The African Union (AU) says it is “disturbed” by reports that African nationals in Ukraine are been prevented from safely crossing the border to flee the raging conflict in the country.
In a statement late Monday, the pan-African body said: “[A]ll people have the right to cross international borders during conflict, and as such, should enjoy the same rights to cross to safety from the conflict in Ukraine, notwithstanding their nationality or racial identity.”
African nationals, mostly students, have accused Ukrainian security forces of stopping them from boarding trains headed to the border regions. Videos shared on social media also show Ukrainian border forces pushing African nationals as they attempt to leave Ukraine.
“Reports that Africans are singled out for unacceptable dissimilar treatment would be shockingly racist and in breach international law,” the AU statement continued.
Al Jazeera spoke to several African and Asian nationals who said they were turned away by Ukrainian authorities at the border to Poland.
“We were the last people to get on anything, it was always like that.” Madi Kemel Dinga, a Congolese student, told Al Jazeera at a reception centre in Korczowa, eastern Poland.
“They will first put their people first. And then us. For me, it was discriminating but for them, it is normal,” Dinga added.
Some of the people Al Jazeera spoke to said a country at war could be forgiven for putting its people first. Others, some with Ukrainian families of their own, said the contrast in treatments was too stark.
“We understand that they need to save their citizens but we have been loyal to Ukraine,” Ronald Mangu Achu, a Cameroonian student, told Al Jazeera. “We have been in their country lawfully. We have showed them love. I believe the least they could do is evacuate us.”
African countries have been scrambling to evacuate their citizens from Ukraine since Moscow sent its troops across the border on Thursday.
Nigeria said it has about 8,000 nationals in the country and some have managed to cross the border into neighbouring countries.
On Sunday, the Nigerian government expressed concern over reports of discriminatory behaviour by Ukrainian and Polish border guards against its nationals.
“There have been unfortunate reports of Ukrainian police & security personnel refusing to allow Nigerians to board buses and trains heading towards [the] Ukraine-Poland border,” the Nigerian presidency said in a statement posted on Twitter.
“We understand the pain [and] fear that is confronting all people who find themselves in this terrifying place. We also appreciate that those in official positions in security and border management will in most cases be experiencing impossible expectations in a situation they never expected,” the statement added.
“But, for that reason, it is paramount that everyone is treated with dignity and without favour. All who flee a conflict situation have the same right to safe passage under UN Convention and the colour of their passport or their skin should make no difference,” it said.
Nigeria’s foreign minister Godfrey Onyeama told Al Jazeera on Monday the evacuation of the country’s nationals from Ukraine would start on Wednesday. Onyeama said more than one thousand students have made it to Bucharest in neighbouring Romania.
The minister said Abuja was in touch with the Polish and Ukrainian governments, expressing their displeasure at the reported cases of discrimination.
On Sunday, South Africa’s foreign ministry spokesman Clayson Monyela said in a tweet that several students from his country were stuck at the Ukraine-Poland border.
The South African ambassador to Poland was at the border trying to get the students through, Monyela added. South African and other African students have been treated badly at the border, Monyela said.
Meanwhile, the United States said it was coordinating with UN agencies and other governments “to ensure every individual, including African students, crossing from Ukraine to seek refuge is treated equally – regardless of race, religion, or nationality.”
The United States is coordinating with UN agencies and other governments to ensure every individual, including African students, crossing from Ukraine to seek refuge is treated equally – regardless of race, religion, or nationality.
— Bureau of African Affairs (@AsstSecStateAF) February 28, 2022
The number of people fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine has surged to more than half a million and at least 102 civilians have been killed since Moscow’s troops entered the country, according to the United Nations.
Follow Hamza Mohamed on Twitter: @Hamza_Africa