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Fleeing Ukraine and the inequality of Africa-Europe relations

Written by Marta Foresti, Kathryn Nwajiaku-Dahou

Hero image description: Ukraine Flag Hand

Yet another war, yet another ‘refugee crisis’ – thousands are fleeing Ukraine towards neighbouring Poland, Moldova, Hungary, Romania and further afield.

It was encouraging to see EU countries come to unprecedented agreement to lift visa restrictions for Ukrainian refugees and for once act as one, and swiftly, in this crisis. And it is disheartening to see that that despite public opinion and condemnation by the international community, the hostile environment in the UK is still alive and kicking, even with inevitable U-turns in sight, that we’ve all gotten so used to in recent times.

Yet as Ukrainians flee, many Africans or those presumed to be from Africa, many of them students in Ukraine, also trying to escape, have found themselves trapped at the borders, prevented from boarding trains (by Ukrainians) or from entering neighbouring countries (by Polish border guards). They are simply considered less worthy. Yet if worthiness is measured by risk to life from war, insecurity, a bomb landing on your head or apartment building, then why would an African in flight be any less worthy? Seeing Nigerian students and nursing mothers in sub-zero temperatures without a car – but desperately needing a lift (rather than ammunition) but refused, shocked us deeply – in fact tempered our otherwise unencumbered, overwhelming feeling of solidarity and deep distress at the plight of suffering Ukrainians

So we are angry, furious in fact. African governments, from Nigeria to South Africa are also angry. Yet outrage will only take us thus far.

The reality is that it will take more than this tragic crisis to turn around the racism that is rampant is many part of Europe as witnessed in uncritical, highly racialised media reporting of politicians and public sympathy of the most well-meaning kind, referring to ‘people like us’, with ‘blond hair and blue eyes’, ‘the sorts of people who can contribute’, ‘not like those other war torn Afghanistan’, ‘they are white’.

These well-worn tropes repeated ad nauseum over the last few days reveal just how much Europe still looks at Africa with contempt, even though Africa is the future of Europe. The recent AU/EU summit a case in point. While EU leaders failed to meet African demands and conditions for a partnership of equals, on vaccine production/license, they easily agreed, yes, you guessed it, on migration. Until this changes. Nothing will.

The Poetics of Movement

Marta Foresti, Executive Director, ODI Europe

Ever since the so called ‘migration crisis’ of 2015, Europe has handled every single ‘crisis’ by making special cases and exceptions for specific categories, and nationalities, of asylum seekers and refugees. First Syrians, then (half-heartedly) Afghanis, now Ukrainians. This has created the perception that some refugees are more entitled to protection than others. In addition, and in my view even more importantly, our best-intentioned attempts to protect the rights of those fleeing violence and prosecutions has come at the expense of all other ‘economic migrants’. We have reserved humanity for the former, but not the latter.

This differential approach, often predicated on the need to respect the accuracy of labels and legal categories of different kinds of people on the move, has exacerbated and fuelled the kind of hatred channelled by the words of the Bulgarian Prime Minister,

These are not the refugees we have used to...These are people who are Europeans, so we and all other EU countries are ready to welcome them".

It is now on all of us, including the well meaning globalists that have the made the case time and time again to ‘welcome’ people fleeing wars and violence, to correct this profound inequality and discrimination towards all kinds of African migrants in Europe. The way to do it is called ‘The Poetics of movement’, and I like it precisely because it challenges the dominant European migration narrative of management, control, and integration. This is an altogether different story, told by different people.

The Poetics of Movement is the title of an autumn/winter collection presented during London fashion week last month, designed by Foday Dumbuya, a London based Sierra Leone born designer, funder and creative director of the fashion label Labrum, in collaboration with the poet and artist Julian Knxx. In their words,

‘The Poetics of Movement looks at the essence of human survival and attempts to demonstrate how movement lies at the very core of us all. The beauty of migration generating new skills and ideas, pushing the human imagination and encouraging change, in spite of the prominence of harmful perceptions."

What matters here is how and where the story begins,

"Since the beginning of time, humans have ambled through life; shaping the earth after ourselves. Changing locations to establish future generations. To simply fall in love, or to turn our backs on it altogether. Residing with purpose or resettling with hope.

As for immigrants,

“Uplifting those who brave the tides, the winds and societal limitations to find and shape the complex, nuanced and often unresolved label, "immigrant". Giving rise to another reminder of the sheer strength of design and creativity at the hands and minds of such groups.”

Beyond the poetry there is the actual work: using the label ‘designed by an immigrant’ to celebrate and promote the value and contributions of immigrants as the fabric of our societies, designing the Sierra Leone Olympic kit and most recently working with us at ODI the mayors of Freetown and Milan to create concrete opportunities for exchanges and collaborations between African and European creatives.

Why people move in the first place and where people are coming form and move to matters far less than the ideas and contribution they make to all the lives they touch. By overemphasising their differences, nationalities, religions and skin colours of we have lost sight of the immense value – and untapped potential- of all people on the move.

A partnership of equals between Africans and Europeans will take time to come to life. But a good place to start would be to for those African students trapped in Ukraine to be able to study in a European university of choice, be allowed and encouraged to work and thrive in a European society of choice. For the benefit of all of us, Europeans and African alike.

"Only Ukrainians, that’s all. If you’re black, you should walk"

Kathryn Nwajiaku-Dahou, Director of Programme, Politics and Governance

My children's former nanny and housekeeper and now close family friend of 15 years (a Ukrainian economic migrant living in Paris after the UK kicked her out some 16 years ago) threatening to return her home, went back to Ukraine 10 days ago to care for her cancer-stricken father, with her French 10-year residency permit in hand. Now stuck in Kyiv, she can’t move, nor can her father, too weak to walk or take shelter in a bunker. They stay put on the fourth floor, hoping that the bombs miss their building. Every day we exchange WhatsApp’s with emojis and voice messages, it’s surreal, but very real.

So in our house we’re taking Ukraine very personally. With big and open heart. We too are afraid that it’s all too close to home and that if their worlds can come crumbling, why not ours.

But then I see and hear Nigerians talking about their plight and that of other Africans. This upsets the simplistic good vs evil narrative in my mind where Ukrainians are simply the victims of Putin’s imperial design.

The presence of hundreds of Africans on the move unable to get away in cars and trains en route to Poland, because fought back violently by seemingly more deserving Ukrainians and the indignation expressed by the Nigerian embassy in Poland - advising Nigerian nationals to take the Romanian route out, kicks me out of my solidarity slumber. What if that was me?

The scenes of Africans holding up mobile phones, their only defence against violence meted out against them, screaming that they have no arms as Ukrainians soldiers brandish guns in their faces, suggests a war within war that dare not speak its name. This is a war about who has rights to this common humanity that we hold so dear.

These scenes challenge us to critically interrogate our own outpourings, racialised, inconsistent and incoherent as they are, they seem to put paid to idea of ‘our common humanity’.

This is all happening at a time when rapidly changing policies and approaches to receiving and welcoming incoming refugees are appearing overnight (albeit with the UK foot dragging). This is a world where once hostile environments are giving way to welcome to strangers in need, in danger of persecution. This is a world in which directives are being given (despite official retractions) to UK nationals to go and fight in foreign wars, when just a week ago the threat of nationality being withdrawn in cases where citizens were found wanting for having fought for causes abroad, was the subject of much legislative angst (and rightly so).

Whilst the comparison could be dismissed as trite point scoring at a time when the Russian invasion of Ukraine seems to set the Ukraine case apart, it still worth pondering how discrimination in action blinds us to inconsistencies. We all become blinkered.

Nervous about unwittingly being on the wrong side in a war being waged against ‘my own kind’, I took down the Ukrainian flag from my profile picture, sheepishly, sadly, because it’s not so black and white…