian.
More drama awaited Emily in Poland. The hotel refused to check them in and even refused to accept her paying for a room.
She told The Guardian the hotel staff said hotel accommodation was only for Ukrainians.
Lucky for Emily, her family has connections in Poland, and they found accommodation in Warsaw, Poland.
A Cameroonian woman told CNN Ukrainian forces are denying Africans access to trains transporting their citizens to safety. And that she witnessed a Ukrainian soldier pointing a gun at a Black man and ordering him not to board the train.
“They help their people. They do not want to help Blacks,” the woman identified as Naya told CNN.
Africans have generally rallied in support of Ukraine, but news about discrimination might sour their view.
The African Union (AU) released a statement on February 28, denouncing the ill-treatment of Africans trying to leave Ukraine.
In a joint statement, AU Chairman and Senegal President Macky Sall and AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat, said they’re disturbed by the news that African Citizens on the Ukrainian side of the border are being refused the right to cross the border to safety.
“Reports that Africans are singled out for unacceptable dissimilar treatment would be shockingly racist and in breach of international law,” the statement read in part.
Africans on Twitter have reacted with anger.
“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,” said Dr. Ayoade Alakija, World Health Organization (WHO) special envoy for accelerating access to Covid-19 tools.
Another Nigerian woman told the BBC that a Ukrainian official refused her plea to use free public transportation to flee the warzone.
“The official literally looked me in the eye and said, in his language. ‘Only Ukrainians, that’s all. That if you’re Black, you should walk.'”
The woman said she even tried to lie to the official that she was pregnant, and he did not budge.
“If your skin is dark, you’re at a disadvantage,” she said.
Videos of stranded Africans, under cold conditions and in prayer, have emerged on Twitter using the #AfricansinUkraine under Africans in Diaspora Twitter handle.
In Vienna, Austria, the Kenyan Consulate posted an urgent notice to Kenyans on February 25, urging them “to take necessary precautions or leave as they deem fit.”
Nigeria has condemned the treatment of Africans in the wake of the invasion.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has an unrestricted path to leave Ukraine for his citizens.
“All who flee a conflict situation have the same right to safe passage under UN convention, and the color of their passport or their skin should make no difference,” Buhari said, according to a report by The Guardian.
A Nigerian student, Samuel George, told The Guardian that discrimination came even from Ukrainians.
He recounted an incident where a Ukrainian man blocked their car from proceeding to the Polish border upon noticing their vehicle had African occupants, who included George’s four friends from Nigeria and South Africa.
When they tried to defy them, George told The Guardian the men attacked and vandalized their windscreen.
A ten-second footage posted on Twitter by user Koko @korrinesky shows a man circling her car draped with what appears to be a Zimbabwean flag.
Koko, identified by the Daily Mail as Korrine Sky, a British-Zimbabwean studying medicine in Ukraine, has kept his followers updated through her Twitter account.
“We have reached the actual border experiencing some threats of violence from some local Ukrainians who don’t believe we should enter. This man keeps circling our car,” Koko said in a Twitter message.
A source who understands Russian and Ukrainian said the man in the video is speaking a combination of Ukrainian and Russian, but mainly Russian.
The video, which does not capture the whole interaction, starts when the man appears to say, “I’ll tell you who I am.” Before saying “privet,” Russian greeting “hi or hello” as he walks toward the person recording the video.
“Then he says “Hello” — Russian: *Привет* as he walks towards the person recording. As the video was ending, he said, “I now have/take this phone” — Ukrainian: *я зараз це телефон*. (2/2)” according to translation from Twitter user Lana @lanaliliya.
Lana, however, noted the man did not say anything racist, and he may have just been frustrated with the situation.
“Unfortunately, he was hostile, but Ukrainians tend to be very upfront and straightforward people,” Lana said. “The main thing is he didn’t say anything racist. It could be the language barrier, people at the border not understanding where to park making the situation frustrating for everyone.”
Koko said the man lunged at her. It’s unclear why, but it could explain why he said he wanted the phone.
In a later tweet, Koko reported that the Ukrainian military allowed them to pass amid protests from some locals. She said the British Embassy offered to help, but the deal fell through, forcing her and her group to join with some Indian students and walk to the Ukraine-Romanian border.
Despite the hostility they experienced, there were some heart-warming gestures from Ukrainians. Koko shared a photo of Ukrainians handing out food to refugees stuck in queues of cars fleeing the country in another Twitter posting.
Alluding to their awareness of discrimination claims at the borders surrounding Ukraine, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has released a statement urging countries neighboring Ukraine to open their borders and allow free access for refugees.
“I encourage governments to continue to maintain access to territory for all those fleeing: Ukrainians, of course, but also third-country nationals living in Ukraine – people there to work and to study, and in some cases people that are in Ukraine as refugees – and all of whom are now similarly forced to escape the violence. At this critical juncture, there can be no discrimination against any person or any group,” Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugee, said in a statement posted on the UNHCR website.
Grandi estimates the Russian invasion has already displaced 520,000 people from Ukraine, and they’re planning for a much larger number of people to flee as the war escalates.
“We are currently planning – repeat: planning – for up to four million refugees in the coming days and weeks,” Grandi said.
A GoFundMe effort to benefit Afro-Caribbeans has already surpassed its goal of raising about $15,000 and is on its way to top double the original plan.
But as people are looking for help, the situation at the border may have already claimed some lives.
Twitter user Vukile Dlamini, whose Twitter page has a Swaziland and Ukrainian flag, posted a 4-second footage on February 28 of a crowd standing in a snowstorm at night.
I am saddened and I can confirm that two people have died because of the cold trying to cross the border between last night and today.There are people stuck at the border who are freezing and they are stuck! Many of them are friends.This has to be a nightmare! This cannot be real pic.twitter.com/S2y0uRNFui
— Vukile Dlamini (@vukiledlamini19) February 28, 2022
“I am saddened, and I can confirm that two people have died because of the cold trying to cross the border between last night and today,” Dlamini said in her Twitter post.
It’s unclear whether the group is only composed of Africans or the location, but so far, the video has received almost 350,000 views.
Black people facing discrimination in foreign lands amid crisis is nothing new. At the onset of Covid-19, Africans faced discriminatory measures in China, and some were scapegoated for spreading the virus and denied places to stay.
In September 2021, the US border patrol agents on horsebacks brutally attacked Haitian immigrants attempting to cross the Rio Grande River and enter the US through the Mexico Texas border.
But despite the incidents of discrimination, support for Ukraine among Africans remains strong. In several WhatsApp groups, Kenyans continue to share messages of support and admiration for Ukraine’s youthful president Volodymyr Zelensky and have celebrated every Russian setback in the war.
Kenyan businessman and political strategist Robert Wakhu said his support for Ukraine has not diminished despite the incidents of racism some Africans have experienced while trying to flee the country.
“My view hasn’t changed at all. The mass exodus by Africans to Poland and other nations was inspired by hostilities from Russia. It’s not the making of Ukraine,” Wakhu said.
He criticized Russia for invading Ukraine and based his support on preserving the sovereignty of the country.“I support Ukraine because it is a sovereign nation that was thriving on its own away from bullish behavior from Russia. It’s pure balderdash for Russia to claim that Ukraine is its territory,” Wakhu, who also runs Newsplex, a popular Kenyan WhatsApp group, said.