IN WHAT the UN has called the most rapid exodus ever, more than one million have now fled Ukraine and are seeking refuge both in neighbouring countries and further afield. In fact the UN data portal still showed 934,000 refugees early yesterday, but they said they had received estimates of additional arrivals through the rest of the day and into the evening.
This amounts to more than 2% of Ukraine’s population of more than 40 million people, and these people have been on the move across borders in just seven days. The UN has predicted that four million people could eventually leave Ukraine, perhaps more.
No escape from discrimination
But, while the shelling of Ukrainian cities continues and its citizens attempt to flee, there have been reports from human rights groups on refugees facing discrimination – not just in Poland as previously reported, but on the Ukrainian side of the border.
Anna Alboth from Minority Rights Group said that racial discrimination, while not systemic, is a fact.
“Discrimination mostly takes place on the Ukrainian side of the border. But there are people in Poland offering free transportation who refuse it once approached by a non-Ukrainian refugee. We receive messages from Nigerian and Indian students who could not handle the fact that they are treated differently and returned to Lviv,” she said.
Alboth added: “We cannot divide people into worthy and unworthy refugees. Non-Ukrainians escaping the war face the same challenges as Ukrainians. We have to offer support to all people in need, not only to white ones who are similar to us.”
Getting Indians home
Meanwhile Russian President Vladimir Putin has been in talks with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the urgent evacuation of Indian students trapped in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, according to the Kremlin.
Before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine last Thursday, there were 20,000 Indians in Ukraine, but since then approximately 8,000 have managed to leave the country and Indian authorities have stated that about 1,400 of them have been repatriated. This still leaves some 12,000 Indian citizens trying to get home.
During a video call on Wednesday with Modi, Putin said he had ordered Russian soldiers “to ensure the safe exit of Indian nationals from the armed conflict zone and their return to their homeland,” according to a Kremlin statement and added that Russia was trying to organise the emergency evacuation of a group of Indian students from Kharkiv via a humanitarian corridor.
Russian defence ministry spokesperson Konashenkov said Ukraine was offering to evacuate the Indian students via the western border with Poland, but that would mean them passing through combat zones, and, given the discrimination of other non-white refugees at the Polish border, could prove problematic for any Indian refugees.
“The Russian armed forces are ready to take all necessary measures for the safe evacuation of Indian nationals” so they can be flown home from Russia said Konashenkov.
India’s foreign ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi also said “We have requested support of the Ukrainian authorities in arranging special trains for taking out students from Kharkiv and neighbouring areas to the western part of the country”.
Refugees for the second time
We all know of the refugee crisis in Afghanistan, where far more of its people fled to other countries, and we have written about this already, but what I found particularly heart-rending was the tale of an Afghanistan man who had already fled his homeland in 2007 to seek refuge in Ukraine, only to now find himself in the same position 15 years later.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, 32-year-old Navid, sitting on the floor in Poland’s Przemysl station, was trying to rest with his children as he spoke of his latest ordeal. Since Navid came to Odesa from Afghanistan in 2007 his family had made the Ukrainian coastal city their home, running a successful business selling phone and computer accessories.
“Since they took Crimea, I knew it would only get worse. When they created separatist groups in eastern Ukraine, I felt that Russia was going to invade,” he said, with tears in his eyes
“When the war started, I was in Odesa and I heard missiles being fired, that’s why I decided to leave. But I consider Ukraine my country and I wanted to stay as long as I could.” If possible Navid wants to return to Ukraine after the war, but only if it remains under Ukrainian control.
His is not the only story. Also sitting in the railway station was Adnan, a 23-year-old student and British national of Afghan descent, and one of thousands just like him in the station. Adnan and his friends had paid the equivalent of more than $300 for five bus tickets, but the bus never arrived.
When asked about any discrimination while crossing the border, he nodded. “It was freezing at the border. We didn’t get any food,” Adnan said. “As a man, I was not allowed to stand next to a bonfire made by the Ukrainian guards. The girls were allowed for about 20 minutes after the Ukrainian women and children left the border.”
“Many people jumped the queue. It happens especially when you don’t speak the language. But I don’t think it has anything to do with race or skin colour. All foreigners are treated this way. They prioritise Ukrainians.”
He also added, disconcertingly, but not surprising to those of us listening to the UK Government this last week: “Many international students are still stuck in Ukraine and our embassies are not really helping”. Adnan added that the British embassy had advised him to look for transport himself.
Either the UK Government and opposition parties want to stop the war and/or aid refugees, or they want to just continue with their anti-Putin/Russia rhetoric. It should shame us all that they have so far chosen the latter course.
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