Desperate treatment of those fleeing Ukraine continues with recent news of African and other non-white refugees who fled Ukraine now being detained in Poland and Estonia. As recently reported by the Independent, an estimated “52 third-country nationals” were being detained in detention facilities in Poland.
A person identifying themselves as a polish official denied the claim on Twitter while simultaneously acknowledging the country possibly had “reason” to detain individuals. From the African students in the report, they were asked to sign documents they could not read and not provided resources to appeal detention decisions.
Despite the EU protection directives that those fleeing the conflict should be admitted temporarily, disparities persist in treatment. As some European officials have tried to deny what is happening, I am reminded of the rush to dismiss the experiences of African refugees fleeing Ukraine in the early days of the invasion.
Watching the videos of Africans sharing what was happening to them on the ground in Ukraine was amazing. Several groups of people tried to leave at the outset of the Russian invasion but were told that Ukrainians should go first. Others were told they didn’t have the proper documents to enter neighboring countries or that they should fight for a country they didn’t belong to.
But what hit me the hardest was when I saw Black Americans declaring that they didn’t trust ANY of the videos being shared. With more than 10,000 Black international students being faced with fleeing a country they thought would afford them an education, it was unsettling to see the lack of compassion for their plight. I have tried to remain silent in the past and prefer to collect data so that numbers and statistics back my statements, but I couldn’t sit idly by this time around.
So I tweeted, “please do your best to find mainstream sources but DO NOT discredit those that are speaking on the ground. In this moment fam please don’t put us in further harm’s way because we are constantly dehumanized across this globe.”
It wasn’t enough. I started seeing articles that quoted me saying that there weren’t any mainstream media accounts outside of the videos, which weren’t to be believed, even when Reuters confirmed these reports on February 25.
Racism in Ukraine is real. Racism in Russia is also real. Racism across the EU is extremely real, which is why we must identify the moments and name them. If you don’t, you will open the door for dis- and misinformation. It allows emotional reactions that don’t help those on the ground. You are either dismissing the genuine moments of those in harm’s way or allowing Russian propaganda to win in the media landscape.
When I tweeted that Romania was the best option, I was criticized.
” Again, Romania seems to be the best exit!!”
I was well aware of some challenges at certain border crossing points and tried to get the information out as quickly as possible for those fleeing.
This isn’t the first time I’ve been attacked for trying to share good information in real-time. I have personally been tracking how online activities differ when you are either a woman of color or a Black woman. My organization, Stop Online Violence Against Women Inc. (SOVAW), started collecting data in 2013 and watched the online harassment of minorities and the callous behaviors of what would become organized online networks that worked to impact the American election in 2016.
The current situation reminds me of a time where Russian disinformation campaigns emerged, where we saw a rise in accounts of fake Black activists and individuals. Even then, individuals favored the voice of non-minorities, going so far to create the “not a bot” campaign, where I was being challenged about my reporting on these activities.
I was targeted for trying to share the data that SOVAW collected in a visual format, which showed that the Russian interference in the 2016 elections explicitly targeted Black voters. Our data showed that using Black identity in politics and now in war is something that has often gone unnoticed. We documented it not to shame or encourage others to use this tactic but to name it.
Unfortunately, it has been used again in Russia’s war against Ukraine. Not to help Ukrainians who are currently defending themselves for self-sovereignty but as a weapon to remove empathy.
Many students resorted to leading their own rescue efforts after realizing that empathy was not being extended to them because of the color of their skin. Students in Sumy still needed help, even as people assumed that all African students got out.
According to NBC News, hundreds of African students finally escaped Sumy and took refuge in Hungary.
When people discounted their accounts, they took longer to get to the borders. While the world watches and discredits the account of Black people, the following statement from the UN currently rings hollow:
“The United Nations was born out of war to end war,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said at the start of the war in Ukraine. “Today, that objective was not achieved. But we must never give up. We must give peace another chance.”