Harassed by policemen and largely ignored by the people, African refugees find Ukraine a hostile haven
with no food or water and handcuffed to the floor. He has been forced to sign documents he could not read and threatened with death.
Moses is a refugee. Yet these violations of his human rights did not happen in war-stricken Sudan. They happened here in Ukraine, where Moses came seeking asylum more than three years ago.
On paper, Ukraine granted him sanctuary. In reality, he, along with many other refugees seeking shelter here from nightmares at home, say they have exchanged one form of torture and repression for another.
“I was just looking for safety, but I haven’t found safety here, nor protection,” Moses says. “There’s no difference, at home or in Ukraine.”
Moses and roommate Elkana Gale, also from Sudan, get stopped sometimes three or four times a day by police, who check their documents and often check them for drugs. Gale said he is frequently strip-searched and physically and verbally abused. Moses said he clocked up 13 incidents of excessive police brutality in his first two years in Ukraine. Then he stopped counting.
Doris Brown, an African American woman who spent two years in Ukraine as a volunteer for the Adventist Relief and Disaster Agency, was with Moses for one of those incidents in the spring of 1998. She recounted how four armed police approached them and demanded their documents. They returned her documents promptly. Moses wasn’t so lucky. The police told Moses to accompany them to the squad car. When Moses asked why, Brown said, the police officer threw him down and beat him with their fists and the butts of their automatic weapons.
“They threw him to the ground. Two cops each pulled his legs out from under him, the two other took each took an arm and slammed him to the ground. One sprayed his face with pepper spray while the others beat him.”
A matter of color
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refuges, an organization devoted to the protection of refugees worldwide, is well aware of the problem of Ukrainian authorities mistreating refugees. Last year, it surveyed 400 refugees throughout Ukraine. The survey found that the police, especially in Kyiv, were guilty of “severe violations of human rights in relation to refugees and asylum seekers.” Over half the refugees questioned reported being stopped several times a day by the police; 69 percent said that they had been treated rudely and disrespectfully or that the police had extorted money or confiscated possessions.
Refugees, along with experts from the Ukrainian government who were also questioned in the survey, universally pointed to skin color as the main reason Ukrainian police single out and often harass refugees.
The police say it is just the recognition that dark-skinned people are foreign and possibly illegal migrants that lead them to be particularly diligent about doing document checks on people of color. Refugees have another name for it: racism.
“If you meet an African in the street here he will tell you the same thing; the police don’t know me, they just know my color,” Gale said.
Dark-skinned foreigners are not new in Ukraine; indeed, many refugees sought haven in the country because they had lived peaceably here under the Soviet Union, which had extensive study programs with Afghanistan and African nations. Back then students were courted and provided with accommodations and generous stipends. But former students have found independent Ukraine to be an altogether different experience.
Ismat Mohammed is a member of Sudan’s council of ministers who received his Ph.D. in Kyiv in the 1980s. He returned in 1993 as a refugee. “Foreigners were very respected,” he recalls. “Now they think foreigners are eating their bread, taking their girls.”
Mykola Yarina, head of the police department for migrants at Ukraine’s Interior Ministry, defended the police, saying it is their job to check foreigners’ documents. He added that occurrences of police brutality are unavoidable.
“It happens,” he acknowledged. “But it’s different for refugees. The police are given special instructions. Every police officer, from the top downward, has orders on how to behave with foreigners, whether refugees or illegal migrants – and [those orders involve] checking identification.”
Yarina said that the Interior Ministry is trying to change the way Ukraine’s police treat foreigners, but it may take time.
“At regular meetings we provide police heads with information about their rude attitude toward foreigners, and we provide them with written rules of behavior,” he said.
But he notes that the state can do little to improve its refugee policy until it puts its own house in order.
“We have our own questions of finance, of poor people, unemployment, closed factories” Yarina added. “How can we find a place for refugees if our own families are starving?”
Valery Polischuk, head of the Kyiv oblast immigration service, agreed that the Ukrainian government is simply not in a position to provide the necessary training programs and workplaces. Forced to spend much of their time idle, refugees become clear targets for police.
“The police wouldn’t bother them if they had jobs and weren’t hanging out in the markets,” he said.
Pierfrancesco Natta, senior protection officer at the UNHCR in Kyiv, acknowledged that, in the wake of the UNHCR survey, the Interior Ministry expressed interest in implementing a training program for police to improve their treatment of foreigners.
The ministry, for its part, says police already take care to treat bona-fide refugees better than the thousands of illegal migrants in Ukraine. But refugees point out their protected status can act as a curse, since police have been known to confiscate refugee documents and demand money for their return.
As if day-to-day police harassment wasn’t enough, African refugees claim they must deal also with playing second fiddle to the Afghans in the eyes of the UNHCR. Afghans constitute some 90 percent of Ukraine’s refugees.
Gale and Moses find it impossible to accept that an international organization dedicated to their protection cannot do more to help their cause. They are especially resentful of what they see as the UNHCR’s favoritism of Afghan refugees. The social center, which provides an Afghan-language school, art class and sport club, does cater almost exclusively to Afghans.
Natta acknowledges that the Africans here have less chance than the Afghans to integrate. Few know the local language and they feel racism more acutely.
“Africans have a tough life here,” he said. “They can’t get jobs or forge links and they don’t have a support group.”
The UNHCR, which supports refugees financially in very few countries, according to Natta, says it is doing what it can to help. In addition to the social center, the UNHCR maintains a legal center and a hospital where refuges can get free medical treatment.
The UNHCR is planning to build a second social center in the region where most African refugees live. But that is scant comfort to Gale and Moses, already exasperated from two years of being treated as unwanted guests.
“I’ve lost my future,” Gale said. “Either I commit suicide in Ukraine or I commit suicide to go home. Living like this in Ukraine I am completely useless in society. I can’t contribute; I am completely nothing.”
Next week: STRANDED – a look at the plight of Ukraine’s thousands of illegal migrants