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Refugee Apartheid and Ukraine

Global Insight by John Slocum
Burned car in Ukraine

Over a million Ukrainian citizens have fled to other European countries. African, Asian, Caribbean nationals living in Ukraine may not be able to do the same.

Like all wars, Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine is a humanitarian disaster. Among the human costs of war—in addition to death, dismemberment, hunger, disease—are the lives and livelihoods disrupted and families torn apart by forced displacement.

After eight years of a smaller-scale conflict with Russia-backed separatists, Ukraine had already seen over 1.5 million internally displaced persons, and thousands of refugees were already living beyond Ukraine’s borders. In recent years, Ukraine has been among the top countries of origin of refugees admitted into the United States (though most of these are religious minorities admitted under the Lautenberg program).

At the time of writing—just a week after the start of the present hostilities—over a million Ukrainians have fled the country by crossing Ukraine’s western border, with over half of them entering Poland, but others going to Hungary and other neighboring countries. These countries have by and large welcomed Ukrainians, who already enjoyed the right to visa-free travel to the European Union. As with most refugees, fleeing Ukrainians will gravitate to the larger cities of Europe, where they will be able to access consulates, social services, and in many cases friends, family, and community members eager to provide help. Expressions of solidarity with Ukraine have poured in from cities around the world—and from associations of cities, such as the Global Parliament of Mayors.

Less clear is the extent to which citizens of other countries residing in Ukraine, particularly Indians, Nigerians, and other third-country nationals from Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean, are able to cross the border and find welcome and safety. There are 80,000 international students in Ukraine—the largest number are Indian nationals, and some 16,000 come from the African countries of Morocco, Nigeria, and Egypt. In the early days of the Russian invasion, a number of videos appeared on social media showing Africans being kept from boarding trains leaving Ukraine. Advocacy groups such as the Undocublack Network have issued statements condemning anti-Black discrimination within Ukraine and at the border. Human Rights Watch and NPR have reported on difficulties facing non-Ukrainian nationals, especially Africans and South Asians, in their efforts to leave the country.

On February 27, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) tweeted, “As numbers of refugees fleeing Ukraine increase by the hour, it is crucial that receiving countries continue to welcome all those fleeing conflict and insecurityirrespective of nationality and raceand that they receive adequate international support to carry out this task.” UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres sent a similar message on March 3.

A bright spot in the first weekend of the war was a recurring Twitter space organized by and for Nigerians seeking and providing reliable, real-time guidance on border crossings. While the situation on the ground is variable and dynamic, verified sources confirm that third-country nationals, including Africans, have been able to leave Ukraine, although sometimes only after multiple attempts.  

Ukraine’s neighbors should be applauded for taking in refugees from this newest war. The United States, which over the past year has welcomed more than 75,000 evacuees from Afghanistan, will likely take in additional Ukrainian refugees itself, most of them no doubt destined for cities like Chicago, already home to some 50,000 people of Ukrainian origin.

But even as the United States welcomed Afghans, it continued to expel Haitian and Central American asylum seekers without due process. The same EU countries that today welcome Ukrainians have notoriously turned away refugees from other parts of the world, in some cases leaving them to freeze to death in the forests outside their borders. And after many years, refugees from Syria, Iraq, Myanmar, South Sudan, and other countries languish in camps or eke out a living in the host cities of neighboring countries with little hope of finding a permanent home.

It is telling that the UNHCR needs to remind Ukraine’s European neighbors of the need to welcome refugees regardless of nationality and race. When it comes to freedom of movement and the right to seek refuge, global mobility apartheid remains the rule, rather than the exception. Western media coverage of Russia’s war on Ukraine is rife with revealing expressions of dismay over the targeting of a “civilized” country and shock at seeing refugees who “look like us.” The hypocrisy and deep-seated racism embedded in such utterances could not be plainer. Alongside vigorous—and appropriate—proclamations of solidarity with the people of Ukraine, there is still far too often a shattering silence regarding the fate of displaced millions who happen not to look like white Europeans.

About the Author
Nonresident Senior Fellow, Global Migration
Council expert John Slocum
John Slocum, a nonresident senior fellow for global migration at the Council, is executive director of Refugee Council USA and a nonresident associate senior researcher at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB). He previously served as program director for grantmaking initiatives on international migration and US immigration policy at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Council expert John Slocum