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Why it’s more difficult to flee Ukraine if you’re not from Ukraine

Non-Ukrainian refugees are trapped between racism and Cold War geopolitics.

A diverse group of people stand huddled together: a Black man in a white winter coat, his fur-lined hood over his head; a South Asian man and woman, both bundled up in dark colored heavy winter coats; and behind them, a man appearing to be white in a navy puffer coat.
Refugees fleeing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine arrive in Korczowa, Poland, on March 2, 2022.
Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images

An estimated 1 million people have already fled Russia’s war on Ukraine, and many European Union nations are welcoming Ukrainians with open arms. But non-Ukrainian citizens face an uncertain immediate future: Some have had difficulty trying to flee, and those who’ve managed to cross the border may not be able to find refuge in the European Union, at least for the long term.

That has put foreigners who adopted Ukraine as their home in a difficult situation, one aggravated by longstanding political and social factors, including the continuing embrace of Cold War policy, the inherent limits of the European Union’s will to welcome non-Europeans, and pervasive (though not necessarily overt) racism.

The EU and United Nations have been adamant that anyone who wants to leave Ukraine should be allowed to do so. But on the ground, a number of non-Ukrainians of color, including Africans, Afghans, and Yemenis, have reported facing discrimination while waiting in line at the border and while trying to access critical resources. While official statistics on the number of non-Ukrainian refugees facing such issues haven’t yet been compiled, the sheer volume of troubling reports has led to rebukes from United Nations diplomats and refugee officials.

The EU recently issued a framework for member countries to process non-Ukrainian refugees. All member states agreed on Thursday to allow some non-Ukrainians to automatically obtain asylum through the same pathway as Ukrainian citizens. But it’s not clear just how many non-Ukrainians will have access to the program, and which will need to return to their countries of origin. For some, that uncertainty — as well as the prospect of having to go back to their home countries — is daunting.

“I thought my whole life would be in Ukraine. My family doesn’t know who I am anymore,“ one medical student from Morocco, whose name is being withheld to protect their safety, told Vox. “Morocco isn’t as safe as everyone thinks, especially when it comes to expressing political opinions.”

It’s not yet clear whether Morocco will be deemed risky enough for that student to gain access to the newly announced asylum program. And that lack of clarity is a reminder that the EU’s current open-arms approach to Ukrainian refugees is an exception to the continent’s refugee policy, not an indication of a paradigm shift. After a record 1.3 million people sought asylum in Europe in 2015 alone, Europe became more hostile to people seeking refuge at its doorstep, including Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, and sub-Saharan Africans. Having lived for a time in Ukraine isn’t likely to shield anyone from that reality.

Race is certainly a factor in Europe’s stance toward Ukrainian refugees. Countries have been much more willing to accept refugees who are perceived as white than those who are not. But it’s not the only factor. Unlike other refugee crises in the recent past, Russia’s assault on Ukraine involves geopolitics that go beyond the immediate conflict.

Not all fleeing the war get the same treatment leaving Ukraine

While everyone fleeing Ukraine has encountered long lines at the borders, often without adequate access to basic necessities and services, some non-Ukrainians have faced particularly poor treatment. Reports include African refugees being pushed to the back of the lines at the border by Ukrainian soldiers or by others trying to flee. Some were even reportedly turned away at hotels in cities close to the Polish border.

Poland has suggested that these reports are inaccurate. Polish Ambassador to the UN Krzysztof Szczerski has said that his country allows anyone who arrives at the border to cross, even without a valid visa or passport, and that arriving refugees have represented nearly 125 nationalities. “The nationals of all countries who suffered from Russian aggression or whose life is at risk can seek shelter in my country,” he said at a UN General Assembly meeting on Monday.

But those on the ground have told a different story. Many refugees of color who’ve succeeded in crossing the border say they did so only after multiple attempts, and after being deprioritized in favor of white Ukrainians.

“It was just a blanket bias against foreigners to favor Ukrainians and allow them to cross the border and access help first,” Asya, a Kenyan national who was studying medicine in Ukraine, told Vox.

A Black man with short hair leans against a wall clad in grey marble. He wears a yellow and blue jacket, and his face is obscured by his hand, which bears a large, rectangular ring. White people await a train behind him.
A Nigerian student covers his face, crying, after reportedly being told by Ukrainian officials at a train station in Lviv that he wasn’t allowed to leave for Poland.
Ethan Swope/Bloomberg via Getty Images

And it’s not just an issue faced by Black refugees. There have been reports of Afghans being turned away, and advocates have shared narratives of Yemeni students facing extreme violence.

Diplomats and world leaders have spoken out against these incidents and cited global commitments the European Union must follow during times of crisis.

“We strongly condemn this racism and believe that it is damaging to the spirit of solidarity that is so urgently needed today,” Kenyan Ambassador to the UN Martin Kimani said Monday at the security council meeting.

But for many migration advocates and people trying to flee Ukraine, these difficulties reflect broader issues with how Europe treats migrants.

Race and geopolitics are playing a role in the scale of Europe’s response

It’s clear that race and identity have affected Europe’s response to this refugee crisis. At least one European political leader has stressed that they feel Ukrainians’ perceived whiteness, tendency toward Christianity, and “Europeanness” makes them more palatable than past refugee populations.

“These people are Europeans,” Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov said last week. “These people are intelligent. They are educated people. ... This is not the refugee wave we have been used to, people we were not sure about their identity, people with unclear pasts, who could have been even terrorists.”

Rhetoric like Petkov’s hasn’t arisen in a vacuum. It is very much a consequence of the 2015 arrival of Syrians — who, similar to Ukrainians, were fleeing an authoritarian leader destroying their country.

Between 2014 and 2016, millions of Syrians, North Africans, and others arrived in Europe. Some countries, though not all, initially welcomed them. Then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel arguably staked her political career on her decision to open her country’s doors; 1.7 million people applied for asylum in Germany in the five years following. But the influx of people — and the public debates over how to handle those Syrians — helped fuel the rise of populist, anti-immigration, euroskeptic, and far-right parties across Europe.

A bearded man in a dark jacket and a bright blue shirt holds a baby in a puffy pink and blue striped coat; a woman in a black hijab and grey sweater walks next to him. Both the man and woman are smiling. They pass groups of refugees, sitting in the dim light of a white walled shelter covered in graffiti.
Syrian refugees await aid in a shelter at the border of Austria and Germany in September 2015.
Andreas Gebert/picture alliance via Getty Images

The rise of those parties not only led to Europe embracing a more nativist stance on migration but also struck fear in politicians who might have previously been more welcoming. Governing parties such as French President Emmanuel Macron’s La République en Marche have become hawkish on migration in recent years, and in 2020, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen praised Greece as Europe’s “shield” against asylum seekers and migrants.

To this day, migration remains politically fraught in Europe. It’s recently manifested in Poland deciding to deploy troops and construct a $400 million wall to repel predominantly Muslim asylum seekers at its border with Belarus. To complicate the situation, Belarus was accused of transporting those asylum seekers to the Polish border with false promises of easy passage as a means of antagonizing the EU over sanctions imposed in 2020. And Hungary has passed laws criminalizing support for asylum seekers and limiting the right to asylum; it’s also allowed police to automatically expel any unauthorized migrants — all measures predominantly affecting Muslims.

History and foreign policy are two other elements driving the disparate treatment of Ukrainians and non-Ukrainians. The so-called Refugee Convention, signed in 1951 by 145 nations, was initially meant to protect people who had been displaced as a result of World War II in Europe. But it became a weapon Europe used to fight the Cold War, as countries began to use it as a legal framework to absorb people who wanted to leave Soviet-bloc countries.

“It became a way, from a political and moral kind of narrative, to project this idea of the West being better than the East,” said Nando Sigona, chair of international migration and forced displacement at the University of Birmingham.

The EU’s decision to absorb Ukrainians is a continuation of that idea. It allows Europe to position itself as a safe bastion for peaceful, democracy-loving people fleeing for their lives from a dangerous and authoritarian Russia.

But when it comes to refugees from other parts of the globe, Europe has become less interested in investing in resettlement. That’s because those refugees don’t do much to advance the continent’s geopolitical interests, Sigona said. Certainly, Europe wants to be seen as a benevolent power and leader on humanitarian issues. But accepting refugees from sub-Saharan Africa or Yemen doesn’t serve its objective of advancing the supremacy of Western-style democracies over the Russian political system.

“What we’re seeing with Ukraine now is very much a return to the Cold War kind of logic,” Sigona said.

Beyond the political considerations, there are also practical issues driving the European response to the refugee crisis. Neighboring European countries are the closest landing spot for Ukrainians who are fleeing, and those Ukrainians currently don’t have a country to go back to. Non-Ukrainians (in some but not all cases, given crises in countries like Yemen or Ethiopia) arguably do.

“We don’t really have another choice to respond to this crisis because these people are going to come to Europe,” said Camille Le Coz, a senior policy analyst for the Migration Policy Institute Europe.

What’s next for non-Ukrainians fleeing the war?

All 27 EU member states have agreed to adopt a directive that instantly grants temporary protection to Ukrainian citizens and some others fleeing Russia’s invasion. It would give them the right to live and work in the European Union for up to three years without going through the EU’s long asylum process that has historically left thousands of refugees in limbo, as well as access to social welfare assistance, medical assistance, and childhood education.

The fate of non-Ukrainians is less clear, however.

A woman and child, both wearing heavy coats and pink hijabs, sit on a cot. The woman is speaking to another child, standing to her left, in a pink coat. In front of them, in a carrier, is a baby with a blue blanket up to their chin. Behind the family are rows and rows and of black cots, each with a pillow and a brown blanket.
A family of non-Ukrainian refugees rests in a temporary shelter in Korczowa, Poland, on March 2, 2022.
Beata Zawrzel/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The EU is not offering automatic protection to most of them. That’s partly because Poland, among several other member countries, does not want to host non-Ukrainians long term.

People who had long-term residency permits in Ukraine would be eligible for that automatic protection. But to otherwise qualify for protection, non-Ukrainians, including stateless individuals, must prove that they were legally residing in Ukraine and are unable to return to their home countries due to the lack of “safe and durable conditions.” It’s not clear how EU countries will determine what constitutes those kinds of conditions.

They could also apply for asylum through lengthy, traditional pathways, but there’s no guarantee that they will get it. And without legal status in the EU, they could potentially be forcibly returned to their home countries.

“For example, if you’re a Moroccan student, the idea is you go back home. If you’re an Indian student, you go back home,” said Le Coz. “But if you’re an Afghan refugee — because there were some Afghans who had sought refuge in Ukraine or have been evacuated there — it means you can seek asylum in Poland.”

The policy has left many non-Ukrainians unsure how to regain the opportunities they’d hoped Ukraine would provide. Ali Sadaka, a dentistry student from Lebanon who was studying in Kharkiv, was reluctant to halt his studies and return home.

“We didn’t want to stop. Most Lebanese students don’t have any other opportunities, mainly because our government won’t help us to continue here. There’s an economic crisis,” he told Vox.

And for nationals of countries currently involved in conflict, there’s been uncertainty as well. Though Yemenis should receive protection under the EU’s plan, the Yemeni Embassy in Poland posted a statement on February 26 implying that resettlement in the EU would be difficult. There’s been no further information since.

Ultimately, though, non-Ukrainian refugees “now have to figure out what they are going to do with their lives,” as Azal Al-Salafi, a researcher at Yemen Policy Center, told Vox. And they have limited time to do so.