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African governments must do more to protect citizens caught up in Ukraine’s war

International law isn’t without policy tools to address this discrimination – if leaders have the courage to do so.

A West African woman in tears as she talks on the phone at the Polish border after fleeing Ukraine REUTERS
A West African woman in tears as she talks on the phone at the Polish border after fleeing Ukraine. February, 2022.

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a tale of two atrocities: One engages the attention of the world as an international relations priority, the other, the barbarity of racism, receives little official acknowledgement.

This unaddressed crime involves African students in Ukraine, and the anti-Black hate they have faced trying to flee the war. Then, there is the legal limbo those who have escaped now encounter as refugees in neighbouring countries, their lives turned upside down by the discrimination that targets them.

But bad though the racism is, equally galling is the indifference of African governments to their predicament. What makes this all so unsettling is that both the countries of the perpetrators, and those of the victims, appear complicit in the silence and lack of action over the plight of the stranded students, who now risk deportation.

An estimated 16,000 African students studied in Ukraine before the war. Forced to flee, many have reported mind-boggling bigotry. Some were forced off public transport heading to the border; others were made to turn back once they got there; and there were those beaten, or threatened with guns, by frontier guards.

Students who finally made it to neighbouring countries found themselves trapped. Most can’t afford to go back home and start their studies again – their families scrimped and saved to get them to Ukraine, and those fees will not be reimbursed.

Yet their legal status in Europe is shaky, usually limited to permits of one to three months’ duration. Some have been interned in closed refugee detention centres while they wait, often suffering further indignities.

One rule for them...

The double standards are glaring.

Ukraine, like African countries, is not a member of the EU. But a recently activated temporary protection directive allows Ukrainians to work, study, and claim social services for up to three years without having to apply for asylum. By contrast, refugees of colour in the EU who were residing in Ukraine are excluded from these provisions, and suffer the same old tactics of deterrence and “pushbacks” that have prevailed along the migration routes to Europe. 

For African students who have managed to flee Ukraine, it’s a struggle just to find accommodation and sustenance – and, crucially, affordable opportunities to continue with their studies.

Although the EU doesn’t want to admit to this discrimination, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance – part of the Council of Europe, the official pan-European rights monitoring body – at least acknowledges it exists.

In a statement in April, ECRI said “it trusts that reports about unjustified differential treatment of Roma and people of African or Asian descent coming from Ukraine will be effectively investigated”. But if ECRI will not investigate itself, who does it trust to do so?

Some African countries have noted their “concern”, and a handful have organised evacuation flights. But beyond that, they continue to behave as if it’s not an obligation under international law for Europe to treat African citizens fleeing Ukraine with justice.

What to do?

Yet, international law isn’t without policy tools for African governments to address this discrimination – if they have the courage to do so.  

First, African states and inter-governmental organisations have been slow to deploy public diplomacy and, where they have, it has been half-hearted.

The organs of the African Union have not engaged, nor have Africa’s representatives in global multilateral institutions. As evidence of the missed opportunities, there have been two General Assembly resolutions on Russia since the start of the war, but neither acknowledged or offered any condemnation of the racism on display.

When the General Assembly debated Russia’s suspension from the Human Rights Council, many African countries kept schtum rather than raising this inconvenient truth.

President Volodymyr Zelensky has twice requested to address the African Union concerning Ukraine, yet the AU itself is yet to hold a single session on the matter of Africans caught up in the war.

Furthermore, there’s no reason why the African Union secretariat, in collaboration with Africa’s representatives on the UN Security Council, can’t arrange an informal meeting to address members of the Council on this issue.

These so-called “Arria formula” gatherings have, in the past, laid the groundwork for debates in formal sittings and resulted in the adoption of resolutions.

Second, there has been a remarkable failure of both advocacy and assertion of diplomatic protection by African countries on behalf of their nationals.

They have put no pressure on the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees or, indeed, on the special procedures of the UN Human Rights Council – as if those mechanisms do not exist to protect Africans, too.

Third, there has been a lack of imagination in exploring international mechanisms of adjudication over this matter. 

There’s no reason why African governments can’t apply to intervene in the case now pending between Ukraine and Russia before the International Court of Justice (ICJ), if only to call attention to the plight of African nationals affected by the conflict.

Indeed, African governments would be doing the world a favour if they chose to apply to the ICJ to claim diplomatic protection on behalf of their nationals suffering racist discrimination in the midst of this war.

Fourth, African governments have a duty to seek and secure assistance for affected students so that they can complete their interrupted studies elsewhere, to end the upheaval they currently face. Afterall, the rest of the world has extended this facility to Ukrainians fleeing the conflict.

Willful abdication

Given the failure of African governments to exercise minimal responsibility for their protection, students stuck in Europe have turned to self-help – with a raft of newly formed groups providing guidance and assistance where they can.

The least African governments can do is to provide support to the often student-led voluntary initiatives that are providing the direction that has been so sorely lacking from officialdom.

Afterall, it’s the dismal state of universities at home – both in terms of quantity and quality – and the general lack of opportunities for young people that pushes them to study abroad.

Altogether, the conduct of Europe towards Africans in Ukraine has been execrable, but that’s not entirely surprising

The willful tolerance of these violations of international law by African governments is, however, arguably worse.

They have not merely behaved characteristically as if their nationals do not matter, but they have abdicated the most basic of sovereign responsibilities – the protection of their citizens.

Edited by Obi Anyadike.


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