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When I read reports about the racism with which Africans fleeing Ukraine were met with, I was not at all surprised. I have never found myself trying to enter another country as a war refugee, but I have encountered ill-natured customs and border patrol agents, as well as immigration officers. I know all too well how high-handed they can be, particularly with Africans.
In the early 2000s, while in Ghana (my native country), I experienced – for the first time – what it felt like to be an African seeking entry into the UK. I had to return to the US for a work event. My ticket required that I transit through the UK, which meant I would need a visa. My situation, like that of many immigrants, was complicated.
I had a Ghanaian passport, had lived in the US since childhood, but had fallen out of status and was now undocumented. Nevertheless, I’d been granted amnesty and was formally applying for permanent residence (aka a ‘Green Card’). I’d been issued a travel document labelled ‘advance parole’, as though predicting a future malfeasance, which allowed me to re-enter the US.
Everyone has been equally displaced, but not everyone is being equally received.
By first light, the queue in front of the British High Commission in Accra was dozens of applicants deep. The guards overseeing the queue were gruff and mostly ignored us, but if anyone dared speak to them, they’d yell at the whole lot. We weren’t to proceed too slowly or too quickly, weren’t to fraternise or speak our native languages too loudly. It was demoralising.
After several hours, I approached the guards. “How much longer is this gonna take?” I asked. They looked first at each other, then at me. “You’re American?” one of them asked. I nodded, hesitantly, because it wasn’t really true. I was not quite American. One of them nodded and smiled, as the other one said: “Ma’am, please come with us.”
‘Ma’am’? Within minutes, I was ushered into a different room, given my visa then sent on my way with well wishes. They were assured, by both my American accent and paperwork, that I would not remain in the UK but return to the land where I belonged.
Sceptical of headlines and reports
Africans entering Europe are confronted with the relieving presence or painful absence of three things: welcome, belonging and equality.
I was curious to learn more about the Africans in Ukraine: how they fared, having suddenly found themselves trying to escape a country at war – but escape to where, and for how long? This conflict has made me sceptical of the headlines and reports, as many have been riddled with racist dog-whistles and xenophobic stereotypes.
I’d heard that Ghana’s ranking member of parliament for the foreign affairs committee, Sam Okudzeto-Ablakwa, had gone to Romania to meet with more than 200 displaced Ghanaian students. I called him to see if he could offer greater insight. He told me that whereas Ukrainians were provided complimentary shuttles and taken as close to the border as possible, African students and residents had to pay to board the buses and were dropped off far away from the border.
They walked for three or more hours in the bitter cold, only to be detained at the border for hours, as priority was given by one’s race. First to leave were Ukrainians and other white Europeans, followed by Turkish and East Asians, then South Asians and Arabs, and finally, Africans.
Several of the bordering countries — Poland, Moldova, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia — refused to accept Africans. But after calls from the United Nations and the African Union condemning this discrimination, they have now permitted them entry.
“They don’t mean us”
This refugee crisis, which is being termed as Europe’s largest since the Second World War, is reminiscent of the refugee crisis of 2015, in which more than a million people — primarily from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and various African countries — attempted to enter Europe by braving the perilous waters of the Mediterranean.
Many died, the sea becoming a cemetery of lost dreams and potential, as it had been once before when newly enslaved Africans became merchandise, along with textiles and spice, to be traded on the Silk Road.
Two years later, as a US citizen, I travelled to Europe. In Lisbon, tension filled the air in spaces I occupied. I dismissed it as a product of my own preoccupation. A couple years later, Bruno Candé, an actor of Guinean descent, was shot dead on a busy street in broad daylight. Then prominent African residents, academics and politicians, began receiving death threats.
It’s a humanitarian tragedy, yet we Africans are being dehumanised.
From Portugal, I crossed into Spain. The driver who picked me up at the airport in Madrid was Senegalese. As we passed the Palacio de Cibeles, the city hall, I noticed there was a large rectangular banner on the building that read ‘Refugees Welcome’. I pointed at it. “Yeah,” my driver said, “but they don’t mean us.”
Already about 1.8 million refugees have entered Poland. That’s more than entered Europe in 2015, yet the responses to the two crises are different. “Everyone has been equally displaced,” says Ghanaian parliamentarian Okudzeto-Ablakwa, “but not everyone is being equally received. It’s a humanitarian tragedy, yet we Africans are being dehumanised. Look closely at the new legislation, and you’ll see. The devil is in the details.”
Sponsors for refugees
Poland passed a law that entitles Ukrainian refugees to an 18-month stay without a permit. After the ninth month, they may apply for a three-year temporary residence permit. They can work, receive a national identity number and access healthcare, education and other benefits. Each Ukrainian refugee receives a one-time payment of €63 ($69.65). Each person or organisation that provides them accommodation receives €8.45 per day.
The UK has enacted similar legislation. One of the driving forces of Brexit was the desire to end the free movement of people from the European Union into the UK. Bowing to the popular mood, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has changed tack, at least temporarily. Now, any UK citizen can sponsor a Ukrainian refugee for a visa, with just the recipient’s name. The sponsorship scheme has no cap.
Additionally, each household providing accommodation for a Ukrainian refugee receives £350 ($459.74) tax-free per month. When the government launched the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ website, more than 100,000 people signed up. However, the Africans who fled Ukraine are not beneficiaries of these countries’ schemes, even though, for some, Ukraine was home since they’d settled, started working and even had families: they belonged. What becomes of them now?
Maybe this will force Europe to reckon with its racism against African immigrants and refugees…
There were 76,000 African students in Ukraine, most of them enrolled in medical and engineering programs that in their native countries are either non-existent, filled to capacity or not of equal international merit. They paid tuition and fees that won’t be refunded. Many were due to graduate in a few months.
Bulgaria and Hungary have offered to enrol some African students in their universities, but the students will have to pay tuition fees, often more costly, all over again, to complete their courses. They will receive nothing by way of welcome. There are no assistance packages, no financial inducements for citizens to offer housing or other care. It’s the recipient countries that stand to gain financially.
Depending on which country they enter, African refugees from Ukraine now have anywhere from two weeks to three months to figure out what next: how to start life afresh. Maybe this will force Europe to reckon with its racism against African immigrants and refugees, or at least to admit that its assurances of equality are nothing more than lip service.
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