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UN admits refugees facing discrimination at Ukraine borders

The photo shows Black people fleeing the conflict in Ukraine. (By AFP)

The UN refugee chief has admitted that some non-European refugees have faced discrimination while attempting to flee to safety at Ukraine borders, following Moscow's large-scale military offensive against the country.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi confirmed "there has been a different treatment" by Ukrainian security forces and border officials at a press conference on Tuesday, after a number of Black, south Asian and Mediterranean refugees shared accounts of being blocked at borders while trying to make crossings, which were initially dismissed as "Russian disinformation" on social media.

“You have seen reports in the media that there are different treatments – with Ukrainians and non-Ukrainians. Now our observations, and we possibly cannot observe every single post yet – but our observations is that these are not state policies – but there are instances which it has happened,” he said.

“There should be absolutely no discrimination between Ukrainians and non-Ukrainians, Europeans and non-Europeans. Everyone is fleeing from the same risks.”

Grandi added that the UN plans to intervene to try to ensure that everybody fleeing the conflict in Ukraine receives equal treatment when trying to enter neighboring countries.

Prior to this, Christine Pirovolakis, the senior external relations officer at the UK branch of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said the world body "is aware of reports of individuals facing challenges entering Poland from Ukraine and is following up on them."

“We advocate for access to safety for all, regardless of their legal status, nationality and race as well as access to asylum for those who want to seek asylum.”

This comes as Black people living in the region have said they have been denied assistance during the worsening crisis with some taking to social media in recent days to share their experiences. Videos shared on Twitter has shown African and Caribbean students and families being pushed away from boarding buses and trains heading out of Ukraine.

Foreign students, mainly Indians and Africans, attempting to leave Ukraine have also said they are experiencing racist treatment by Ukrainian security forces and border officials. One African medical student said she and other foreigners were ordered off the public transit bus at a checkpoint between Ukraine and Poland border. They were told to stand aside as the bus drove off with only Ukrainian nationals on board, she said.

Saakshi Ijantkar, a fourth-year medical student from India, also said "There are three checkposts we need to go through to get to the border. A lot of people are stranded there. They don't allow Indians to go through."

"They allow 30 Indians only after 500 Ukrainians get in. To get to this border you need to walk 4 to 5 kilometers from the first checkpoint to the second one. Ukrainians are given taxis and buses to travel, all other nationalities have to walk. They were very racist to Indians and other nationalities," the 22-year-old from Mumbai said from Lviv, western Ukraine.

The treatment of many non-European refugees has received global condemnation from organizations, government officials, and public figures.

The African Union (AU) has said it is “disturbed” by reports that African nationals in Ukraine are being prevented from safely crossing the border to flee the raging conflict in the country. The pan-African body said in a statement that, “[All people have the right to cross international borders during conflict, and as such, should enjoy the same rights to cross to safety from the conflict in Ukraine, notwithstanding their nationality or racial identity.”

“Reports that Africans are singled out for unacceptable dissimilar treatment would be shockingly racist and in breach international law,” the statement added.

The Nigerian government has also expressed concern over reports of discriminatory behavior by Ukrainian and Polish border guards against its nationals.

On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a military offensive against Ukraine. Russian forces have been advancing towards Kiev and seizing control of a number of towns and cities along the way. Authorities in Moscow have denied claims made by Ukrainian and Western officials of civilian areas being targeted by the Russian military.

Russian and Ukrainian negotiators held a first round of conflict-resolution talks on Monday, but made no substantial progress, merely agreeing to meet again.

European Commissioner Ylva Johansson has said that the EU must prepare for “millions” more refugees fleeing Ukraine after around 500,000 passed into the bloc. Johansson expressed hope that the European Council would activate the temporary protection directive on Thursday giving protection to those fleeing, adding that they were looking at deploying more people to help the EU countries bordering Ukraine.

The number of people fleeing the Russian military campaign against Ukraine has surged to more than half a million, according to the United Nations.

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