We have read so much about the horror and difficulties of those who have been forced to flee Ukraine over the last few weeks. There has been much support from the UK and the international communities. But how does it work if you are black, disabled or part of the LGBTQ+ community? The reality is that for many it makes it much harder to flee.
Ukrainian people with disabilities
Urgent support is required for Ukrainians with disabilities.
Theresa Shearer, Vice President of Inclusion Europe says:
“I am continuing to speak with leaders of NGOs across the continent to discuss the human rights implications for people who have a learning disability over the past 48 hours. It is absolutely clear that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has put millions of Ukrainian citizens in danger, and there is grave concern for the welfare of tens of thousands of Ukrainians who have a learning disability.”
Fight for Right is an organization who fight for the rights of people with disabilities in Ukraine. They work to ensure that every person with disabilities knows their human rights and freely exercises them. Fight for Right “is working around the clock to evacuate Ukrainians with disabilities and support those who have evacuated to nearby countries following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. No one in Ukraine had chosen this war, but it directly affects groups already facing discrimination. For people with disabilities who face barriers and inaccessibility at all times, war brings an additional, overwhelming feeling of fear and helplessness; not to mention a direct threat to their lives. Ukrainians with disabilities have far fewer options for evacuation.”
If you’re black, you should walk
‘They said if you’re black, you should walk.”
Another sentence said to people of colour is “This is only for Ukranians”. This sentence has been uttered to people of colour fleeing Ukraine; perhaps on a bus with other Ukrainians trying to flee the country. At the border people of colour have been sent to the back of the queue.
There have been many reports about racism when trying to leave Ukraine. The Guardian reported Ukrainian officials at the Polish border attempting to force those of colour to the back of the queue, saying that Ukrainian border guards were prioritising Ukrainian nationals. One report documents a 24-year-old medical student from Kenya.
“After eventually entering Poland, she boarded a free bus, organised by an NGO, to a hotel near Warsaw that was offering free board to Ukrainian refugees. However, the hotel refused to take her and her Kenyan friends in after examining their documents
“The staff said, ‘Sorry, we can’t admit you because this was meant only for Ukrainians,’” she said. The hotel also refused to give Emily a room after she offered to pay for one.
And there is not just racism for those trying to leave Ukraine; the UK has been accused of ignoring black people fleeing Ukraine. On 19 March the Observer reported:
“Two weeks ago, Alani Iyanuoluwa fled Kyiv as the Russian invasion intensified. Making her way across Europe, the 24-year-old hoped to be reunited with family in London. Yet for 10 days she has been stranded in a French port – because she is Nigerian.
Iyanuoluwa is among a growing number of refugees who claim the British government is ignoring black people who fled Ukraine.”
The same article suggests that ministers would never have unveiled the humanitarian sponsorship scheme for Ukrainians if it hadn’t been aimed at white Europeans.
Meanwhile NPR reported that earlier this week, Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov drew a distinction between those fleeing Ukraine and others. Petkov said:
“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 …”
The plight of LGBTQ-Ukrainians
Euronews reports that of the three million refugees that have fled Ukraine, and that many LGBT+ people are amongst them. The LGBT+ community has much to fear from the Russian invasion.
“Putin’s Russia is rampant with discrimination against the LGBT+ community, with the so-called ‘Gay Propaganda’ law prohibiting talking about gay and trans issues in schools, under the guise of protecting children.”
Even if LGBT+ Ukrainians flee the invasion they have other problems.
Some cities, like Kyiv and Lviv have thriving queer scenes. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has made pro-LGBT statements, but, LGBT+ activist Amanda Waliszewska says generally attitudes to the LGBT+ community are ambivalent.
She says that in Ukraine many people remain closeted from their families and that this, and the discrimination LGBT+ face, particular problems in the current circumstances:
“When I was helping, they were closeted and scared to travel with other people. They wouldn’t even go to the shelters with other people and would just stay at home because you don’t know who you’re going to meet.”
“Transgender women are very scared to approach the checkpoint or face police and soldiers, trans men were asked why are you leaving?”
“It’s been much slower to move them because they’re scared to leave.”
Safe countries for LGBT
Countries that border Ukraine like Romania, Hungary and Poland are inhospitable for LGBT+ Ukrainians fleeing the war. Gay marriage is banned in Romania and Hungary with Hungary having a ‘gay propaganda’ law of its own.
Both Hungary and Poland were criticised by the EU over their treatment of the LGBT+ community and in 2020 many regions in Poland, almost a third of the country, declared themselves ‘LGBT free zones’.
Waliszewska is now focusing on helping LGBT+ Ukrainians to reach places of safety in northern or western Europe:
“All people that are marginalised I would send to Germany or Sweden. If I had people of colour and trans people I know they will face much less discrimination from the officials at least.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy banned men aged 18 to 60 from leaving the country when Russia invaded, asking them instead to fight for their country, and many LGBTQ+ people have responded to his request.
Vladislav, a 25-year-old gay Ukrainian soldier, said about the war:
“If there is no more Ukraine, then there will be repression. People will be killed and the LGBTQ+ witch-hunt will begin.”
Borys, a 26-year-old soldier and former paramedic, refuses to focus on what lies ahead. In a video call from Kyiv during a break from his shift, dressed in his military uniform, he said:
“I don’t speak about the future a lot because, if you speak about the future a lot, you will (go) mad. First, we have to win the war … And then you can call me again and we’ll speak about the future.”
Conflict and insecurity in Syria, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Iraq, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Myanmar have also caused millions to flee their homes.
I celebrate the desire to help the people fleeing from war.