Russia-Ukraine war: ‘Not all refugees are treated the same’

Al Jazeera speaks to Amnesty International Ukraine Director Oksana Pokalchuk on the Ukraine conflict, European refugee crisis, and the fate of prisoners of war.

Emergency Situations Department employees talk to wheelchair bound Katia, 90 years-old, a refugee fleeing the conflict from neighbouring Ukraine at the Romanian-Ukrainian border, in Siret, Romania.
Emergency Situations Department employees talk to wheelchair bound Katia, 90 years-old, a refugee fleeing the conflict from neighbouring Ukraine at the Romanian-Ukrainian border, in Siret, Romania [File: Andreea Alexandru, AP]

Russia’s war on Ukraine has taken a heavy toll.

At least 10,631 civilians were confirmed killed as of June 26, according to the United Nations Human Rights Office (OHCHR) but the actual number of war dead is widely understood to be considerably higher.

More than a quarter of Ukrainians – 12 million – have been forced to leave their homes. While about seven million are internally displaced, five million have sought asylum in neighbouring European countries, the UNHCR says.

And throughout the war, observers have been noting a double standard in the treatment of refugees. While those from other conflict-hit nations are shunned by Western countries, Ukrainians fleeing war have been welcomed with open arms.

Al Jazeera spoke with Oksana Pokalchuk, the head of Amnesty International Ukraine, via Zoom about alleged war crimes, the refugee crisis and what she expects next.

Al Jazeera: In terms of the humanitarian crisis, how has this war differed to other recent conflicts of a similar scale?

Pokalchuk: An important difference this war has from other wars and conflicts is the solidarity and level of being welcomed in other countries. While refugees from other conflicts are often violently turned away at borders, Ukrainians have got very broad and sustained support from different countries and have been welcomed by European countries in solidarity.

Also, it is important to understand that this is the biggest armed conflict or war since the Second World War in Europe, which might be one of the reasons why the level of solidarity is higher in European countries.

Al Jazeera: What does the so-called European double standard tell us about how refugees are categorised by nationality, or even by ethnic origin?

Pokalchuk: While Europe has shown its hospitality to Ukrainians, the response to this crisis has also revealed a ”double standard” as you say. Just a couple of weeks ago 23 potential refugees died as they tried to reach Spain from Morocco.

It is clear that not all refugees are treated the same.

We saw examples of this also inside Ukraine, as our organisation documented a couple of cases where racialised, non-Ukrainian people felt they had been discriminated against by Ukrainian forces as they were trying to leave the country early on in the war. [Editor’s note: This Amnesty report suggests ‘Racialised people, in particular Black people, reported suffering discrimination and violence by Ukrainian forces when trying to leave Ukraine.’]

This exists everywhere, and we have to face it and work with it.

It is also important to note that we saw positive stories, where Ukrainians provided help and support to foreigners in Ukraine, mostly students, who didn’t speak the local language.

Al Jazeera: And how do you think the European refugee crisis might evolve from now?

Pokalchuk: I hope that the response to this crisis will enforce a positive example with Ukrainian refugees and show how, at least European governments, could treat and support refugees from other wars in other continents. A lot of people in Europe have welcomed Ukrainians inside their houses and I really hope that this experience will encourage them to push their governments to treat other refugees better, because ultimately it is the governments of Europe that make decisions on migration issues.

Al Jazeera: Millions have fled their homes since the start of war in Ukraine. How would you characterise the situation of internally displaced persons (IDP) currently?

Pokalchuk: Millions of people have fled from Ukraine to European countries and up to seven million are internally displaced within the country. We don’t have exact figures on IDPs because there are many people who constantly change their place of living, without registering in their new place, which makes it difficult for the government or other authorities to collect data.

The situation for IDPs very much depends on people’s personal circumstances, and I don’t want to generalise, because everyone has his or her own story.

Those who have resources, contacts and flexible jobs have of course had it easier to relocate than those who lack such privileges. The poorest regions have been hit the hardest, and everyone who wants to leave has sadly not been able to do so, for different reasons. Especially people with disabilities and the elderly face huge challenges because they cannot easily find a new job or place to stay.

Families with many children also have it especially challenging, because the government doesn’t give enough support for them. Access to medical support is another important issue. I know that the government of Ukraine tries all their best to provide support, but it’s horrible. There are a lot of people who need a constant medical support, such as access to insulin or treatment for cancer, which they haven’t been able to get for months now.

Al Jazeera: A recent report by Amnesty names the attack on the Donetsk Regional Academic Drama Theatre in Mariupol, Ukraine as a “clear war crime”. Could you elaborate on how Amnesty investigates war crimes? What’s the definition of war crime? And why is this attack considered as one?

Pokalchuk: We collected evidence by, for example, speaking to 28 people who were in the theatre or witnessed the explosion themselves. Altogether we spoke more than with 50 people who gave us evidence. We got pictures and videos from their devices, like phones, that we then verified with our special laboratory of evidence. We also used satellite images. We even consulted physicists who created a mathematical model of the explosion, just to understand which specific type of bomb was used to cause this explosion.

After this thorough process, we can confidently say that, first, it was an airstrike. Second, it was committed by the Russian armed forces. And third, it was clearly a war crime because of multiple reasons. The drama theatre was clearly a civilian object and the Russians were aware that there was no presence of Ukrainian military.

Al Jazeera: As well as Russia, Ukraine has been accused of war crimes. Because Moscow is the aggressor, do you take these claims as seriously, and are you investigating any alleged Ukrainian crimes?

Pokalchuk: Of course, we take all allegations of war crimes equally seriously. Since the conflict started in 2014, Amnesty International has investigated and documented alleged abuses of war crimes by Russia and Russia-backed forces, as well as the Ukrainian armed forces.

But one of the challenges that we are facing is that a lot of territories are currently under occupation and there is ongoing conflict and bombing. We expect that there will be issues also concerning the Ukrainian side, of course, but right now we do not have access to these territories.

For our researchers, it is very important to be able to be on the ground and investigate with our own eyes. So once territory will be liberated, we will be there and we will be able to come to collect information, investigate and we will know more about the actions from the Ukrainian side as well.

Al Jazeera: How are your reports viewed by the international community and by Russian authorities?

Pokalchuk: The Russian authorities do not welcome our reports. Amnesty in Moscow was closed down [in April this year], and offices of many other international NGOs, as part of a wide crackdown on independent voices.

Regarding the international community, there is a – rightly so – widespread outrage at these crimes … We do this to motivate other countries, inter-governmental actors, international investigator teams, and judicial authorities to investigate and prosecute crimes that are committed in Ukraine.

Al Jazeera: Recently, two British men and a Moroccan national, who were foreign fighters for Ukraine, were sentenced to death by a Russia-backed court in separatist-held Donetsk. How is this decision a violation of international law? Do you think it’s possible that the sentence would ultimately be carried out?

Pokalchuk: They are prisoners of war, which means international humanitarian law applies. It’s very important that no one who has a status of prisoner of war can be killed. Prisoners of war must receive proper medical support and his or her basic needs have to be covered. That’s the basic requirements from international humanitarian law that are very clearly mentioned in the Geneva Conventions.

I think it [carrying out the sentence] will depend on the political situation. There are no real, independent judicial proceedings here, it is just a question of the political will, in my opinion, mainly the will of the Russian Federation.

Source: Al Jazeera