Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, more than 1.7 million refugees have fled to neighbouring nations like Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, and other European Union countries. Citizens in those nations have responded with an outpouring of sympathy, opening their homes and offering food, shelter and clothes to those who have been displaced by the war. However, on some occasions, Black and brown people have been facing attack after crossing the border.
Prior to the war, Ukraine was home to over 76,000 foreign students with nearly half of the students from India, as well as African countries like Nigeria, Morocco and Egypt. These international students contribute 3.5 per cent to Ukraine’s national GDP. However, amid the war, many of these students are being subjected to racist treatment by Ukrainian security forces while trying to cross the border. And, when they’re finally allowed to cross the border, some of them are still unsafe.
Gazeta Wyborcza, a Polish newspaper, reports that three Indian citizens who crossed the border into Poland on 1 March were beaten by a gang of white men dressed in black. They gathered in the centre of Przemyśl, Poland, wielding baseball bats and bottles, and chanted, “Przemyśl is always Polish!”.
Huck contacted the Subcarpathian Police Department in response to the claims made in the article. Sub-inspector Marta Tabasz-Rygiel, the press spokesperson of the Provincial Police Commander in Rzeszów, Poland, responded with the following: “On Tuesday, March 1, our Police from Przemyśl received a report that three foreigners – Indian citizens had been beaten by four unknown men. One of the injured people, a 30-year-old man, suffered a hand injury and was given proper medical care. Our competent Police service is currently conducting proceedings concerning the identification of the perpetrators of this assault.”
“Our Police ensure the safety of foreigners, who seek refuge in our country from the war and to all the residents of our region. We send to the service not only uniformed policemen, who ensure safety and order, but also our officers of the criminal departments, whose task is to prevent crime.”
However, this attack was not an isolated incident. According to OKO.press, a violent gang of masked people clad in black attacked three dark-skinned men who are activists with the German branch of the Humanity First organisation in Przemyśl. A journalist from Israel also claimed that he was attacked by a group of football fans outside the city’s railway station.
In addition, an African student fleeing the Ukraine conflict was attacked by Polish border guards in a video released on Twitter by Black Student United, an international Black student community. Huck reached out to Oblack Nyate, a medical student from the Democratic Republic of Congo who took the video, for more information. He says that the student was from Liberia and was beaten because he complained about the poor living conditions in the military base.
🔴: At the Polish refugee military base, an African student who fled the war in Ukraine was mistreated by Polish soldiers who confiscated his passport and brutalized him.#AfricansinUkraine #blacksinukraine #BlackInUkraine pic.twitter.com/7e8eksBAWB
— Black Students United (@blackstudentUA) March 3, 2022
“When my friends and I arrived in Przemyśl, Poland, we had lost all of our paperwork, clothing, and belongings. As a result, we were held by border officers who suspected us of concealing our documents,” he recalls. “The Liberian student had been at the military camp for four or five days for the same reason. But he was unable to contact his embassy. The food was bad and he couldn’t sleep well. So, he complained to the border guards about the situation and they began to beat him.”
Oblack had walked nearly 50 kilometres from Lviv, Ukraine, to the Polish border. His legs were swollen and he was exhausted, yet he was treated as if he were less than human. He received only bread and watery soup and was denied medical attention. He was finally released from what he called a “prison” when the embassy from the Republic of the Congo arrived to vouch for them. He has no idea what happened to the Liberian student afterwards.
Korrine Sky is a Zimbabwean second-year medical student from Leicester, England, who was studying in Dnipro, Ukraine. In a Twitter thread, she revealed the discriminatory treatment she endured from the UK Border Force despite being a citizen.
She and her husband fled Ukraine for Romania and arrived at the Luton Airport in London. Even though she had British citizenship on her passport, she was continuously interrogated about her citizenship status. Furthermore, the border guard who assisted them refused to accept they were from Ukraine and insisted on a visa, which they were unable to get during the evacuation. Her husband’s passport was also taken although he had emails and a letter from the British Embassy. They were finally released after several hours of waiting – and direct contact from her MP and the British Embassy. They were the only people of colour in the queue of people arriving from Ukraine.
Now stuck at the airport facing hostility from border force. I’ve honestly had enough the treatment of Black people fleeing Ukraine has honestly been disgusting at every point. I’m so tired of being strong I’m at my breaking point
— Koko 🇺🇦 (@korrinesky) March 3, 2022
Emmanuelle Chaze is a journalist who has spent the last seven years covering Europe’s immigration crisis. She reported that the German border police ordered several Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) refugees to disembark from the train at Frankfurt an der Oder, Germany.
“I was reporting on the refugee crisis at the Hrebenne checkpoint in Poland, and on the train returning to Germany, I observed that the platform was empty except for BIPOC and their partners,” she tells Huck. “The Border Police informed me that they were only sending off people who didn’t have documents. However, there were four Polish men in the seat in front of me who were clearly drunk and lacked documentation, but they were not forced to leave. There were still some people of colour left on the train. But, only people of colour were instructed to depart due to a lack of documentation.”
These incidents are highly disturbing. To treat people who are fleeing from war in such an inhumane way is a clear violation of their human rights. There is an obvious prejudice that people of colour displaced from war are experiencing. This problem is exacerbated by the conflicting visa restrictions that apply to Ukrainians and foreigners.
Meanwhile, a terrifying rise in racism coming from white supremacist groups in Poland is taking place online. On 1 March, neo-Nazis formed the Facebook group called “Inżynierowie Przemyśl” to coordinate attacks against Black and brown people. The group had over 14,000 members before Aneta Molenda, a Polish citizen living in Portland, Oregon, initiated efforts to get it taken down.
“The purpose of the group stated ‘Together we will take care of the safety of others’. They meant safety from people of colour as if the Black and Brown refugees were dangerous,” she informs Huck through Twitter DM. “Many posts reported on the whereabouts of refugees of colour coming into Przemyśl, including which trains they were coming in on and where they ate. I didn’t see any posts that stated explicitly that any attacks were planned, but it was implied.”
I grew up in Poland near Ukraine. The racism is even worse than we're seeing on English-speaking social media.
White nationalists in Przemyśl are coordinating attacks on non-white refugees, in particular Africans, after they get across the border to "safety."
— Aneta (@AnetaMolenda) March 2, 2022
Aneta, who works in digital strategy, reached out to a friend in her field who connected her to the Global Affairs Team at Meta. As a result, the issue rapidly escalated and the Facebook group was shut down within three hours. However, she says that she spotted many discussions about switching to Messenger to continue planning the assaults.
After Aneta’s tweet went viral, she was harassed and threatened by Nazi apologists, as well as Polish citizens who believed she was deliberately painting Poland in a negative light. “There has been an extensive mobilisation to take in refugees in Poland,” she says. “Families have taken in the majority of refugees. Churches and local elected officials are also asking people to open their homes. It’s an impressive effort in such a short period. But none of that can excuse or erase the racist attacks that are very real and confirmed.”
African refugees were also targeted by white supremacists who posted harmful advice on Telegram groups, where Africans share information about the Ukraine crisis. A channel called “nigerian leaving ukraine hukuma”, which has over 100 users, advised members to wear red armbands to show that they are “neutral” in the conflict. But the advice is malicious; the Russian military and Ukraine’s civil defence personnel wear red and yellow armbands respectively, to identify themselves. The advice could lead to Black civilians in conflict zones unknowingly identifying themselves as potential combatants.
Jean le Roux is a researcher at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), which aims to identify and expose false narratives, digital propaganda and disinformation. “We were looking into claims of racism made by people attempting to flee Ukraine to see whether they were true or not,” he tells Huck. “During my research, I discovered a Facebook group called ‘nigerian leaving Ukraine hukuma’, which had a lot of Nazi spam, swastikas, and graphic pornography, among other things. The admin, on the other hand, was not deleting or banning anyone from the channel.”
“Unfortunately, in people’s minds, there appears to be a ‘good refuge’ and a ‘bad refugee’,” says Chaze. “There is a huge outpouring of support right now, with people opening up their homes and offering their beds and living rooms [to refugees]. But in 2015, I never saw them offer their homes to Syrian refugees, or Afghan refugees this summer when Kabul fell to the Taliban. This is just proof of how countries that are supposed to shelter refugees create a hierarchy within the refugee community.”
Fortunately, these attacks online and offline appear to be few and far between. Alexander Orah, a Nigerian management student shared videos that exposed how he and other Black and South Asian people were treated at the Ukrainian border. They were separated from the white people and prevented from boarding the train to Poland. In addition, the border guards threatened to shoot them when the students protested against their racist actions. Despite this, Alexander recognises that the Polish people and the worldwide community have treated him warmly since he arrived in Poland.
Jessica Orakpo, a Nigerian medical student in her final year, echoes this sentiment. She and a Zambian friend walked for ten hours from their home in Ternopil, Ukraine, to the Medyka border, but were prevented from taking the bus taking refugees to Poland. They had to go back to Ternopil, join forces with a friend who had a baby – their “premium passport”, she says – and board a private bus to the Hungarian border, where they were eventually allowed to board a train to Hungary. She is now safe and well-cared for in Hungary.
“Most people have been friendly and welcoming to strangers. It hasn’t been awful like [it was] at the Ukrainian border,” she says. “Here, they take you home, put you up in a hotel, and even assist you with translations. They’re very considerate.” These stories are indeed heartwarming. But given estimates that the number of people fleeing Ukraine may reach four million if Russia’s military offensive continues, many more people seeking safety – particularly Black and brown people – will find themselves subject to hostility and in some cases, violence.