As the Russia-Ukrainian conflict intensifies, the neighboring European Union (EU) countries (Poland, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia) have witnessed a massive influx of refugees seeking shelter from the turmoil. These refugees consisting of Ukrainian and non-Ukrainians alike, men, women, and children, all in search of a haven against the havoc wrecked on Ukraine by Russia following the announcement by President Putin on the 24th February 2022 of a ‘special military operation’ in Eastern Ukraine, including Kyiv, her capital.
Following this announcement and the downpour of missiles on Ukraine, several bodies have made plans to ensure the safe evacuation of civilians to reduce the casualties. The EU (European Union) has also agreed to welcome displaced refugees seeking shelter. For instance, the Polish government has provided centers where refugees who do not have relatives and friends in Poland can stay. The Hungarian and Romanian Governments, on their part, have also given out food and clothing to the displaced refugees and promised to enroll the children among them into local schools.
Considering these acts of benevolence, one might assume erroneously that the evacuation and settlement programs are smooth and hitch-free. But is this true? Can one say that the evacuation program is hitch-free if everyone is not treated equally? What practices are in place to ensure that the health (physical and mental) of these refugees are regarded? If these practices are not in place or not upheld, can one assume a smooth-running settlement?
An ongoing crisis
By Monday, 28th February 2022, just a few days after the declaration by President Putin, overall departures from Ukraine were at 500,000 and rising. Considering the current rate of displacement, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has predicted that by the end of the war, about 4 – 5 million people would end up fleeing the conflict.
In response to the displacement, neighboring countries have welcomed fleeing refugees, however, several reports of racism among the officials at the Ukrainian borders have come to the attention of the media.
Several blacks, South Asians, and Mediterranean refugees have shared accounts of being denied access at the Ukrainian borders, while at those same borders, Ukrainians have been allowed without questioning.
Osarumen, a Nigerian living in Ukraine and father of three, talked about his ordeal at the Ukrainian border. According to him, he and his family were asked to give up their seats and leave the cross-border bus out of Ukraine with the Officials using the ‘No blacks/Nonwhites allowed’ policy to justify their actions.
Stephanie Hegarty, a population correspondent at BBC news recounting her discussion with a Nigerian medical student at the Polish side of the Medyka crossing, revealed that the black student had to wait for more than 7 hours to cross, constantly being denied access to the evacuation transits on accounts that they were ‘Ukrainians only transits’.
Jessica, another Nigerian medical student who however managed to cross the border, revealed that at the Ukrainian border she was denied access to the evacuation buses and had to walk for 12 hours in the harsh weather.
For Grace Cass, a 24-year-old, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who had come to Kharkiv as an engineering student and later decided to stay in Ukraine to further her career as a make-up artist, it was a shocking discovery that to the Ukrainian Officers, she was still considered an outsider even after being in the country for 7 years. She could only but fight back tears as the Officials forcibly chased her out of the evacuation transits. She recounted that the Officials at the border divided the refugees into two groups: refugees of white skin and those who were not. The Ukrainian soldiers were openly racist towards the non-Ukrainian refugees, abandoning them to whatever fate would befall them.
These stories told by the refugees are a few out of the many encounters of people treated maliciously and unhumanly during the Russia-Ukrainian conflict because of their color and race.
For Jessica, who had to trek 12 hours under the harsh weather, the chances of hypothermia frostbites were real. Refugees are also exposed to various diseases especially communicable ones during this period. The presence of the SARS Covid-19 and Omicron does not in any way help to allay these fears.
During crises such as these, refugees are at risk of contracting many communicable diseases. Several studies have since been carried out to identify diseases common to refugees and how to alleviate the situation. Among these diseases, latent tuberculosis was discovered to be the most prevalent disease to refugees, affecting about 9 – 45% of the refugees, other diseases such as active tuberculosis and hepatitis B and C have also been identified.
It is also pertinent to understand that the health of the refugee encompasses not just the physical but also the mental. Refugees are also prone to depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of the ordeals faced during the period of strife. In the Russia-Ukrainian war, this would indeed be more common to the non-Ukrainians marginalized and subjected to harsh conditions. For Osarumen, who now cannot ensure his family’s safety and can only hope that it gets better, the feeling of defeat now increases day after day.
Indeed, the European Union and other officials have done a great deed, ensuring that the refugees are safely evacuated; But the evacuation program should not just end at making policies. These policies should be adhered to strictly. Non-Ukrainians are also refugees and their lives should also matter. The policies to ensure that the health, both physical and mental, of the refugees, should also be adhered to. Public health, and not just the safety of these refugees should also be a priority of the officials involved in the evacuation and settlement programs.