This article has been updated to include additional confirmation and details of the problems facing Africans seeking to leave Ukraine.
African workers and students seeking to flee Ukraine in the face of Russia’s invasion are complaining of being blocked from buses, trains and border crossing points while priority is given to Ukrainian citizens.
An American official told VOA the U.S. is aware of the issue, saying that is a “huge concern” but that large numbers of Nigerians were able to leave Ukraine on Tuesday.
Ukranian authorities are giving priority to Ukrainian women and children seeking to leave the country and it was not clear to what extent Africans were being treated differently from other foreigners. Ukrainian men of fighting age are not permitted to leave the country at all.
Nevertheless, some Africans — among the hundreds of thousands of people desperately trying to leave Ukraine — are alleging racial discrimination, prompting denials from Ukrainian authorities and concern from the United States and international bodies.
Augustine Akoi Kollie, a Liberian national studying medicine in the western Ukraine city of Ternopil, said he witnessed the disparities while waiting overnight Saturday to cross the border near Suceava, Romania.
People stood shivering in long lines, clutching luggage and children, and "if a Ukrainian comes, you have to shift and make way for the Ukrainians to go to the front," Kollie told VOA. Although authorities called for women and children to be processed first, African women were left behind, he said.
"It was racial discrimination," he said, "because if you say you are taking women and children, you have foreign students there who are females. So why are you not taking them?"
Kollie also saw aggressive behavior, which one of his traveling companions captured on video while they waited at the border. The video clip, shared with VOA, shows a nighttime scene of several uniformed men shoving what Kollie called "foreign students," who were sitting on the ground and barely visible behind a parked vehicle. The men fired several shots into the air.
His account dovetails with reports by other news media.
A 24-year-old Nigerian doctor told The New York Times that she was stranded for over two days at the Ukraine-Poland border crossing at the Polish town of Medyka, with guards holding back foreigners while allowing Ukrainians to pass through.
"They were beating up people with sticks,” the doctor, Chineye Mbagwu, told The Times. "They would slap them, beat them and push them to the end of the queue. It was awful."
The hashtag #AfricansinUkraine has been trending on Twitter, showing video clips of Black people appearing to be denied boarding on a train or pulled from seating. VOA has not been able to authenticate the videos independently.
A VOA correspondent reporting from Ukraine said authorities there have prioritized Ukrainians for outbound buses and trains, making it harder for all foreigners to leave.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the United States has been “tracking the story of the people of color leaving” and that it has been “a huge concern” although Nigerians comprised the second largest group of foreigners to leave on Tuesday.
“I think there was no doubt there were problems for them,” the official said. “Everybody waited for days and discriminate against as they brought women and children forward.”
Ukraine’s minister of foreign affairs, Dmytro Kuleba, tweeted Tuesday: "Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has affected Ukrainians and non-citizens in many devastating ways. Africans seeking evacuation are our friends and need to have equal opportunities to return to their home countries safely. Ukraine’s government spares no effort to solve the problem."
The African Union released a statement Monday saying its top officials — current chair Macky Sall, president of Senegal, and Moussa Faki Mahamat, African Union Commission chairperson — were "particularly disturbed by reports that African citizens on the Ukrainian side of the border are being refused the right to cross the border to safety."
"Reports that Africans are singled out for unacceptable dissimilar treatment would be shockingly racist and in breach (of) international law," the statement continued.
The International Committee of the Red Cross could not confirm such reports, "but they are disturbing," the agency said in an email to VOA Tuesday. "Safe passage and the ability to seek safe haven is a right for everyone affected by conflict. The ICRC (is) working and responding to everyone affected by the fighting."
The U.S. State Department has denounced any attempts at blocking Africans from leaving Ukraine. "We are aware of these media reports," a department spokesperson said Monday. "Any act of racial discrimination, particularly in a crisis, is inexcusable."
The spokesperson said the department was "engaging closely with U.N. agencies on the ground to ensure that every single person crossing into neighboring countries is received equally and with the protection assistance their circumstances require."
Meanwhile, the AU has commended efforts by its member states and embassies in neighboring countries to receive African citizens and their families trying to leave Ukraine.
Nigeria’s ambassador to Romania, Safiya Ahmad Nuhu, told VOA’s Hausa Service that more than 600 Nigerians have arrived in Bucharest "and there are many more on buses that are coming from the various entry points."
"The Romanian authorities have been very helpful in terms of coordination, preparation and assistance," she added. "It’s not even just the government but even individuals, organizations, universities, private individuals — they’ve all been so helpful in providing assistance."
Kollie, the Liberian student, said once he and his two companions crossed into Romania, they were given blankets, plenty of food and transportation to the town of Timisoara, where they’re sharing a hotel room. He said new arrivals were told they would get help with food and lodging for 30 days.
‘Exponential’ increase expected
The United Nations anticipates that, with a sustained Russian assault, refugees will continue to pour over Ukraine’s borders.
"I’ve rarely seen such an incredibly fast-rising exodus of people," with numbers "rising exponentially hour after hour since Thursday," said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi, addressing the U.N. Security Council on Monday. "… We are currently planning for up to 4 million refugees in the coming days and weeks. Such a rapid increase would be a huge burden for receiving states."
Already, the outward surge represents the largest displacement in Europe since the Balkan wars in the early 1990s, Grandi said. Then, more than 2 million people fled their homes, the U.N. refugee agency estimated at the time.
Grandi said that amid the current crisis, more than 280,000 people have sought relief in Poland; in Hungary, 94,000; in Moldova, nearly 40,000; in Romania, 34,000; in Slovakia, 30,000 — plus tens of thousands elsewhere in Europe. Grandi said "a sizeable number" also have relocated to the Russian Federation.
The European Commission — the European Union’s executive arm — earlier this week had discussed asking member nations to grant temporary asylum for Ukrainians for up to three years,The New York Times reported.
Residents of Ukraine, which on Monday applied for EU membership, can currently stay for up to 90 days and travel visa-free within the bloc's countries.
Asked by VOA about EU policy and provisions for Ukrainian and other refugees, the European Commission said in an email Tuesday that it would "soon propose (to) activate the Temporary Protection Directive to offer quick and effective assistance to people fleeing the war in Ukraine. The Commission stands ready to support its member states providing a safe haven for people fleeing Ukraine and is working on an overall contingency plan to respond to Russian aggression, which includes the protection of Ukrainian people. … We are considering all courses of action to help member states process arrivals quickly and effectively. Until we present our proposal, we are unable to go into further detail."
As for reported mistreatment of minorities, the commission said: "All people in need, regardless of their nationality, ethnicity, or their skin color, who are fleeing violence in Ukraine should be granted access to the EU."
Contributors to this report include VOA Eastern Europe bureau chief Myroslava Gongadze, VOA’s national security correspondent Jeff Seldin, Grace Alheri Abdu of VOA’s Hausa Service, Ignatius Annor of the English to Africa Service, National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin, and Betty Ayoub and Carol Guensburg of the Africa Division