Non-Ukrainians fleeing the war met with detention

Aaron von Pilgrim – Unsplash

This blog was written by PICUM’s Advocacy Trainee Alyona Samar.

Since the outset of the war in Ukraine, nearly 6 million people have fled violence perpetrated by the Russian army. The majority have crossed borders to the EU. While many have been welcomed in neighbouring countries, a number of reports have emerged of differential treatment towards non-Ukrainian nationals escaping the war.

Investigations conducted by Lighthouse Reports with The Independent, Der Spiegel, Radio France, and Médiapart, revealed that African nationals were detained in Poland and Estonia after fleeing Ukraine. While the total number is unknown, Polish police confirmed on March 15 that at least 52 third-country nationals were detained after crossing the border from Ukraine to Poland.

People apprehended at the border were denied legal aid and interpreters, and were left with no information on the circumstances of their detention. For instance, the Polish Border Guard detained a Nigerian student who was forced to sign a document written in Polish, without any appropriate translation, under the threat of five months in jail should he refuse to sign. When the student went to court, he wasn’t provided with an interpreter, and eventually found himself in an immigration detention center.

Many other students from Cameroon, Ghana, the Ivory Coast, and other African nations also ended up in detention centres. None of them had access to information, they all had their phones confiscated and very limited access to the Internet.

A student from Nigeria experienced similar treatment in Estonia. The officers claimed that he did not have the right to enter the country and threatened him with a five-year entry ban to the whole Schengen territory.

Lighthouse Reports estimated that up to 45 people were still held in the Zhuravychi immigration detention centre in Ukraine as of March 21. Many of them had been intercepted by the Polish border guards when they were trying to enter Poland, and handed to the Ukrainian authorities. After 24 February, they were all moved to a part of the centre that has no windows nor functioning power sockets: with no access to information, they were left to listen to the shelling and explosions without knowing how near they were. Mid-April reports suggest that some of the people who were released form the detention center in Zhuravychi were later re-detained in Poland.

Such discriminatory practices expose the double standards and systemic racism that is inherent within the EU and national migration policies.

These practices also stand in direct contradiction to Recital 13 of the Council Implementing Decision (EU) 2022/382 on temporary protection, which states that third country nationals working or studying in Ukraine “should in any event be admitted into the Union on humanitarian grounds without requiring, in particular, possession of a valid visa or sufficient means of subsistence or valid travel documents, to ensure safe passage with a view to returning to their country or region of origin.”

Third-country nationals escaping the horrors of war should be given care and protection instead of being discriminated, threatened, and detained. Immigration detention is always a harmful and disproportionate measure which leads to severe violations of fundamental rights. Detention has extremely harmful consequences on mental health and can exacerbate people’s vulnerability. Detaining people fleeing from war and violence can additionally trigger past trauma and constitute ill-treatment.

Rather than continuing the harmful practice of detaining people, and applying double standards to people fleeing from persecution, the European Union should ensure equal access to safety for all people regardless of their place of origin, race, ethnicity, or immigration status.