In Ukraine's crisis, Europe snaps back into default racism. Just ask the African students trapped at the border

In Ukraine's crisis, Europe snaps back into default racism. Just ask the African students trapped at the border
5 min read
02 Mar, 2022
As hundreds of thousands flee the Russian invasion, Arab, Asian and African students in Ukraine have been denied exit from the country on the basis of their skin colour, laying bare Europe’s blatant racism and double standards, writes Nyasha Bhobo.
At the Ukrainian border, Arab, Asian and African students have faced discrimination and been denied safe passage into neighbouring countries. [Getty]

This week, as hundreds of thousands fled Ukraine, my friend, a Zimbabwean dentistry student in Lviv, texted me that, for 10 hours, Ukraine and Polish border guards blocked her from exiting the country for the safety of Poland. She feared the worst, but I was hardly surprised: even in the grimmest of times, Europe always switches to default mode: racism.

It must be stated upfront that I condemn Russia’s heinous invasion unfolding in Ukraine and the Kremlin’s atrocious violation of the UN Charter. However, this doesn’t mean the appalling racism experienced by people of colour fleeing Ukraine should be ignored.

Alarming videos proliferated showing Arab, Asian and African students being shoved from boarding trains or prevented from walking across borders to safety. Some of the idiotic reasons thrown around were that Arab, African and Asian students did not have visas to enter Poland and other European Union countries. 

"She feared the worst, but I was hardly surprised: even in the grimmest of times, Europe always switches to default mode: racism"

In contrast, Ukrainians, even those with just ID cards, were let through with ease. Europe, which prides itself as a citadel of human rights, apparently forgot that in times of deadly war, just like asylum, the UN Convention on Refugees, clearly states that visas are not a barrier for welcoming those seeking safety from bombs.

When the lack of visas argument failed to hold, it was said that because their country was under attack, the Ukrainians always come first. Again this is a painfully silly argument for the simple reason that Vladimir Putin’s heinous bombs don’t discriminate between who is Ukrainian, African, Arab, or Asian. As a case in point, a Russian artillery strike this week killed an Indian student, a country that has close relations with Russia and has so far not condemned the Kremlin’s murderous war.

The simple point is that Putin’s bloody offensive in Ukraine will make everyone collateral damage, whether they are Ukrainian or African, or Arab. If Putin's missile strikes can reportedly target a children’s cancer hospital, we should not entertain the illusion that Russia’s tanks will carefully choose between Ukrainian or Arab or African. 

Entrenched discrimination in Ukraine

My friend’s experience of blatant racism at the Polish border does not mean the experiences of people of colour in Ukraine have been sweet until now.

“I speak for myself but studying and living in Ukraine and Eastern Europe whilst Black is sometimes an uneasy experience,” my friend tells me.

“Twice, white classmates have asked and touched without permission to see if my braided hair has any feeling as if the hair has feelings. White Ukrainian taxi drivers once asked me if there's a king in Africa as if Africa is one country. On a school holiday visit to Poland, a train conductor joked, whispering that I look like Murzyn. In a shop fitting room, the cashier once shouted, ‘switch more lights, she's a bit dark.’”

In Poland Murzny is a deeply offensive racial epithet thrown at people of Black ethnicity, similar to the unspeakable N-word in America.

A familiar racism in Europe

The Syrian refugee crisis that saw millions of refugees enter the EU and spark a resurgence of right-wing racism across Europe has laid the stage for the shameful scenes we are seeing of Black, Asian and Arab students being blocked at Ukraine’s exit borders today.

When Russian airstrikes began, we heard rhetoric from the likes of Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov who said: “These are not the refugees we are used to... these people are Europeans. These people are intelligent, they are educated people... This is not the refugee wave we have been used to, people we were not sure about their identity, people with unclear pasts, who could have been even terrorists...There is not a single European country now which is afraid of the current wave of refugees.”

This is unsettling rhetoric considering that Eastern Europe, especially Hungary and Poland, gained notoriety for brutally suppressing the entry of African and Arab refugees in their territories, even for transit, just months ago. 

The subtle rhetoric here from the Bulgarian prime minister is that refugees of white-European, Christian orientation are preferable. Others who are Black, Arab, and especially of Muslim faith are to be violently kept out. This is the rhetoric that has built over the last 11 years since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, and has set the stage for the current locking out students of colour leaving Ukraine.

"The subtle rhetoric here from the Bulgarian prime minister is that refugees of white-European, Christian orientation are preferable. Others who are Black, Arab, and especially of Muslim faith are to be violently kept out"

Ukraine’s diversity

To be fair, and in its favour, Ukraine has a growing and established community of Afro-Ukrainians and Arab-Ukrainians, attracted by its burgeoning IT industry and quite affordable universities. A few thousand Black Ukrainians are believed to be established in the country's major cities, though exact figures can’t be determined.

Zhan Beleniuk, a Black Ukrainian wrestler brought national pride after winning gold at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. There are tens of thousands of people of Arab descent who live in Ukraine today. Arabs, especially Muslims, have lived in the lands that are now called Ukraine for hundreds of years. Today, many students from Lebanon, Syria, Morocco and Egypt study in Ukraine, attracted by its low-cost higher education.

The majority of Ukrainians are well-meaning people who live in peace and respect with immigrants of African, Asian, and Arab entities. However, the racist blockade of Black, Asian and Arab students fleeing Putin’s crimes in Ukraine is regrettable.

Make no mistake, the biggest crime unfolding at the moment is Putin's carpet-bombing of Ukraine and international solidarity with Ukraine is the right thing to do, but our solidarity must be for all, regardless of their skin colour.

Nyasha Bhobo is a human rights campaigner and global affairs enthusiast with a keen interest in Gulf Arab-African relations based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Her writing has appeared in Newsweek and The New Arab.

Join the conversation @The_NewArab.

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.