Black immigrants fleeing Ukraine outline challenges to cross borders, gain refugee status

Click to play video: 'Refugee of colour faces discrimination while fleeing country'
Refugee of colour faces discrimination while fleeing country
WATCH: Refugee of colour face discrimination while fleeing country – Mar 4, 2022

Adesanya Adedoyin, a Nigerian medical student, spent four days trying to escape the ongoing war while also facing what he thinks were discriminatory practices.

He’s among the more than one million people who have fled across the Ukrainian border following the Russian invasion, according to the United Nations.

“I was waiting, waiting, waiting and then we realized we had to leave,” said Adedoyin. “It was crazy. I felt discriminated (against), I felt neglected.”

He spent two days at the Ukraine-Poland border trying to get out. At the border checkpoint on the Ukraine side, he and his Black classmates were pulled aside, where they waited several hours with no movement, he said.

“There were a lot of queues and there were lots of us in it. After a little while we were moved to a different queue with all the Blacks to one side,” Adedoyin said. “We didn’t move a lot after that.”

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Many countries have opened their doors to refugees, which is a promising sign for refugees like Adedoyin. But there are some countries, like Bulgaria, whose Prime Minister Kiril Petkov has previously spoken about wanting to keep Syrian and African refugees out, that are now allowing Ukrainians to enter their borders.

Speaking to journalists earlier this week, Petkov said Bulgaria, which has previously rejected racialized minorities, is open to helping Ukrainian refugees during this time because they are Europeans.

“There is not a single European country now which is afraid of the current wave of refugees,” Petkov said, walking back his anti-migration stances to welcome Ukrainians.

Refugees, who are often Black, Middle-Eastern or people of colour, have faced discrimination and been rejected by Bulgaria for years, according to Oxfam. Petkov noted that Ukrainians are being welcomed with open arms because they “are not the refugees we are used to … these people are European.” Petkov went on to describe Ukrainians as more intelligent and educated than the normal migrants who try to enter Bulgaria.

“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,” he added.

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Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has taken a similar stance to Petkov. He has previously called Muslim migrants “invaders” but said his country would allow entry to Ukrainian refugees escaping the war.

“We are able to tell the difference between who is a migrant and who is a refugee,” he told Al-Jazeera in an interview while defending his open-border decision.

“Migrants are stopped. Refugees can get all the help.”

Click to play video: 'Over a million refugees flee Ukraine'
Over a million refugees flee Ukraine

Adedoyin, a first-year medical student in Ternopil, decided to flee Ukraine the night of the Russian invasion on Feb. 24. He knew as the bombings were getting worse and as Russian forces advanced that time was of the essence when it came to leaving.

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The journey started with a two-hour-long taxi ride just outside Lviv, where he paid $260. Adedoyin and his classmates then walked for eight hours for the rest of the journey to get to the border checkpoint.

Despite his patient, oft-repeated refrain of “I want to go home,” Adedoyin was starting to feel defeated.

Border guards were going through the lines and pulling out BIPOC people and moving them to a queue that was not moving, he said.

“They look up to you on the line of, like, 500 people, 1,000 people and they take you out and place you on the side and leave. Then you look around and everyone there is Black,” he said.

Throughout the journey, Adedoyin’s sister, Adesanya Idowu, guided him from her home in Toronto about where to go and helped fund his trip.

“We had to queue for two days. We slept on the road during that time for two cold nights,” he said.

The stay near the border checkpoint didn’t just feel discriminatory and long, but during one evening, Adedoyin said they used crowd control measures like pepper spray. Adedoyin did not say why the pepper spray was used, but noted that the crowd was large and trying to gain entry.

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“I almost choked to death,” he said.

An image of the people at the Ukraine-Poland border checkpoint. Supplied by Adesnaya Adedoyina

During this time, Adedoyin felt like he might never cross the border into Poland and was beginning to lose hope.

“I don’t think we can make it through the Poland border. Life was hell there. It was feeling like mission impossible,” he said.

But Adedoyin said he kept telling himself he was going to get home to Nigeria. So, his group went back to Lviv and from there travelled to the Slovakia-Ukraine border. After a short while, they were transported across the border by bus.

“It was a great relief, I was so happy,” he said. “It was a terrible, crazy journey.”

Even though Adedoyin’s journey was arduous, Michael Egan considers him lucky. Egan is a third-year Ghanian medical student studying in Ukraine’s northeast city of Sumy.

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“Nobody wants to be here. Everyone wants to get out because it’s getting scarier every day and we don’t know how it will go and when it’s going to end,” he said.

According to Egan, the university said there are an estimated 1,000 students who have no escape as Russian armed forces have surrounded the city and there is no humanitarian corridor established to allow civilians safe passage.

“We have to be indoors and then they give us curfew in the evenings so we don’t go out in the evening,” he said. “Physically I haven’t seen things yet, but I hear the bombs in the south.”

Egan was prepared to finally leave Sumy on Friday by taxi after paying $500 to be dropped off near the Poland border. The driver had told him they would take back routes to get there, but at the last minute, he cancelled.

“The car I (was) going to use picked someone else because the person was paying higher than me,” he said.

The 25-year-old international student is stuck searching for answers and noted there has been little acknowledgement from the Nigerian government or the Ukrainian government of the plight of international students.

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Even if Egan did get a driver to take him to the border, there is no guarantee of safe passage. He said a handful of students have returned after failed attempts to leave Ukraine.

“There was one student who was sent back and they pointed a gun at him and told him to go back,” he said.

Click to play video: 'Russia-Ukraine conflict: Refugees flood one of Poland’s busiest border crossings'
Russia-Ukraine conflict: Refugees flood one of Poland’s busiest border crossings

He added that trains in Sumy had been immobilized, so taxis are seemingly the only way out. Even then, given the chances of failure and high cost, Egan is scared about the violence that could occur in the next few weeks and considers the risk worthwhile.

“I don’t have a choice because I don’t know what will happen in a few weeks or the next day even, so I have to take the chance,” he said.

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Even if Egan does cross the border at some point, he has no idea what will happen to his nearly three years of hard work in school or how long he can stay in Europe.

On Thursday, European interior ministers reached an agreement to allow any Ukrainian nationals and long-term residents of Ukraine to stay in the European Union for up to one year. The agreement excluded students foreign students, who are considered short-term residents. While students will be accommodated, the agreement noted they would be sent back to their home countries.

Egan said he plans on applying to schools in neighbouring countries, while Adedoyin said he plans to return to Nigeria and reassess his plans from there.

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