Man of African origin at the Polish border1 March, Medyka, Poland: An African man at the south eastern Polish border where hundreds of non-Ukrainians are sheltering after fleeing Ukraine. [Photo: SOPA Images Limited/Alamy Live News]

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has spurred two million people to seek refuge abroad in the first two weeks – the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since the second world war. Amid tragic accounts of child cancer victims left untreated as they hide in hospital basements, and an old woman wheeled through the snow in a shopping trolley as the besieged town of Irpin was evacuated, there have have been heart-warming stories of the generosity and compassion shown to refugees in neighbouring countries, even from border guards. Addressing the Security Council, Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, praised the ‘extraordinary acts of humanity and kindness … the humanitarian instinct that is so needed in times of crisis.’

But for some of the 76,000 international students and other foreign nationals left stranded in Ukraine, the fear that no one will help them had been added to the terror of suddenly finding themselves in the firing line, with many saying their countries had not acted quickly enough to extricate them from the war zone.

As many foreign students in Ukraine soon realised, not all refugees are seen as equally deserving of compassion. Like other Africans who said they were stopped from boarding trains, Alexander Somto Orah, one of some 4,000 Nigerian students in Ukraine, was prevented from getting on to the first train he tried to board at Kyiv, then forced off another, though it was not full, NBC reported. Orah, 25, said he told an official: ‘You say Ukrainian only but I don’t see you checking passports. I see you picking white people only.’

They eventually jumped on a train as it was leaving but had to beg an official to let them in, saying: ‘You either open the door or we die.’ When they finally reached the Polish border, footage on Twitter shows Ukrainian security forces pointing guns at them and refusing to let them pass, even though some had been there for two days, according to Orah.

Rachel Onyegbule, a Nigerian medical student, was ordered off a bus with other foreigners and left stranded at Shehyni, on the Ukrainian-Polish border. She told CNN: ‘More than 10 buses came and we were watching everyone leave. We thought after they took all the Ukrainians they would take us, but they told us we had to walk.’ Two Jamaican students fell ill after being forced to walk 20km to the border in freezing conditions after their bus was blocked by Ukrainians. Most have since returned to Jamaica.

There were many accounts of Africans being treated badly (see #AfricaninUkraine) but Saakshi Ijantkar, a medical student from Mumbai, said they had not let Indians through at Shehyni either. ‘They were very cruel,’ she said. ‘The Ukrainian army don’t allow Indian men and boys to cross … After the Indian girls got in, the boys were beaten up. There was no reason for them to beat us with this cruelty.’ She said she eventually returned to Lviv after waiting for hours at the border: ‘I saw people shaking so terribly in the cold; they were collapsing because of hypothermia. Some have frostbite.’

India had more than 18,000 students in Ukraine, the most of any country.  Under the government’s ‘Operation Ganga’, they had all been safely evacuated from neighbouring countries within a week. Though Nigerian consulate officials were waiting on the Polish side of the border, Onyegbule was critical of the Nigerian government ‘being their usual nonchalant self’ and not doing more to help. ‘They can’t just leave us like this,’ she said. ‘It’s so sad but we are used to the bad governance in Nigeria.’

‘You’re on your own,’ Percy Ohene-Yeboah, a Ghanaian engineering student, realised on the day Russia invaded as he looked out of his window in Kharkiv to see fighter jets flying past. His government in Accra had been informed about the situation, he told Reuters, ‘but we never got any real reply to any of our concerns.’

‘Foreigners living in Ukraine have faced unequal treatment and delays as they attempt to flee the war,’ Human Rights Watch concluded. This was denied by Ukraine’s State Border Guard Service, which told HRW: ‘Ukrainian border guards do not see nationality or colour of passports.’ The spokesman claimed foreign nationals had ‘tried to push forward and receive priority treatment’.

However, it is not just in Ukraine that Africans and Asians have faced abuse. Riot police had to be deployed in Przemyśl after Polish neo-Nazis attacked refugee students who had just crossed the border. Police said three Indians were beaten up, leaving one in hospital. But most foreigners told the Guardian that they had been treated well by the Polish authorities, with much of the racial abuse occurring in Ukraine.

Two African Comonwealth states on the UN Security Council – Kenya and Ghana – condemned reports of discrimination against Africans, though Kenya’s ambassador, Martin Kimani, warned that there were ‘actors who want to magnify this story for cynical reasons that have nothing to do with the wellbeing and safety of Africans’. The scenes at Ukraine’s borders were denounced as ‘shockingly racist’ by the African Union, which called on ‘all countries to respect international law and show the same empathy and support to all people fleeing war’.

Not all foreigners want to leave, though. The Hindustan Times reported that Sainikhesh Ravichandran, a 21-year-old from Tamil Nadu studying aerospace engineering in Kharkiv, had joined a volunteer paramilitary unit. Though it is against Indian law for a citizen to fight in a foreign conflict, his family said he had always wanted to be a soldier but had been rejected twice by the Indian army due to his height.

Commonwealth Update became Eye on the Commonwealth in January 2022. After 38 years in print form, the column has moved from the Round Table journal to the Round Table’s website. Originally Commonwealth Notebook, the column became Commonwealth Update in 1993. The new-look Eye on the Commonwealth will seek to provide a perspective on a topical development by the journal’s Commonwealth Update editor, Oren Gruenbaum. 

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