Who Exactly is a Refugee?

Russia’s intrusion of Ukraine has left 2M people forced to flee. That number can be added to the 65M that are already in existence. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees predicts that another 4M Ukrainians will be uprooted assuming this ugly war continues.

The EU nations have promised to acknowledge and support those forced to flee the Ukraine which leaves a muddled picture of refugee acceptance and discriminatory practices. Poland is a good example to use as they are now a country that is being applauded all around the world for taking in more than 1M refugees from the Ukraine. It wasn’t long ago that Poland was denounced for pushbacks and using means like gas and batons to keep those seeking help from the Middle East and African countries. We must think about how to address the discrimination that occurs at borders including our own.

The 1951 Refugee Convention was made to safeguard European exiles in the outcome of WWII. It characterizes an exile as someone who has escaped their own country as a result of persecution which could be race, religion, identity, protests or political in nature.

Recently both Greece and Turkey have been called out for refoulement. There is immediate danger for those who flee and sending people back from a place they are fleeing could mean death on the water, a prison cell or torture. No one seeking freedom should be exposed to infringement of specific central freedoms.

What’s going on in Ukraine has uncovered the prejudice that exists in present day Europe as pictures of the refugees emerge from the Ukraine and countries that previously pushed back now are providing open arms.

We regularly see pictures of refugees fleeing Syria and Iraq, in overcrowded boats. What has been interesting to see, and not surprising, unfortunately, is Ukrainian refugees being depicted in media as educated, hardworking and civilized where others are depicted as uneducated, poor and costly.

The E.U. was put in a position where they had to explain that individuals from third world nations who resided in Ukraine needed to leave immediately and were also welcome.

Recently, many reports have surfaced of African and Indian global study abroad students being denied admittance to trains and held at border crossings. There are even reports of Ukrainian authorities isolating refugees due to their race, beating them and giving priority treatment to Ukrainian nationals.

In the NY Times, there was an article by Monika Pronczuk and Ruth Maclean where they talked about Chineye Mbagwu, from Nigeria, a 24-year-old doctor who lived in Ivano-Frankivsk, a city in western Ukraine. Mbagwu was at the Poland-Ukraine border crossing in the town of Medyka, where she had spent more than two days stranded while the guards blocked them but let Ukrainians cross.

“The Ukrainian border guards were not letting us through,” she said in a phone interview, her voice trembling. “They were beating people up with sticks” and tearing off their jackets, she added. “They would slap them, beat them and push them to the end of the queue. It was awful.”

We should be asking some hard questions here. Is an exile/refugee one that is forced to flee their homeland mean everyone?

Before this war there were 48 million displaced people. Now there are men aged18-to 60 years have been recruited into battling for Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces. They are displaced as well and among them are students, young men and professional men who never in their life thought they would carry a weapon much less use one. Now they are digging ditches to bury the dead, holding weapons, training themselves on how to use them and sitting at watch posts as the battle continues for Ukraine.

We also can’t forget the women who decided to stay and help to fight themselves, feed fighters and make the now famous Ukranian cocktails for battle.

As we watch a war before us, and 2M plus people flee their homeland, we must use our voices to call out the inequity and injustice in the refugee movement and concentrate on solutions. Afterall, refugees don’t decide to leave their homes because they want to, they leave because they have no other choice. No matter if you are fleeing from war in Afghanistan or war in Ukraine, a refugee seeking protection, well, is a refugee seeking protection.

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