An international coalition of activists and human rights attorneys on Wednesday announced they filed an appeal to the United Nations on behalf of African refugees facing racial discrimination in Ukraine and Poland.
The filing follows numerous reports from Black refugees who said they faced segregation, racism and abuse as they tried to flee for safety from war-torn Ukraine to Poland.
Coalition members said during a news conference Wednesday they have also heard reports of segregated lines for white and Black people at the Polish border and Black mothers and children have been thrown off trains. Videos shared on social media have shown groups of Black people stranded at the border not being allowed in and various threats against Black people who attempt to cross.
“They face one war waged by Russia, and they face a second war waged by racism because of the color of their skin. We are here today because Black Lives Matter in times of war, and in times of peace,” civil rights attorney Jasmine Rand said during the conference.
The appeal asks the United Nations to support the coalition’s call for the Ukrainian and Polish state and local governments to issue executive orders directing all governmental agencies to treat people of African descent – and other racial minorities – with equity and to stop using violent means. The coalition also wants Ukraine and Poland “to admit persons of African descent and racial minorities at rates equal to other persons.”
Civil rights attorney Ben Crump said the coalition is asking for basic humanity.
“When you think about what we’re seeing in those videos and those images, it is heartbreaking because as Russia bombs the Ukraine, and it’s utter devastation, you think if there were a time for all of us to be together, it will be at this urgent moment,” Crump said during the conference. “However, not only are they fighting for freedom, they are fighting for common decency in humanity.”
International leaders like Yetunde Asika, a Nigeria-based international human rights attorney, and Rosalea Hamilton, the founding director of the Institute of Law and Economics in Jamaica, also shared stories regarding what they have been hearing from Black students trying to flee Ukraine.
Asika said there are about 5,000 Nigerians who live in Ukraine —most of whom are students. She shared the story of a medical student who had walked about 11 hours overnight to the border and was then told she couldn’t cross until the Ukrainians had been evacuated first.
“We as a nation are doing as much as possible as we can to evacuate our citizens, but it’s not enough. We need the EU [European Union]to pay attention to what is going on,” Asika said during the conference.
The African Union said it is “disturbed” by the reports of racial discrimination against Africans in Ukraine, which they described as “shockingly racist,” according to a statement released on Monday.
“Reports that Africans are singled out for unacceptable dissimilar treatment would be shockingly racist and in breach of international law,” the statement said. It also urged countries to “show the same empathy and support to all people fleeing war notwithstanding their racial identity.”
Officials from several African countries including Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and Gabon have also condemned the reports of racism.
Coalition members believe the conduct they are seeing at the borders is consistent with war crimes. According to the United Nations, its definition of a war crime includes violations of international humanitarian law taking place during an armed conflict.
During Wednesday’s news conference, coalition members also brought up the bias and stereotypes they are seeing in media coverage through comparisons of conflict.
Ronald Sullivan, of the Criminal Justice Institute at Harvard Law School, called it “offensive” and said the media is comparing pain and suffering of different communities.
“It is grotesquely ahistorical as well. Europe certainly cannot claim that it has been immune from the pillages of war,” Sullivan said Wednesday. “It cannot stand as it’s somehow superior in that regard to the Middle East and parts of Africa. So, they’re [the media] not only getting the history wrong, but they’re perpetrating a very ugly form of racial stereotyping.”
Donald Deya, CEO of the Pan African Lawyers Association, also agreed and said the media is showing another “attitude of racism.”
The coalition also submitted the appeal to the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and their Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent.
They also plan to circulate this appeal to embassies and other international organizations that have the power to put a stop to these forms of discrimination.
Rand said she hopes the United Nations will release statements and directives to Ukraine and Poland regarding the reported acts of racism seen at their borders.
“This is our day, and we have to go on record to say that these atrocities were taken place and that we stood up and gave the descendants of Africa that were being devastated in Ukraine a voice, when nobody else would give them a voice,” Crump said.