The Prism of Race: Reality at Ukraine's Borders


It has been almost two weeks since the political conflicts between Russia and Ukraine escalated into war. We uncover what has been happening since President Putin declared his “military operation” on the 24th of February and stand in solidarity with Ukraine and the individuals experiencing distress in their seek for safety.

The Russo-Ukrainian War is undeniably causing severe detriments first and foremost to inhabitants of Ukraine as a whole. However, it is out of the question to avoid discerning the difficult implications it is having on ethnic minority students also trying to escape the country.

As a result of the Russian-led invasion in late-February, more than a million people have fled Ukraine, says Head of the United Nations refugee agency Filippo Grandi. Consequently putting much of the Eastern European country in jeopardy, including those of African, Caribbean and Indian descents who are currently facing both war and racial discrimination - with a significant portion of these individuals being students. It has also led to a heavy influx of racist-induced journalism.

Early conflicts between Russia and Ukraine can be dated as far back as 2004 when mass protests took place in Ukraine as a call for a change to pro-Western leadership and tensions arose once more between 2013-2014 when Russia formally annexed Crimea. Since this time the situation has only continued to worsen. Our present reality has showcased several days of Russian bombardment and relentless missile attacks across Ukraine including particularly hard hits to its capital, Kyiv. Around five in the morning on the 24th of February 2022 President Putin of Russia announced a “special military operation” in eastern Ukraine and shortly after war officially broke out.

So far, Putin has explained that Russia could not feel “safe, develop and exist” without military intervention in Ukraine. Russia has refused to use the terms war or invasion and its leaders have insisted that modern Ukraine was a constant threat. Putin has made further claims that he is protecting his people through the “demilitarisation and deNazification'' of Ukraine. These claims have been rejected by Ukraine who are a democratic nation, with no reported incidences of genocide, led by a Jewish president.

How could I be a Nazi?” asks President Zelensky of Ukraine, who is the grandson of a Holocaust survivor. “Explain it to my grandfather.”

At least 350 Ukrainian civilians have been killed and more than 2,000 injured since the fighting began last Thursday, according to Ukraine’s emergency service. Transport facilities, hospitals, kindergartens and homes have been destroyed, it said. Hundreds of Ukrainians have since returned home to join the fight.

But there are still those trying to flee the country. Outrage ensued after a number of Nigerian students and their parents took to social media to expose the obstacles that have met them at the border. Osarumen, a father of three, spoke of how he, his family and other refugees were ejected from a bus about to cross the border. “No Blacks,” they were told.

“I cannot imagine a scenario where white Ukranians would ever be denied asylum so how they’re treating us is unwarranted. It’s baseless. We are all escaping so let’s push a common thread,” says Osarumen.

“This isn’t just happening to Black people – even Indians, Arabs and Syrians and that shouldn’t be the case.”

Social media has been the main source for circulation revealing footage of people being blocked from trains which have since gone viral. In another case, 24 Jamaican students were forced to walk 20km to Poland after travelling from Kharkiv to Lviv by train on Saturday. Kamina Johnson-Smith, Jamaica’s foreign affairs minister, said they were blocked from boarding the bus intended to carry the students to Poland.

“It is obvious that we Africans are regarded as lower beings,” says Nze, a student, who too has been forced to walk several hours to the Polish border.

“Virtually-silent” embassies have been called upon to offer support, with some of those seeking refuge, including UK nationals, feeling as though there is an apparent lack of support from their government. Especially given the aspect that there are People of Colour that have not left Ukraine out of fear of what might meet them at the border.

A variety of news outlets have added fuel to the fire by promoting further affirmations of Western racial biases. CBS, Al Jazeera and the BBC are but some of the media companies which have become recent additions to social media’s hit list.

“Now, because of the Ukrainians’ whiteness and proximity to the west, it’s apparently difficult for some political commentators and roving reporters to grasp how this conflict could have come to pass,” says Nadine White for the Independent. “It’s as though bloodshed and invasion is only to be foisted upon countries inhabited by Black and brown people.”

“Skin is a passport … epidermal citizenship,” another social media user said.

In light of the growing concerns, the UN is being urged to act over the racism being faced by Black and ethnic minorities at Ukraine's borders. A petition created by Louise Nkosi which calls for the provision of ‘safe passage for Africans and all People of Colour out of Ukraine’ is currently picking up steam on the website.

We will continue to write about developments in Ukraine over the next few months.

By Meesha Cru-Hall