- By Stephanie Hegarty and Poonam Taneja
- BBC World Service
African and Indian students reported discrimination and other difficulties as they tried to flee Ukraine. The BBC has collected statements from colored foreigners who say they are refused entry to trains and held up at the borders, while Ukrainians are allowed to pass first.
Tens of thousands of foreign students travel to Ukraine every year, often to study medicine and engineering. Some struggle to cross the border as they try to return home, while others are trapped in cities as Russian forces attack.
Asya is a Somali medical student studying in Kyiv. Two days ago, she posted a video on Twitter as airstrikes hit the city. She fled with friends soon after, but was unprepared for the long trip to Poland and went three days without food or sleep before arriving at the Medyka border post on Sunday.
For six hours, she said, no Africans were allowed to pass, but she watched buses of Ukrainian women and children pass. “We finally managed to cross and were told that the hotel was reserved for Ukrainians,” she says. She traveled to Warsaw to find her own accommodation.
Ruqqaya, a medical student from Nigeria, was attending university in Kharkiv, in the east of the country, when the city was attacked. She was unable to get transport to the western border and had to walk for 11 hours all night before reaching Medyka’s post on Saturday morning.
“When I got here, there were black people sleeping on the streets,” she told the BBC. She says armed guards told her to wait because the Ukrainians had to go first. She has seen buses full of people, who she describes as white, being allowed to cross the border when only a handful of Africans were selected in line. She was allowed to cross the border at around 2:00 am Sunday morning and traveled to Warsaw to catch a flight to Nigeria.
Polish border forces told the BBC that all people fleeing the conflict in Ukraine are welcome in Poland, regardless of nationality. The BBC has tried to contact Ukrainian border forces but has yet to receive a response.
According to the UN, some 368,000 refugees have left Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion on Thursday morning.
Learn more about the Ukrainian crisis
Polla Vishnu Vardhan Rao is a medical student at Pirogov National University in Vinnytsia, central Ukraine. Along with a group of other Indian students, he made the 12-hour drive to Ukraine’s border with Romania. At the border, he says, only Ukrainian citizens, who were queuing in a separate queue, were allowed to cross.
There have been several heated exchanges with Ukrainian border guards as Indian students grow increasingly frustrated with the wait.
The Indian government says checkpoints are being set up to help Indian citizens cross border crossing points into Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia. Nigeria and South Africa say they have sent officials to border areas to help their citizens cross as well.
A senior official at the South African Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Clayson Monyela, said on Twitter that “South African students and other Africans were mistreated at the Ukraine-Poland border”.
Isaac, who is also a Nigerian, arrived at the Medyka border at 4:30 am on Saturday. On Sunday afternoon, border officials told him they were “not dealing with Africans”. “We were chased, we were hit by police officers with sticks when we were trying to press and advance. There was also a confrontation between the soldiers and the guys waiting here,” he said.
Many of the students we spoke to were out of phone battery and it remains to be seen whether Isaac made it. His phone is off.
The BBC also received reports of discrimination against foreigners at train stations.
Osemen is Nigerian and tried to board a train in Lviv that would take him to the Polish border. He says he was told that only Ukrainians were allowed on board.
Other students reported similar experiences in the city, as did a young Nigerian woman in the eastern city of Dnipro. She still struggles to catch a train, but also tries to arrange private transport with a group of other strangers.
Some students are trapped in Ukrainian cities and have not yet faced the challenge of escaping a country they barely know and whose language they do not speak. There are believed to be at least 15,000 Indian students stranded in Ukraine, including 4,000 in Kharkiv, which is currently under heavy bombardment.
A young woman sent the BBC a video of her basement shelter with hundreds of other students. They are wrapped in blankets and huddled on the floor. She says they have no food and has asked the Indian government to help evacuate them.
Elsewhere in Kharkiv, medical student Siddharth has taken refuge with his friends at a nearby subway station. Many of them were late leaving, he said, because they had exams to take and wanted to complete.
“Early in the morning we heard a lot of shelling. There is intense fighting between the Russian and Ukrainian army,” he said. “Subways and shelters are sealed so no one gets in and no one gets out.”