Ukraine refugee crisis deepens; many are impacted by racism


Hundreds of thousands are fleeing Ukraine, creating a refugee crisis of a magnitude that has been unseen in Europe since the end of World War II. Filippo Grandi, head of the UN refugee agency, said in a tweet on March 8, “Today the outflow of refugees from Ukraine reaches two million people.”

The evacuation of Sumy was undertaken after a “humanitarian corridor” had been opened from that city in northeastern Ukraine, near the Russian border. “We have already started the evacuation of civilians from Sumy to Poltava (in central Ukraine), including foreign students,” Ukraine’s foreign ministry reported on Twitter. Some 5000 people joined the exodus, including nearly 700 students from India, according to the Ukrainian government. But reports came in that Russian troops had started shelling the escape route.

Reports have also arrived of Russian artillery shelling evacuation routes from the eastern port city of Mariupol, breaking an agreed upon ceasefire. The Ukraine foreign ministry announced on Twitter, “Ceasefire violated! Russian forces are now shelling the humanitarian corridor from Zaporizhzhia to Mariupol.”

Poland, which shares a border with Ukraine of over 300 miles, has taken in around one million refugees. In addition, Alicia Ptjak and Jason Hovet reported in Reuters, “Nearly 300,000 people have crossed into Romania since the war began, roughly half of whom have entered from non-EU member Moldova, while more than 140,000 had reached Slovakia and almost 200,000 crossed into Hungary, officials say.

 “Further from Ukraine, authorities said more than 100,000 people had gone to the Czech Republic, where Prague’s refugee assistance center reopened after a closure due to over-capacity on Monday, while more than 43,000 had entered Bulgaria.”

Russia has proposed a corridor for refugees from Kyiv that leads to the city of Gomel in Belarus, and from there to Russia. The route north from Sumy leads to Belgorod, in Russia. Naturally, many Ukrainians are frightened of evacuating to Russia, and the Ukrainian government has called those routes unacceptable.

Racism and borders

EU, U.S., and Canadian efforts to ensure the safety of Ukrainian refugees have fallen flat. The majority of countries are only granting temporary status. Eileen Sullivan reports in The New York Times, “The Biden administration announced on Thursday it would offer humanitarian relief to Ukrainians who have been living in the country without legal documentation since March 1 or earlier, signaling additional support for citizens of Ukraine as Russia advanced in the south of the country. Canada announced similar relief on Thursday, as did the European Union, which said it would offer three years of protection for Ukrainian refugees.”

The borders must remain open and welcome any and all refugees fleeing the Russian bombardment. While Ukrainians are getting temporary status, many people of color have not had the same access to border crossings, evacuation, and refugee status. Video footage shows African immigrants being blocked from trains attempting to leave Ukraine.

Monika Pronczuk and Ruth Maclean reported in The New York Times, “Chineye Mbagwu, a 24-year-old doctor from Nigeria who lived in the western Ukrainian town of Ivano-Frankivsk, said she had spent more than two days stranded at the Poland-Ukraine border crossing in the town of Medyka, as the guards let Ukrainians cross but blocked foreigners.

“The Ukrainian border guards were not letting us through,” she said in a phone interview, her voice trembling. “They were beating people up with sticks” and tearing off their jackets, she added. “They would slap them, beat them and push them to the end of the queue. It was awful.”

The racist undertone to the current refugee crisis in Europe was expressed clearly by Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov who told journalists, “These are not the refugees we are used to; these people are Europeans. … These people are intelligent. They are educated people. … This is not the refugee wave we have been used to, people we were not sure about their identity, people with unclear pasts, who could have been even terrorists.”

Refugees of various nationalities fleeing the war in Ukraine. (AFP)

Petkov is referring to the refugee crisis during the Syrian civil war that saw millions of Syrians escaping a desperate situation that also involved a destructive Russian intervention to defend the oppressive government of Bashar al-Assad. In Germany between 2015 and 2019 1.7 million people applied for asylum. Racial tensions reached a peak as right-wing nationalists used the murder of a German man by two immigrant workers to launch demonstrations of hundreds in 2018 in the city of Chemnitz (the site of anti-Jewish riots and slave labor camps under the Nazis). 

Right-wing Hungarian president Viktor Orban, while opening the border to Ukrainian refugees, took a hard stance in 2018 against Syrian refugees. “We don’t see these people as Muslim refugees. We see them as Muslim invaders,” he told the German daily Bild newspaper.

Orban also said, “We believe that a large number of Muslims inevitably leads to parallel societies, because Christian and Muslim society will never unite. … Multiculturalism is only an illusion.”

In many ways, Orban’s stance mirrored U.S. policy on migrants, refugees, and undocumented workers. Just one week into his presidency, Trump issued an executive order banning the entry of Muslims from certain countries. Five years later, families caught in the debacle are still waiting to be reunited, even though the Biden administration removed the ban.

Worse was the policy of separating immigrant families at the border and detaining them in deplorable conditions. Trump during the elections raised the fear that Mexican workers were all “rapists and criminals.” And this produced one of the lasting images of the Trump administration—children in cages. These policies, though, had their foundation in the Obama administration’s anti-immigrant policy, which deported more immigrant workers than any other presidential administration. The practices continue today under Biden.

Open the borders! Worker solidarity with ALL refugees!

Working people have nothing to gain from the repression of refugees, migrant workers, and immigrants. As war in Ukraine threatens to get worse with more direct interventions from NATO and the U.S., working people everywhere must reject the fear mongering and scare tactics of politicians who want to use these crises as an opportunity to pass more reactionary laws. As the anti-war movement grows from the international day of action on March 6 the demand for the rights of ALL refugees regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, legal status and so on must become a key component of our movement. 

Solidarity must also extend not just to the situation in Ukraine but to all other refugees from Syria or other war and global warming refugees from the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The labor movement in particular can play a leading role by organizing to distribute material aid, political support, and also organizing migrant workers to defend their rights on the job.

Radu Stochita writes about Romanian trade-union leader Vasile Gogescu in Jacobin magazine, “We voted immediately on the matter and decided to allocate 5.000 RON, sending someone to purchase the required materials and deliver them to the hotel. We purchased tons of diapers, because we were informed that the majority of people crossing the borders were holding babies in their arms. As a Federation we could not help with more, given our meager resources, but we mobilized our trade unions to raise an additional 10.000 RON ($2,215) for the refugees.”

At the same time unions must oppose calls for sanctions, no-fly zones, and all other soft military interventions that harm the working class. Working people must oppose the wars of imperialist powers, which only serve to create new refugee crises. As many observe International Women’s Day (March 8), which has its roots in the radical U.S. labor movement, Russian women are expressing their solidarity with Ukrainian women and the working class.

The Russian Feminist Antiwar Movement writes, “We, the women of Russia, refuse to celebrate the 8th of March this year: Don’t give us flowers, better to go out and lay them in memory of the dead civilians of Ukraine (about 300 people lost, there are children among them), against whom our country has unleashed aggressive military actions.” (See:

Solidarity with ALL refugees! Asylum now regardless of race, genders, sexual orientation, or religion! Russia out of Ukraine! U.S. Hands Off! Money for health, housing, and climate action—not for war or NATO! Solidarity with the Russian antiwar protesters—end the repression, free the detainees! No sanctions! Build an antiwar movement that can mobilize millions in the streets!

Top photo: Woman and child, refugees from Ukraine, arrive in the border city of Medyka, Poland, on March 7. (Visar Kryeziu / AP)

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