'Two classes of refugees': African, Arab and Asian students who escaped Ukraine now stuck in European quagmire
“I will never forget that day, never, never. Even if I live to the age of 100, I will never forget it,” Kareem said, speaking to The New Arab from Krakow in Poland, about his arduous four-day escape from Kyiv, when Russian forces invaded Ukraine over a month ago.
An Algerian student enrolled at Kyiv National Economic University, 29-year-old Kareem found himself uprooted from his three-year-old student life, when he woke early on February 24, the first day of the war, to the sound of glass smashing as Russian bombing reverberated through Ukraine’s capital city, shattering his east Kyiv apartment’s windows.
Terrified, Kareem and five Algerian friends travelled 366 miles by foot, bus and car, from Kyiv to the Polish border, without sleep or food; as they were transformed into refugees and fell into the hands of kind strangers.
"For the 76,000 foreign students from 155 countries enrolled at universities in Ukraine... the war has cast doubt on the future of their education"
While the Polish people have been widely lauded for their rapid humanitarian response to the 2.3 million who have crossed the border since the war broke out, opening their homes and organising relief efforts, the response from the state level to certain refugees paints a different picture.
For the six per cent of non-Ukrainian nationals who have entered Poland in refuge, including thousands of young students from African and Asian countries, they have been subjected to a less friendly welcome from the Polish government.
“He told me I was an illegal resident,” Kareem said, referring to an immigration officer in Krakow. “It seems [the Polish state] don’t want us to be here.”
Kareem is one of many non-Ukrainian nationals who have found themselves tangled up in a complex escape clause of the European Union’s Temporary Protection Directive, activated to support refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine.
The measure, in place since March 4, was touted as an example for non-EU countries to follow, like the United Kingdom, which was criticised for its cold response to the crisis. It entitles all refugees from Ukraine to residency permits of up to three years, access to employment, medical care and schooling, and accommodation.
But for refugees like Kareem, without Ukrainian nationality but with a valid Ukraine residency permit, the seemingly blanket right-to-stay is more complicated. Despite being told that the stamp on his passport from the Polish border control was valid for 90 days, across all 27 EU member states, this week he was abruptly informed by a chance visit to the immigration office in Krakow, that he was only permitted to stay in Poland for 15 days; just a quarter of the time Poland issues for a standard tourist visa.
Kareem, alongside his friend, was bussed that day by Polish authorities to Germany, where third-country nationals are allowed to stay for 90 days.
The disparity between nations results from a loophole in the EU’s regulation, Isabel Henzler Carrascal, a migration lawyer working for a German NGO, Yaar e.V., told The New Arab. The discrepancy allows member states to decide residency permit lengths at their discretion, she explained.
“In Germany, for example, they have 90 days, so they can enter and have 90 days to then actually seek asylum here.” And after 90 days, member states have the right to send people home, if there is not an imminent threat to life.
“The issue now is no one has any idea how to deal with people, like students, who had a valid student visa in Ukraine, but now fled Ukraine and are not Ukrainians,” Henzler Carrascal said, adding that the system has effectively created “two classes of refugees”. Plus, the novelty and scale of the crisis are exacerbating the issue for governments, she said.
"Like thousands of others, Kareem is staying at a school gymnasium filled with makeshift beds; refugee centres like this have sprung up across Europe in response to the crisis"
The discrepancy in the EU directive comes against a backdrop of racism concerns at the Ukrainian border during the first days of the war when students were side-lined and forced to wait for days in freezing weather, while Ukrainian nationals were prioritised. Rights groups say it has left non-Ukrainian nationals as some of the most vulnerable refugees.
While just last month, Amnesty Intentional urged Polish authorities to take greater care of those fleeing Ukraine, highlighting the country’s “dismal record in its treatment of people coming from other conflict areas”.
In December last year, Poland’s border with Belarus was mired in violence as thousands of migrants – mainly from the Middle East – attempted to enter the EU and faced aggressive pushback tactics from Polish security forces.
Kareem now faces an unknown period in Germany. Like thousands of others, he is staying at a school gymnasium filled with makeshift beds; refugee centres like this have sprung up across Europe in response to the crisis. Designed for two- or three-night stays, people are provided with a camp bed, laid out shoulder to shoulder with tens of others, below basketball nets and football goals. Kareem said it is cold at night, and they lack sufficient blankets.
Not only is finding accommodation for refugees with no contacts or family in Europe becoming a major challenge surfacing in the humanitarian response, but many European higher education institutions are also yet to decide on whether to assist displaced students from Ukraine.
For the 76,000 foreign students from 155 countries enrolled at universities in Ukraine, according to Ukrainian government figures, the war has cast doubt on the future of their education.
When he arrived in Poland, Kareem heard there was potential to transfer his economics degree to a university in Krakow. However, the Polish university administration told him they were awaiting a decision regarding displaced students from the Polish Ministry of Science and Higher Education.
And with his university in Kyiv not responding to emails or phone calls, he has no idea when or if his degree will resume. Unable to return to Algeria without his university certificate, which is in his apartment in Kyiv, Kareem is stuck in limbo and worries his education will fall into an abyss. “Right now, for us, it is better if we can continue our studies and then we will be free,” he said. “We have our documents, we have our ID cards… because we are students, we have rights.”
Although, more than anything he wishes to return to Ukraine, his love for the country unites him with all of the displaced; Ukrainian or non-Ukrainian. “If the horror stopped tomorrow, I would go back of course. I would help them to build the city again,” he said. “We have really good memories, from Kyiv.”
Rosabel Crean is a freelance journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon.
Follow her on Twitter: @CreanRosabel