Held Back Because of Their Color

Held Back Because of Their Color

April 15, 2022 | Author: Wendy Kaur, Writer and Journalist

Human rights lawyer on special assignment by the United Nations talks about the systemic racism that visible minorities in Ukraine have experienced while trying to flee the country since the Russian invasion. 

Since March 1, Toronto human rights refugee lawyer Petra Molnar has been at three Ukrainian borders—Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland—working with the United Nations special repertoire collecting evidence of systemic racism during the mass exodus of the people of Ukraine since the Russian invasion which began on February 24. “I was with two journalists to scope out the situation and zero in on the experiences of racialized people who were coming from Ukraine into neighboring countries—both there but also while they were crossing through Ukraine,” Molnar says from Athens where she is on a three-day breather before she goes back to a Ukrainian border. 

Molnar says that at first the discrimination from authorities such as the police seemed like just a smattering, but the more she and her colleagues zeroed in, the more evidence of systemic bias came to light based on the differential experiences based on people’s backgrounds. “I don’t want to make sweeping generalizations, and it’s important to note that I was at three different borders and each neighboring country has a different context to the solidarity and to the ways they were able to mobilize as the occupation was happening.”

Molnar documented instances of all different kinds of discrimination happening within Ukraine, for example. “There were a lot of stories of medical doctors, for instance, who were from different Arab countries as well as India and Nigeria who were not being allowed by authorities on trains until the Ukrainian refugees went on first.” 

While instances such as these were reported on by various media outlets, Molnar says she also spoke to people after they arrived in neighboring countries like Poland. “Some people had positive experiences and some were able to speak to just this kind of differential treatment when it comes to access to resources, and the kind of humanitarian needs that folks have when they escape a conflict region.”

The systemic racism that Molnar saw with her own eyes was specifically against the Roma communities. “This kind of real, over-policing of the folks who were very clearly from a Roma background was unsettling,” she says. “Everyone was getting soup and things for their children, and yet I would see Roma families kind of always surrounded by police officers,” she says. “So there’s a very clear differentiation in the beautiful solidarity that we’ve been seeing.”

It is important to note that the people who did experience racism, particularly from authorities or those people she says were getting pushed back from the trains, for example, had not experienced anything remotely like this in the country before, emphasizes Molnar. “What comes to mind is this amazing group of young medical students who were coming out of the cities that have been shelled and destroyed due to the war. I had a chance to speak to them and there were students from India, Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia who had been in Ukraine for a while. It was eye-opening for me personally, because I didn’t realize how many international medical and dentistry students Ukraine had. They reflected that in a stratified society that being visual minorities was something that was definitely front of mind for them. We’re talking about people who had been in Ukraine for four, five, and six years,” she says. 

“They all spoke highly of their life in Ukraine before the invasion and told me that they hoped to go back.” But the escalation and the occupation and the vast numbers of people moving out of the country exposed what seems to be a two-tier system. 

“When people are trying to get on the train and there is this mass threshold of people, it unfortunately does seem like racialized people were ruled out as a community to be pushed out to the side.”

Part of the reason that people have such differential experiences is because their universities and their embassies had different responses to the conflict. “The Indian embassy was able to mobilize quickly and start putting together charter flights and get their students to leave their university and efficiently direct them to the right train,” she says. 

Molnar says that she plans on doing a report for advocacy purposes to understand how people are experiencing this kind of conflict and to be able to point to specific examples of discrimination around the border. “I tried to speak to as many people as possible to see the context,” she says. “It’s really important for me to get a sense of how these conflict situations are experienced.”


Wendy Kaur is a Toronto-based writer and journalist whose work has appeared in The Globe & Mail, ELLE USA, ELLE Canada, British Vogue, Town & Country, and others.