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Black and brown refugees are once again being turned away in Europe amid Ukraine migrant crisis

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Hundreds of refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Yemen were stranded at the border of Belarus and Poland late last year, starving and freezing in the cold forest as Polish guards and barbed wire fencing blocked them from entering the European Union.

At least eight people died, and hundreds more, including young children, were later moved to a nearby warehouse.

Just last month, another situation unfolded at the border between Greece and Turkey: 12 migrants froze to death after trying to enter the EU.

In stark contrast, European nations have flung open their borders in recent days to usher in more than 1 million people fleeing Ukraine in the wake of Russia's invasion. Many of the same nations that turned away refugees from the Middle East, Africa and Asia are now largely welcoming refugees from Ukraine.

Meanwhile, growing reports suggest people of color fleeing Ukraine are also facing discrimination at the border. The crisis has once again clarified the double standard in the way nations treat refugees based on country of origin, race, religion and more, academics and refugees say.

"It's great that Europe is being welcoming toward Ukrainian refugees. That should be the response. But it would be even better if that response was applied across the board toward all refugees who are fleeing persecution and war," said Nell Gabiam, an associate professor at Iowa State University who studies forced migration.

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Before Russia's invasion of Ukraine, there was a record 84 million forcibly displaced people worldwide – about 1 in every 95 people, the U.N. Refugee Agency estimates.

"Please let us not forget the continuing plight of Afghans, of Syrians, of Ethiopians, of the Rohingya people from Myanmar, and of many others," Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said in a statement Monday to the United Nations Security Council.

'Different treatments' at the border

The U.N. said it expects more than 4 million people to leave Ukraine in what will likely become Europe’s largest refugee crisis this century.

Most have fled to Poland, Hungary, Moldova, Romania and Slovakia. Some have gone to other European countries and a "sizeable number" went to Russia, Grandi said. Ukraine has declared martial law and prohibited male citizens 18 to 60 from leaving the country.

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Grandi commended governments and citizens for their "extraordinary acts of humanity and kindness" but acknowledged some refugees have faced "a different treatment" at the border:

"These are not state policies, but there are instances in which it has happened," he said Tuesday.

There have been "unfortunate reports" of Ukrainian police and security personnel refusing to allow Nigerians to board buses and trains heading toward the Ukraine-Poland border, the office of the president of Nigeria said in a statement Sunday.

"In one video widely circulating on social media, a Nigerian mother with her young baby was filmed being physically forced to give up her seat to another person. There are also separate reports of Polish officials simply refusing Nigerian citizens’ entry into Poland from Ukraine," the statement said.

African residents in Ukraine wait at the platform inside Lviv railway station on Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022, in Lviv, west Ukraine. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians seek refuge in neighboring countries, cradling children in one arm and clutching belongings in the other.
African residents in Ukraine wait at the platform inside Lviv railway station on Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022, in Lviv, west Ukraine. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians seek refuge in neighboring countries, cradling children in one arm and clutching belongings in the other.

Dozens of citizens of African nations have offered similar accounts to news outlets worldwide. Polish officials, however, have dismissed claims of unfair treatment.

Officials from South Africa, Somalia, the African Union and the NAACP have also raised alarms. Indian nationals have reported discrimination too.

Europe's response to people of color fleeing Ukraine has highlighted the "blatant racism and xenophobia" Black and brown migrants and refugees experience, said Ifrah Magan, an assistant professor at the New York University Silver School of Social Work who fled Somalia when she was young.

"Anti-Blackness is playing out on the global stage right now, but there's so much that goes unnoticed in other parts of the world," Magan said.

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A 'hypocritical international community'

The EU's "swift and coordinated" response to refugees from Ukraine contrasts sharply with the union's response to refugees from conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Syria, Libya and Yemen, said Susan Akram, director of Boston University Law’s International Human Rights Clinic.

EU officials on Sunday discussed activating an emergency measure to grant refugees from Ukraine immediate and temporary protection. The "temporary protection directive" was first introduced in 2001 following the Yugoslav Wars but has never before been activated across all member states, Akram said.

"Despite many calls for Europe to trigger the temporary protection directive to offer legal status to the 6 million Syrians who have fled Syria since the start of the conflict there, there was never coordinated action to welcome Syrian refugees," Akram said.

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Instead, the EU has generally responded to recent crises by imposing agreements with countries such as Libya and Turkey to require them to keep refugees in their territories in exchange for more humanitarian funding from Europe. The restrictive measures have caused "misery" in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Libya, Egypt, Greece and Italy and are "a major cause" of the thousands of deaths of refugees, Akram said.

Some European states have also used refugees "as pawns in their own political games," Akram noted. Poland, Hungary and Austria have put fences on their borders, and Greece has built a steel barrier on its border with Turkey, prompting European Commissioner Ursula von der Leyen to thank Greece for being "our European shield."

A Muslim community buried Yemeni migrant Mustafa Mohammed Murshed Al-Raimi in Bohoniki, Poland, on Nov. 21, 2021. About a dozen people from the Middle East and elsewhere have died in an area of forests and bogs along the Poland-Belarus border amid a standoff involving migrants between the two countries. The burial took place in a Muslim cemetery in Bohoniki, where a population of Muslim Tatars has lived for centuries.
A Muslim community buried Yemeni migrant Mustafa Mohammed Murshed Al-Raimi in Bohoniki, Poland, on Nov. 21, 2021. About a dozen people from the Middle East and elsewhere have died in an area of forests and bogs along the Poland-Belarus border amid a standoff involving migrants between the two countries. The burial took place in a Muslim cemetery in Bohoniki, where a population of Muslim Tatars has lived for centuries.

"The world is justly sympathizing with people who are fleeing their homes in Ukraine," said Mohamed Khairullah, the Syrian American mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey. He left behind his war-ravaged country in 1980. "At the same time, you are dealing with a hypocritical international community."

Khairullah noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s support for Syrian President Bashar Assad and Russia's destructive bombing campaigns devastated his native country and helped turn the tide of the war in Assad’s favor.

"We are dealing with the same criminal who is ruthless, who has no problem destroying homes and displacing people, who is now doing the same thing in Ukraine," said Khairullah, 46.

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'Racism is undoubtedly a major factor'

Characterizations of refugees in the media and by politicians have drawn scrutiny in recent days.

The Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association has condemned "racist news coverage that ascribes more importance to some victims of war over others." The group said it has been tracking reports describing Ukraine as "civilized," "like us" and "middle class" while normalizing tragedy in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia and Latin America.

In a briefing with reporters last week, Bulgarian President Rumen Radev characterized refugees from Ukraine as "intelligent" and "educated people."

"This is not the refugee wave we have been used to, people we are not sure about their identity, people with unclear pasts, who could have been even terrorists. In other words, there is not a single European country now which is afraid of the current wave of refugees," Radev said.

Akram noted: "Racism is undoubtedly a major factor."

Sikandar Khan, founder of Global Emergency Response and Assistance, a U.S.-based nonprofit, said he believes Islamophobia is a reason for the uneven treatment. "In the past couple of decades, these refugees have been mispresented and viewed and portrayed by the media in a certain way," he said.

Migrants wait in an area between the borders of Belarus and Poland near the village of Usnarz Gorny in Poland, on Aug. 20, 2021. A refugee rights group in Poland said that dozens of people who fled Afghanistan were trapped for 12 days in an area between the borders, caught up in a standoff between the two countries.
Migrants wait in an area between the borders of Belarus and Poland near the village of Usnarz Gorny in Poland, on Aug. 20, 2021. A refugee rights group in Poland said that dozens of people who fled Afghanistan were trapped for 12 days in an area between the borders, caught up in a standoff between the two countries.

Meanwhile, popular discourse in the West frames refugees from Ukraine as "qualitatively different" from refugees from other parts of the world, said Tazreena Sajjad, a professor of refugees and migration studies at American University. Ukrainians are being perceived as European, white Christians, she said.

"There is a racialized hierarchy in this world in terms of whose lives are worth saving, whose rights are worth human dignity, whose lives are disposable. And in migration policies that becomes very, very evident," she said.

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There is also a false belief that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is unprecedented – that "this sort of thing doesn't happen in Europe," she said.

Sajjad noted there has been an ongoing conflict in the European region for decades, including the collapse of former Yugoslavia, Bosnian genocide and Kosovo War in the ’90s and ongoing hostilities in the Caucasus.

Refugees try to stay warm after fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, at the Medyka border crossing in Poland on Tuesday.
Refugees try to stay warm after fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, at the Medyka border crossing in Poland on Tuesday.

In those conflicts and others, European nations welcomed refugees from the continent, said Boldizsár Nagy, a professor at Central European University in Budapest. During the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 against the Soviet Union, 200,000 people fled to neighboring countries.

"It was unimaginable that they would not let them in," he said. "It was the struggle between the East and the West, and so the West wanted to show its superiority and democratic character."

'A lesson for the U.S.'

As Americans continue to rally around Ukraine, it's important to think about the United States' relationship with people fleeing Mexico and Central America, many experts said.

"The U.S. immigration system is not devoid of or innocent of the same kind of racialized hierarchies," Sajjad said.

Sajjad noted millions of people were horrified last fall to see images of a uniformed U.S. Border Patrol agent charging his horse at a group of Haitian migrants clustered along the Rio Grande River, appearing to twirl his horse's reins like a lasso.

"A lesson for the U.S. would be to ensure that humanitarian assistance is also extended to people fleeing conflict that's within our own continent and hemisphere," said Sunil Varghese, policy director at the International Refugee Assistance Project. "Perhaps U.S. communities and society rallying to support Ukrainian refugees will also help refugee protection return to a place where it's not a political issue."

Contributing: Hannan Adely, USA TODAY Network

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ukraine refugee crisis highlights racism in Europe, Poland