Yes, it’s a fact that Black refugees are treated differently — just as Black people continue to be subjected to similar behaviour and attitudes by others.
But then, one must wonder: why are Black people, like the Black Africans in Ukraine, being treated differently?
This million-dollar question has been haunting us for decades.
But before we answer this question, we need to establish what a refugee is.
What is a refugee?
In general, a refugee is someone who has been displaced or forced to flee their country because of a major natural catastrophe, war, oppression, persecution, or some other grave misfortune.
The United Nations has its own formal legal definition of who a refugee is and recognizes their basic freedoms and rights, which include non-refoulement (not to be returned to places where their life or freedom is at risk because of 'race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion'), freedom of movement, liberty and security, family life, and so on.
What are the challenges Black international students face?
Glaring incidents of discrimination against Black international students and other people of colour have been reported in relation to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing refugee crisis.
Based on the accounts of an Indian medical student and a number of African international students from Ghana, Morocco and Nigeria, Ukrainian security forces and border officials on the Ukrainian side of the border going to Poland would allow a few hundred Ukrainians (whites) through before letting a handful of Black or coloured people pass to the other side.
These reports have caught the attention of the international community. However, Ukrainian border officials have been quick to downplay such claims, saying that everything happening at the border is within the bounds of the law. Moreover, they deny any incident of discrimination against any ‘nation, citizenship or class’ ever taking place in the borders where thousands continue to flock, patiently awaiting their turn to exit Ukraine.
Why are Black refugees treated differently than white refugees?
There have been eyewitness accounts about discrimination based on skin colour happening at the U.S.-Mexico border where some Ukrainian refugees have gone to seek asylum in the United States.
Observers say that a large number of Ukrainians have been processed and allowed entry into the country, even when refugees from Syria, Haiti and Cameroon continue to be turned away.
However, what’s happening to Black (and coloured) refugees in the U.S. and Ukraine is not an isolated incident.
Back in the 1980s, when dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier was still in power in Haiti, the United States turned away nearly 23,000 Haitians fleeing their country.
Again, in the 1990s, 37,000 Haitians sought refuge in the United States after the 1991 military coup meant to topple then-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. During that time, only 300 Haitians were granted asylum.
Today, thousands of Haitian refugees are still waiting to be granted asylum in the U.S. There are reports of border patrol officers hitting Haitian refugees with reins, aside from the forcible repatriation of thousands of Haitian refugees from the United States.
Refugee hostility and racism — a lethal combination
Skin colour differences aside, there already exists the concept of anti-refugee hostility and a longstanding perception that refugees and immigrants pose certain threats to local residents of a country.
According to a study conducted in Germany, people perceive six types of threats posed by refugees, namely:
Symbolic threat: This stems from the belief that the migrants’, aliens’, or foreigners’ culture and religion pose a threat to a person’s way of life.
Realistic threat: The perception that foreigners will steal jobs or that their cheap labour will negatively impact salaries and wages.
Safety threat: Immigrants are viewed as a disorderly lot prone to committing crimes.
Cohesion threat: People view refugees and migrants in general as outsiders who threaten solidarity and peace by being the source of chaos and conflict.
Prejudice threat: This is rooted in fears of increasing xenophobia or racist and right-wing views.
Altruistic threat: Some people worry about their country not being able to provide the necessary aid or support to refugees.
Then there’s the longstanding racism Blacks and other coloured people have been subjected to since the Europeans began exploring, invading and colonizing the rest of the world. Of all people of colour, the Blacks have always borne the brunt of the inherent prejudice that has led to the commodification of Black Africans.
This anti-Black racism has resulted in the historical subjugation, exploitation, and degradation of Black people and their cultures.
And while Black people from different parts of the world experience varying degrees of anti-Black racism today, no one is truly spared from it — including Black Caribbeans, African Americans and Black Canadians. Old stereotypes and injustices continue to be perpetuated not only by people but also by governments and other institutions.
So, when you combine anti-refugee hostility with anti-Black racism, you have a lethal combination of feelings and perceptions that can lead to violent confrontations, injustices, and even the loss of life.
A need for equality at our borders
Compared to decades ago, the prominence of Black celebrities and leaders make it seem that Black people have it good today. However the reality remains, a small group of uber successful Black folks does not erase the reality for the majority or other Black folks around the world.
We continue to have leaders who lack the political will to challenge the status quo. And while laws and policies designed to protect and uphold the rights of refugees exist, it appears that they are implemented selectively — usually in favour of white asylum seekers.
So much of the misconceptions about Black people are so deeply rooted in society. It will take the combined efforts of Black leaders, allies and civil society to compel racists to come to terms with the truth: we are all connected and our long-term welfare and survival rest in how we treat one another, regardless of class, gender and ethnicity.
This Refugee Week, let’s start having these dialogues and break stereotypes and misconceptions that divide and hurt us. It doesn’t matter if we start at home, in the workplace, on the streets, in the halls of congress, or the larger community.
We need to continue to have tough conversations about things that matter.
Unsure how to start? Get in touch with Tough Convos today!