When Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February, civilians attempted to flee the country. The borders of Poland, Hungary and Romania became oversubscribed quickly, leaving days-long queues of people trying to escape a warzone.
Among those queuing were those of Ukrainian descent, but also a large number of African students and professionals. As the situation got worse and worse, another issue became evident and grew more pressing: Africans trying to escape Ukraine were being racially discriminated against.
Videos quickly spread online of Africans being prevented from leaving the country as authorities operated on a ‘Ukrainians first’ policy. Ukrainian men, women and children were allowed to board trains and buses to the borders first.
Even if an African made it onto a train or bus, they were removed.
In one instance, a Nigerian woman was told ‘if you are Black, you should walk’. Once most Ukrainians were evacuated, only then did Africans stand a chance.
Unfortunately, the harrowing stories do not stop there. Africans were physically attacked by the police and endured maltreatment from those in authority, and many were left stranded and helpless in Ukraine with freezing temperatures. If they did make it past the Ukrainian border, they experienced challenges with neighbouring countries and some were obliged to turn around.
Many of us watching around the world were enraged, questioning how there was room for racism in a matter of life or death.
But honestly, why are we surprised?
Visas, immigration and the global order
What we’ve witnessed is not isolated to the war in Ukraine. The discrimination Africans face - especially those who are born and raised on the continent - is an accumulation of prejudice committed worldwide which continues to pit them at the bottom of the global order.
There are countless examples we can see in the world of travel, migration, and, of course, media coverage.
Holding a passport from a country in Africa requires a person to jump through hoops to travel, namely in the form of visas. Applications for Africans can be long, costly and precarious.
Sometimes, a visa can even be denied because of how the official who grants them feels on the day.
Stories of Africans needing to prove more than what is required on their visa applications, such as showing they have additional disposable income upon arrival, are all too familiar. Feeling at risk of being put on the next flight back to their respective countries is not uncommon either.
Meanwhile, those with ‘strong’ passports experience swift visa processes and enjoy their trip.
Immigration is another hurdle, where geography and politics combine. Obtaining visas and permanent residency can be a long, tedious and often redundant process for Africans trying to move to another country.
While Africans are labelled migrants - lazy, poor, likely to be a nuisance - those from the Western World who decide to do the same thing are praised as expats with a hard-working attitude and disposable income.
If those who migrate should attempt to assimilate, they can still be seen as different to the dominant culture of the country and there is a reluctance to accept them.
For instance, a Nigerian doctor who had lived in Ukraine for years, who spoke Ukraine fluently and selflessly helped Ukrainians in the long queues, was forced to go to the back and start again.
Unfavourable media coverage over time
The problems of visas and immigration are exacerbated by the continuous unfavourable media coverage of Africans and the continent, but particularly refugees.
Africa and its people are often seen as ‘dangerous’ and ‘poor’, which is a strategy that has been sold over a very long period of time to people outside of the continent and contributes to this negative portrayal. So when Africans, or anyone from non-Western countries, flee war, they are met with disdain and refusal while dealing with treacherous conditions.
For this reason, it has been shocking to watch the coverage of Ukrainian refugees and how countries have prioritised opening their borders to them. A journalist mentioning how emotional it was to see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed in such unfortunate events is telling of the narratives weaved into many people’s mindset.
Meanwhile, many Africans have been regularly rejected as refugees for years.
To many, tragedy can only be determined by the victim’s proximity to whiteness.
So when systemic racism is prevalent in ‘normal’ times, the structure sets Africans up for failure in times of crisis. The systems in place do not benefit Africans and, as a result, they are left behind.
Racism unfortunately does not get left behind in times of tragedy, warfare or disaster. In fact, it will only get worse.