South Asians and other non-white residents of Ukraine have reportedly experienced discrimination while attempting to join the hundreds of thousands of who have already fled their home country.
International watchdog organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported the findings on Friday after conducting interviews with three dozen foreign residents stranded in the Ukrainian city of Lviv near the Polish border.
The interviewees, many of whom are international students from India, North African countries and sub-Saharan African countries, claimed to have been delayed or prevented from boarding trains and buses leaving Ukraine as local authorities allegedly prioritized the evacuation of Ukrainian women and children.
“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, HRW’s associate director for its Europe and Central Asia division. “Ukrainian authorities should not discriminate based on nationality or race, and neighboring countries should allow everyone in with a minimum of bureaucracy.”
According to a 22-year-old Indian medical student who identified himself as Barn, he and six others were prevented by local police from boarding any trains on Feb. 26: “Four trains came and went and they wouldn’t let us on. 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.”
T.S. Tirumurti, India’s permanent representative to the United Nations, commented on the plight of the students during a General Assembly session on Wednesday.
“We demand safe and uninterrupted passage for all Indian nationals including our students, particularly from Kharkiv and other conflict zones,” the envoy said.
Several Indian politicians have tweeted videos showing Ukrainian authorities pushing and berating non-white students at the border.
One of the targeted students was a Nigerian student who told HRW that he was part of a group of around 20 foreigners who were removed from a train in Kyiv on Feb. 26. They also claimed to have been abused by authorities: “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.”
HRW urged Ukrainian authorities to simplify exit procedures and also make sure that Ukrainians and non-Ukrainians are treated equally.
The organization also highlighted the need for various EU agencies to be placed along the borders, noting that both the EU and Ukraine must make sure that any evacuees on the Ukrainian side of any border area are given basic humanitarian support.
Ukrainian human rights organizations issued a collective statement on Tuesday, asking officials to “counter any instances of personal or institutional discrimination, xenophobia or racism.” They also urged the evacuees’ countries of origin and Ukraine’s neighbors to assist.
In response to the statement, Andriy Demchenko, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s State Border Guard Service, said that HRW’s allegations of unequal treatment at the border “do not correspond with the truth.”
“Ukrainian border guards do not see nationality or color of passports,” Demchenko said, adding that evacuees originally from foreign countries “tried to push forward and receive priority treatment.”
However, some Ukrainian officials have acknowledged the issue and stated that they are now ensuring that all foreign nationals can also leave the country.
Ukraine Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba took to Twitter on Wednesday to announce that an emergency hotline has been specially set up for foreign students who need assistance with evacuating.
Featured Image via @RahulGandhi (left, right)