Social Justice

'Maybe we gather foreigners in some other place': Ukraine ambassador on discrimination at border

Vadym Prystaiko suggested separating Ukrainians from all foreigners trying to flee the country in response to a question about the racism faced by Black and Asian people.

ukraine refugees

Refugees fleeing to Poland last month. Image: Mirek Pruchnicki/Flickr

Ukraine’s ambassador to the UK has denied racism is to blame for discrimination at the border, and said “problems” arise because foreigners are being prioritised over Ukrainians trying to flee the country.

Appearing in front of parliament’s home affairs select committee, Vadym Prystaiko was questioned on the bigotry faced by Black and Asian people fleeing Ukraine after the Russian invasion, a number of whom said they were blocked from crossing to safety or refused a place on transport.

“Ukraine is a very homogenic society and [there are] not many people with different races on the streets,” Prystaiko said. “Foreigners do stick out of the crowd – it doesn’t mean we are racist.” He added: “We don’t want it to happen.”

Prystaiko claimed the “problems” are caused when young men with foreign passports are “prioritised over women and children of Ukrainian citizenship who are trying to get on the same trains”. He said police at the border need to do a better job explaining why Ukrainian men are forced to stay behind – men aged between 18 and 60 are unable to leave the country – while men from other nations were allowed through, citing this as the source of the conflict.

He said it was an issue primarily facing people from neighbouring nations, adding: “We’re not talking about different races, in most of the cases.”

He added: “Maybe we will have to gather foreigners in some other place so they won’t be visible and there won’t be conflict with Ukrainians trying to flee in the same direction. This is something that has to be taken care of and we will be doing it.”

At least two million people have fled the violence in Ukraine in the 12 days since the siege began, according to the latest UN estimates, primarily arriving in Poland. 

Despite the ambassador’s claims, the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees has already acknowledged the racism some people – including students who were studying abroad – have faced when trying to travel to safety. Victims of the abuse have reported it coming from police officers and officials as well as fellow refugees.

“Our observations – and we cannot observe every single post yet – but our observation is that these are not state policies, but there are instances [where] it has happened,” Filippo Grandi said.

“There has been a different treatment. There should be absolutely no discrimination between Ukrainians and non-Ukrainians, Europeans and non-Europeans. Everyone is fleeing from the same risks.”

The Ukraine government has also acknowledged the problems. Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, created a hotline for Black and ethnic minority students who need help trying to flee the country.

“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has affected Ukrainians and non-citizens in many devastating ways,” he said.

“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.”

A website, Black Foreigners in Ukraine, has also been established to give crypto wallets and cryptocurrency to students trying to flee, as cash is hard to come by.

Amid rising criticism of the UK’s reluctance to widen eligibility for Ukrainians who want to seek safety in the UK, Prystaiko told MPs around 100,000 refugees could look to travel here and that he would be “happy” if Boris Johnson’s government decided to waive visa requirements for them.

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