The variations in the treatment of Ukrainian refugees


Delyth Michael details the different ways Ukrainian refugees are being treated as they flee war

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By Delyth Michael

Anyone who has watched any news channel in the past two months will have seen the horrific images of war from Ukraine. This invasion, beginning on 24 February, was a major escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian war, which began in 2014 after the Ukrainian ‘Revolution of Dignity’ and the subsequent invasion and annexation of Crimea by Russia. The rest of the world has watched with mounting horror as the extent to which Putin was willing to indiscriminately attack civilian areas became clear. This has triggered the largest refugee crisis within Europe since World War II, with the UN’s latest estimate at over 5 million refugees fleeing Ukraine.

This data shows arrivals of refugees in the countries bordering Ukraine (Poland, Romania, Hungary, Russia, Moldova, Slovakia and Belarus); it is difficult to track where these refugees end up due to the right to freedom of movement within the Schengen area. The majority of refugees fled Ukraine into Poland. The Polish government, as well as the Moldavian government (which has by far the highest number of refugees per capita), have appealed for international aid to support them, with Poland telling the EU it needs more funds.

Within a week of the invasion beginning, a never-before-used 2001 EU directive was triggered. The Temporary Protection Directive allows Ukrainian refugees to circumvent the traditionally overburdened and bureaucratic asylum procedures, granting all refugees who flee the war a blanket right to stay and work in the EU for up to three years, social welfare and access to housing, medical treatment, schools etc. At the same time as the EU was triggering the TPD, national rail companies in Germany, Austria, France and Belgium offered free tickets for the many Ukrainian refugees looking to reach their countries. The European Commission has stated that member states can relax their border controls, allowing refugees to enter before carrying out ID checks and exempting them from traditional customs duties.

The UK has continually been criticised for its approach to refugees throughout the crisis. When Russia first invaded Ukraine, the UK launched a family visa scheme for Ukrainians who have an immediate or extended family member in the UK. As unfavourable comparisons were drawn between the approaches of the UK and EU members, the Home Office then launched the Homes for Ukraine scheme, asking UK residents to open up their homes to refugees for six months or more. However, this scheme has come under fire as well, as critics claim it is overly complicated and bureaucratic, with only 12,500 visas having been issued despite 43,600 applications as of 7 April.

The UNHCR has called on the UK government to ensure adequate safeguards, vetting measures and support, amid worries that the scheme could be used by predatory men to target vulnerable Ukrainian women. A journalist from the Times posing as a young female Ukrainian refugee on the largest Facebook group for UK hosts was overwhelmed by inappropriate messages within minutes. The UK public is growing angrier over the long wait times for Ukrainians seeking asylum here, with only 12,000 refugees from both visa schemes having reached the UK so far.

As well as disparities between host countries, not all refugees from Ukraine have been treated equally. There has been many reports of non-white refugees being discriminated against both while trying to reach the border and once there. Nigerian medical student Jessica Orakpo told the BBC ‘They said black people should walk,’ in an interview on her ordeal as she attempted to leave Ukraine. A Nigerian national named Osarumen living in Ukraine interviewed by The Independent said that he and his family members and other Black refugees were made to disembark a bus about to cross the border, being told ‘No Blacks’. He added that he has seen Indians, Arabs and Syrians receiving similar treatment.

An investigation by The Independent, in partnership with Lighthouse Reports and other media partners, revealed that African students fleeing Ukraine have been detained by EU border authorities, some for a number of weeks. Many have been threatened with deportation, despite the EU protection directive stating that third country nationals studying or working in Ukraine should be admitted to the EU temporarily on humanitarian grounds. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has repeatedly called for everyone fleeing war to be treated equally, no matter their nationality.

The question of racism is an uncomfortable one when dealing with people fleeing potential war crimes, but one that cannot be ignored. Why is this the first time that the EU protection directive has been used? Why did the EU never agree to trigger it for refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen? Why is the British and European public suddenly so interested in helping refugees, when we have been continually voting for anti-immigration politicians who make promises to ‘protect our borders’? Even while questions are raised about whether we should be doing more to help Ukrainian refugees, other refugees worry about being left behind while we help those who look like us first.