Take Poland — a country that is being praised globally for accepting over one million refugees from Ukraine — only months ago it was condemned for serious human rights violations after engaging in pushing back and firing tear gas at asylum seekers and migrants from the Middle East and Africa driven to the border by Belarusian forces.
How can we address these clear refugee protection gaps for Black and brown people at borders while still recognising the tremendous efforts neighbouring countries are putting forward to those displaced?
During war, everyone in the invaded country has a well-founded fear of persecution. Non-refoulement states that no one should be returned to a country where they would be in danger of being subjected to violations of certain fundamental rights.
Over the past 50 years, the conventions relevance has been questioned. It is hard to see it as relevant when European countries close their doors to refugees fleeing conflict from Afghanistan and Syria but open them to Ukranians.
Political theorist Steven Lukes argues that disasters, like wars, can be transformative or confirmatory as they provide an opportunity to examine the “exception” to better understand “the rule.”.
What’s happening in Ukraine has unveiled the existing hierarchy of refugees that exists in modern Europe as portraits of the good, bad and ideal refugees emerge.
A clip from Al Jazeera described Ukrainian refugees boarding a train:
“What’s compelling is, looking at them, the way they are dressed. These are prosperous … middle-class people. These are not obviously refugees trying to get away from areas in the Middle East … North Africa.”The bias towards Ukrainian nationals as the only worthy refugees was so strong that the EU had to clarify that people from third countries who lived in Ukraine and wanted to travel on to their home countries were also welcome.
Lately, many reports have surfaced of African and Indian international students being denied access to trains and border crossings by Ukrainian officials. Border officials in Poland and Romania have been documented segregating refugees by race, beating them with rods and giving preferential treatment to Ukrainian nationals in Europe and abroad.
Black medical student Korrinne Sky, from Leicester, UK, took to social media to share her dehumanising journey out of Ukraine. She spoke of the clear hierarchy at the border crossings: “Ukrainians first, Indians second and Africans last.”
CTV News interviewed Black international students at the Polish border who said that they were told they had to wait aside “until [the border officials] were done with Ukrainans”. In one unverified video posted by the Guardian, a group of Black students can be heard shouting “we don’t have arms” while unidentifiable officials point guns at them.
This begs the question: Is a refugee a refugee, no matter where they come from?
Russia isn’t being selective on who they’re targeting, so everyone affected by the invasion in Ukraine should be afforded refugee protection no matter their race and nationality.
While they are not refugees yet, if Russians continue their advances and take over Ukraine, these fighters will be displaced and there is no doubt other countries will accept them as refugees with open arms — as they should.
Migration and refugee studies researcher Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, in The Ideal Refugees asks readers to “reflect critically on who benefits from assertions of good, bad, and ideal refugees, and whose interests are advanced by these narratives”.
At a time when Russia’s invasion represents a threat on the world’s democracies, our global responses to refugees from Ukraine should be an opportunity for transformation not conformation. We must demand safety for all refugees, not just Ukrainian nationals.
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