(Milan) – Foreigners living in Ukraine have faced unequal treatment and delays as they attempt to flee the war alongside hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, Human Rights Watch said today. Interviews with three dozen foreign nationals, many of them international students, revealed a pattern of blocking or delaying foreigners from boarding buses and trains, apparently to prioritize evacuating Ukrainian women and children.
Ukrainian authorities have said they are aware of the problem and are taking steps to ensure that foreign nationals can leave the country. On March 2, 2022 Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba announced on Twitter that the government had established a hotline for foreign students wishing to leave Ukraine.
“It’s a harrowing situation for everyone trying to get out of harm’s way, and everyone escaping the war, no matter where they come from, should be allowed to leave,” said Judith Sunderland, associate Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Ukrainian authorities should not discriminate based on nationality or race, and neighboring countries should allow everyone in with a minimum of bureaucracy.”
A week into the invasion, marked by serious violations of the laws of war, one million people have fled across borders into neighboring Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, and Moldova. Everyone is experiencing anguish and hardship as they struggle to find transport to the border, face long lines in freezing weather, and say goodbye to loved ones. Under martial law following the Russian invasion on February 24, Ukrainian men ages 18 to 60 are subject to conscription and are not allowed to leave the country.
Ukraine has long been a destination for students and immigrants from around the world. According to government data from 2020, 80,000 international students were in the country, with the largest groups from India, Morocco, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Nigeria. These students, and people from numerous countries who immigrated to Ukraine for work, now find themselves desperately trying to get out of a war zone.
The United Nations said there were 752 civilian casualties by March 1, including 227 deaths. It concluded that most were caused by “the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area,” including shelling from heavy artillery, multiple launch rockets, and airstrikes. Human Rights Watch has verified evidence that Russian forces have used cluster munitions and explosive weapons in populated areas, resulting in civilian casualties and extensive damage to civilian infrastructure.
Ukrainian authorities should simplify and expedite exit procedures for all those fleeing Ukraine and ensure equal treatment between Ukrainians and non-Ukrainians, Human Rights Watch said. EU agencies should be deployed to assist at borders, and both the EU and Ukraine should ensure basic humanitarian assistance to people stranded in border areas on the Ukrainian side.
Human Rights Watch interviewed foreign nationals from North African countries, sub-Saharan African countries, and India at the Polish border, in Lviv, a Ukrainian city about 75 kilometers from the border, and by telephone about the difficulties they faced trying to get out of the country.
Barn, a 22-year-old Indian medical student in Dnipro who asked not to use his full name, said the police there wouldn’t let him and six others board the train on February 26. “Four trains came and went and they wouldn’t let us on,” he said. “They [the police] told us that only Ukrainians could take the trains during the day, and foreigners were only allowed on trains at night. We got to the station at 7 a.m. and only finally were allowed on a train at 7:30 p.m.”
A Nigerian student said he was among a group of roughly 20 foreigners, including Ecuadorians and Moroccans, who were forced off a train in Kyiv on February 26. “The police entered and … pulled me and pushed me and asked if I was going to Lviv or Poland. I said Poland and they told me to get out.”
Mourad Hajri, a 22-year-old Moroccan studying veterinary medicine in Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine near Russia, made his way across the country to the border with Poland by train, taxi, and then 11 hours on foot through the night of February 26. “The Ukrainian soldiers and their auxiliaries did not do anything to rein in the chaos,” he said. “All they did was open a way forcefully whenever a bus filled with Ukrainians approached to the border. Those were let in very smoothly and crossed into Poland without a hitch. But for all the others, including us, it was very complicated. You had to fight your way in.”
Rugiatu Faith Maxey, 22, a United States citizen originally from Sierra Leone, was in Ukraine visiting her Sierra Leonian fiancé in Dnipro. She said the driver of a commercial bus announced that “all blacks need to get off the bus” when they approached the border with Poland. She remained on the bus after her group and Ukrainian passengers protested. “Eventually we got through in the line with Ukrainians, but we really had to push for that, and it was helpful that I was American and got the embassy involved,” she said.
The African Union issued a statement on February 28 urging “all countries to respect international law and show the same empathy and support to all people fleeing war notwithstanding their racial identity.” Several governments with nationals in Ukraine have expressed concern over their treatment and obstacles to getting out of the country. The Nigerian foreign minister told the media on March 1 that he had spoken with Ukrainian and Polish authorities about the need to ensure that Nigerians could cross the border.
At the March 2 General Assembly session, the Indian permanent representative to the United Nations said, “We demand safe and uninterrupted passage for all Indian nationals including our students, particularly from Kharkiv and other conflict zones.” Thousands of Indians have been evacuated after they crossed the border into neighboring countries.
On March 3, UN experts expressed “serious concern [about] ongoing reports of people of African descent and racial and ethnic minorities being subjected to discriminatory treatment as they flee Ukraine” and recalled that “[t]he prohibition against racial discrimination is a fundamental right of international law with applicability across situations of conflict and peace.”
Andriy Demchenko, a spokesperson for the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine told Human Rights Watch that allegations of unfair treatment against foreigners “do not correspond with the truth.” He contended that “Ukrainian border guards do not see nationality or color of passports,” and said that nationals from foreign countries “tried to push forward and receive priority treatment.”
On March 1, nine Ukrainian human rights organizations issued a statement calling on officials to “counter any instances of personal or institutional discrimination, xenophobia or racism,” and on countries of origin and countries neighboring Ukraine to facilitate people leaving the war zone. In a March 1 tweet, Minister Kuleba said that “Africans seeking evacuation are our friends and need to have equal opportunities to return to their home countries safely. Ukraine’s government spares no effort to solve the problem.”
On March 3, EU member states approved the European Commission’s March 2 proposal to trigger for the first time the Temporary Protection Directive, which allows for streamlined, blanket protection for up to three years for people displaced by the war in Ukraine. This will include third-country nationals who are long-term residents of Ukraine and stateless people, as well as Ukrainian nationals.
The EU Commission and EU member states should make it clear to Ukrainian authorities that all non-Ukrainian nationals, including people without valid travel documents, are given access to EU territories to either benefit from temporary protection or on humanitarian grounds, including for safe passage or repatriation to their countries of origin, Human Rights Watch said. EU countries should not return to their countries of origin people whose life or freedom would be threatened. Arrangements should be made to ensure an equitable sharing of responsibility by all member states via an efficient and fair relocation plan that takes into account family ties and, insofar as possible, individual preferences.
For additional accounts of problems at the border, please see below.
Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed 22 people who formed parts of groups totaling 53 people from Morocco, India, Nigeria, Uganda, and Tunisia in and near the train station in Lviv, western Ukraine, as well as by the border with Poland, on February 27 and 28, and on March 3. Most people were interviewed in groups, all of whom confirmed having had the same or similar experiences between February 25 and the date of the interview. Human Rights Watch also interviewed by phone or video three other foreigners trying to leave the country. Some asked not to use their whole names for their safety.
Kassim, a 23-year-old Moroccan statistics student, said he and three others were prevented from getting on trains in three cities as they made their way from Odessa to Kyiv and then on to Lviv, near the Polish border:
In Odessa the train controllers said we couldn’t get on the train, they didn’t say why … but we saw they were only letting Ukrainian women and kids on. Finally, after two trains came and went, we were able to get on a train after begging and begging. In Kyiv, again we had to wait for two trains to come and go before we got on, again by begging … We got here to Lviv and wanted to get the train to Poland, but a group of police and military blocked us … They told us that all the foreigners had to get in a separate line … once all the women and kids had boarded, they didn’t let us board next, they made us wait, and as more women and kids came, they let them board until the trains were full.
Osamah, 20, also Moroccan, said that he and his traveling companions were unable to get on a train in Lviv because “foreigners are banned from taking the train from here. People say it is only Ukrainians who can travel out of the country.”
Rugiatu Faith Maxey, the United States citizen originally from Sierra Leone, said she, her fiancé, and five others, including a year-old baby, all Africans, walked for 16 hours to the Polish border on their first attempt to get out of Ukraine. Still distant from the border, about two hours in her estimation, they reached an area where people were lining up; a military guard in uniform yelled at them to make sure they got in the line for foreigners. Rugiatu said they spent much of the night waiting in hopes of getting on a bus while watching Ukrainians get rides to the border in military vehicles. She had to be taken to a hospital in an ambulance when she collapsed. They were able to cross the following day.
Mourad, the 22-year-old Moroccan veterinary student, fled Kharkiv on February 25 on an overcrowded train to Lviv:
The ride to Lviv lasted 25 hours. There, I met a group of Moroccans, and eight of us took a collective taxi to the polish border post. Around 9 p.m., the taxi dropped us 40 kilometers from the border, saying he couldn’t go further. We were afraid, hungry, and deprived of sleep, but we had no choice other than to walk to the border. That’s what we did, all night.
After 11 hours of walking, we arrived at a checkpoint manned by the Ukrainian [border guards] which we were told was 3 kilometers from the Polish border. The Ukrainian soldiers were armed, helped by people in civilian clothes (they wore orange jackets) with truncheons. The civilians were very aggressive, acting like auxiliaries of the military. They and the soldiers were letting Ukrainian citizens pass, but blocking immigrants sporadically. They blocked me and my group for about one-and-a-half hours. I finally managed to sneak out with my friend, then we walked about three kilometers on foot. We were tired and hungry, some Ukrainian civilians helped us with sandwiches and tea.
At the border, Mourad found what he described as “total chaos.” Unable to cross there, Mourad eventually went to the border with Hungary, where he and others waited from 3:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. for a bus organized by the Moroccan consulate. He was expecting to take a low-cost flight home arranged by the Moroccan government.