Exodus from Ukraine split along race lines at border

Africans trying to leave accuse border guards of impeding their progress

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As people try to leave war-torn Ukraine, two separate lines of pedestrians are seen waiting at the Shehyni-Medyka border crossing with Poland: one for Ukrainians, and another of mostly Africans and Middle Easterners, mostly students — all of them desperate to escape Russia’s recent assaults on the country.

Ukraine's government has announced it has opened a hotline for people experiencing difficulties after the UN said it was making representations to regional governments about the allegations.

Loïc Emmanuel is one of those affected. A 23-year-old Congolese engineering student, he had been living in Ukraine’s eastern city of Kharkiv for the past two years and speaks both English and Russian.

He says his future is unsure, and he’s not optimistic that he will be returning to Ukraine anytime soon. For the past week, the city he has been living in has seen some of the worst air bombardments and shelling, with Loïc saying he barely managed to escape alive.

“I left in panic during the night, seeing rockets fall on to the city. I have never been this scared. Even the road towards the border wasn’t safe. Nowhere is safe in Ukraine now,” he told The National, as he queued in sub-zero temperatures.

He had tried to cross several times but was pushed back after each attempt. “The Ukrainian authorities tell us that Polish immigration said no. They told us to go back to [the city of] Lviv,” he said.

It has been three days since Loïc arrived at the border. In his small backpack that he managed to pack minutes before his escape, he barely carries enough warm clothes.

He has since been waiting and sleeping outside on the pavement, saying he hasn’t receiving the same treatment as other people trying to leave. “We’re treated differently and we’re being singled out because of where we’re from. It’s selective, and it’s racist,” he said, complaining about the border guards.

Broken promises

Hundreds of others wait alongside Loïc, many of them international students who just want to go home. The European Union promised that all refugees fleeing Ukraine would be welcomed, but Algerian Amin Delul, a 21-year-old medical student who had been living in Kyiv, said that he’d been at the border for four days, watching “thousands of others pass” while he was held back.

People fleeing the Russia invasion wait at the Shehyni border crossing. Reuters

He sits with a small group of fellow Arabic speakers, most of them from Egypt and Morocco, most of them students; all of them hoping to return home via Poland.

Poland Statement

All people fleeing from Ukraine before the armed conflict are allowed to enter Poland. Our country shelters every person whose life is in danger - regardless of their nationality.

The dominant group of refugees in Poland are citizens of Ukraine, but among the people checked by the Border Guard are also citizens of the USA, Nigeria, India, Georgia and other countries.

All persons admitted to Poland are verified by the Border Guard. In relation to those who are in doubt, e.g. do not have documents, Border Guard officers apply appropriate checking procedures.

No person who has received refuge in Poland will be sent back to a country torn by war.

“A police officer told me that he cared more about seeing his own family safe in Poland. It’s very simple: we’re facing discrimination,” Amin said.

He had been living in Ukraine for the past three years and managed to get a train west when Russia attacked the capital. “I always liked living here, but this is not my country, and that’s why I don’t want to die here,” he said, adding that he also didn’t want to “live in Europe.”

“All I want is to go home,” Amin said.

More than a million people have left Ukraine in the past week, with more arriving at the border daily.

Loïc said that none of the students had been given an official explanation as to why they weren’t able to move forwards. “Instead, they are making excuses. They are keeping us here in the cold,” he said.

Cars stuck in traffic as families reach the Medyka-Shehyni border crossing. AFP

“Several of the international students who arrived with me have turned around to go back. It’s too cold and too difficult. There is little food and no place to sleep,” he explained, but said he wasn’t considering staying in Ukraine.

“I’m hoping for Poland,” he said. “What else can I do? I don’t want to die in this war.”

More refugee images

Updated: March 03, 2022, 2:11 PM
Poland Statement

All people fleeing from Ukraine before the armed conflict are allowed to enter Poland. Our country shelters every person whose life is in danger - regardless of their nationality.

The dominant group of refugees in Poland are citizens of Ukraine, but among the people checked by the Border Guard are also citizens of the USA, Nigeria, India, Georgia and other countries.

All persons admitted to Poland are verified by the Border Guard. In relation to those who are in doubt, e.g. do not have documents, Border Guard officers apply appropriate checking procedures.

No person who has received refuge in Poland will be sent back to a country torn by war.