‘We’re pushed back because we’re black’: Africans stranded on the Ukraine-Poland border

Nigeria and South Africa have expressed concern over reports that their citizens have been prevented from leaving war-torn Ukraine. At the Lviv train station in western Ukraine, France 24 met several African students who said they had been expelled at the Medica border crossing with Poland.

African governments on Monday sought to help their citizens escape the Russian invasion of Ukraine with reports of racist and unfair treatment of their citizens at the border with Poland.

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

While some Africans have managed to leave Ukraine, France 24 spoke with several students on Sunday at a Lviv train station in western Ukraine, who said they were turned back by Ukrainian border guards as they tried to cross into Poland.

Civilians waiting to cross into Poland near the Medica 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 whites passing by,” said Moustapha Bagoy Sylla, a student from Guinea. He said he fled his university home in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, as soon as the bombing began.

Like thousands of Ukrainian civilians scrambling for the border, the Guinean youth said he walked for hours in frigid temperatures heading to the Polish border village of Medica – then was ordered to turn back.

Mustafa Bagoy Sylla studied medicine in Kharkiv, Ukraine last year. © Mehdi Chebil, JowharAnother student from Nigeria described similar scenes at the border crossing. He said his group, which included women, was turned away from the border post even after whites were allowed to pass.

“They will not let Africans in. Blacks who do not have European passports cannot cross the border (…). They are pushing us back just because we are black!” said the Nigerian student, who gave only his first name, Michael. “We are all human,” he added. “They shouldn’t discriminate against us because of the color of our skin.”

Jean Ngando (center), a French teacher from Cameroon, said he was looking for alternative ways to avoid being turned back at the Polish border. © Mehdi Chebil, France 24 According to Baghi Sylla, Ukrainian border guards said they were only following instructions from their Polish counterparts – a claim denied by officials in Warsaw.

Anna Michalska, a spokeswoman for Poland’s 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 subsequent statement, Polish officials confirmed that no visas were needed to cross the border and that identity cards and passports would be accepted, even when they expired.

Nigerian student Natasha Daniels said she is worried she will be prevented from leaving Ukraine because her passport is in the hands of officials in Kharkiv, where she is studying economics. © Mehdi Chebil, JowharA Ukrainian border guard spokesman also denied reports of discriminatory practices. He stressed that Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 – who are wanted to join the war effort – have been banned from leaving the country.

Regarding the numerous complaints of Africans who said they had been pushed back, Andrei Demchenko said, “They may have tried to bypass the waiting list.”

Civilians fleeing the war face increasingly harsh conditions at the Medica border crossing, as previously documented by France 24. According to a report by the European Commission, transit can now take up to 70 hours.

Many African citizens stranded in Lviv are looking for alternative ways to leave the country. © Mehdi Chebil, France 24 For African students lured into Ukraine by job opportunities and university degrees, treating them as economic migrants – not refugees displaced by war – is a devastating blow.

The Nigerian government has advised its citizens to leave Ukraine for Hungary or Romania, rather than Poland. This is exactly what the students stranded at the Lviv station said that they intend to do.

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