ON THE GROUND

‘Pushed back because we’re Black’: Africans stranded at Ukraine-Poland border

African students fleeing Russia's invasion pictured at Lviv station in western Ukraine on February 28, 2022.
African students fleeing Russia's invasion pictured at Lviv station in western Ukraine on February 28, 2022. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

Nigeria and South Africa have expressed alarm at reports that their nationals are being stopped from leaving war-torn Ukraine. At Lviv train station, in western Ukraine, FRANCE 24 met several African students who say they were pushed back at the Medyka border crossing with Poland.

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African governments on Monday were scrambling to help their nationals escape the Russian invasion in Ukraine as reports emerged of racist and unfair treatment of their citizens at the border with Poland. 

The reports, denied by both Polish and Ukrainian officials, have cast a pall on the massive evacuation effort that has already seen half a million civilians cross into the European Union.

While some Africans have been able to leave Ukraine, FRANCE 24 spoke to several students on Sunday at Lviv train station in western Ukraine who said they were turned back by Ukrainian border guards while attempting to cross into Poland.

Civilians wait to cross into Poland near the Medyka border crossing on February 25, 2022.
Civilians wait to cross into Poland near the Medyka border crossing on February 25, 2022. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

“They stopped us at the border and told us that Blacks were not allowed. But we could see White people going through,” said Moustapha Bagui Sylla, a student from Guinea. He said he fled his university residence in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, as soon as the bombing began.

Like thousands of Ukrainian civilians scrambling for the border, the young Guinean said he walked for hours in freezing temperatures heading for the Polish frontier village of Medyka – only to be ordered to turn back.

Moustapha Bagui Sylla has studied medicine in Ukraine's Kharkiv for the past year.
Moustapha Bagui Sylla has studied medicine in Ukraine's Kharkiv for the past year. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

Another student from Nigeria described similar scenes at the border crossing. He said his group, which included women, was shut out of the border post even as White people were let through. 

“They won’t let Africans in. Blacks without European passports cannot cross the border (...). They’re pushing us back just because we’re Black!” said the Nigerian student, who gave only his first name, Michael. “We’re all human,” he added. “They should not discriminate against us because of the colour of our skin.”

Jean Ngando (centre), a French teacher from Cameroon, said he was looking for alternative routes to avoid being pushed back at the Polish border.
Jean Ngando (centre), a French teacher from Cameroon, said he was looking for alternative routes to avoid being pushed back at the Polish border. © Mehdi Chebil, France 24

According to Bagui Sylla, the Ukrainian border guards said they were merely following instructions from their Polish counterparts – a claim denied by officials in Warsaw.

Anna Michalska, a spokesperson for the Polish border guards, said she had spent “the past two days denying such allegations”.

“I don’t know what is happening on the Ukrainian side of the border, but we let everyone in regardless of nationality,” she told FRANCE 24. 

In a later communiqué, Polish officials confirmed that no visas were required to cross the border and that identity cards and passports would be accepted, even when expired.

Nigerian student Natacha Daniels said she was worried she would be barred from leaving Ukraine because her passport is in the hands of officials in Kharkiv, where she studies economics.
Nigerian student Natacha Daniels said she was worried she would be barred from leaving Ukraine because her passport is in the hands of officials in Kharkiv, where she studies economics. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

A spokesperson for the Ukrainian border guards also denied reports of discriminatory practices. He stressed that only Ukrainian men aged between 18 and 60 – who are required to join the war effort – were barred from leaving the country.

Regarding the numerous complaints by Africans who said they were pushed back, Andriy Demchenko said “perhaps they attempted to jump the queue”.

Civilians fleeing the war face increasingly dire conditions at the Medyka border crossing, as FRANCE 24 has previously documented. According to a report by the European Commission, the crossing can now take up to 70 hours.

Many African nationals stranded in Lviv are looking for alternative routes to leave the country.
Many African nationals stranded in Lviv are looking for alternative routes to leave the country. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

For African students lured to Ukraine by the prospect of jobs and university degrees, being treated like economic migrants – rather than refugees displaced by war – is a devastating blow.

Nigeria's government has advised its citizens leaving Ukraine to head for Hungary or Romania, instead of Poland. That is precisely what the students stranded at Lviv station said they planned to do.

 

Since the publication of this article, the Polish embassy in Paris contacted FRANCE 24 to deny the reports. 

The embassy wished to "reiterate and emphasise that Poland accepts all refugees at the Ukrainian border, regardless of their nationality". According to the head of the embassy's communication and public diplomacy service, 1.2 million people representing more than 150 nationalities have crossed the Polish border seeking refuge since the start of the Russian invasion.

© France Médias Monde graphic studio

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