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Nonwhite Refugees Fleeing Ukraine War Held in Detention Centers in Poland, Estonia, Austria

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted an exodus of nearly 4 million people and an outpouring of support for many of the refugees. But a new report finds dozens of nonwhite people who fled Ukraine are being held in long-term detention centers in Poland and Estonia. We speak with Maud Jullien, investigations editor at Lighthouse Reports, which just published a series of reports in collaboration with The Independent, Der Spiegel, Radio France and others on the detention of African students fleeing Ukraine. She describes how the European Union’s temporary protection directive sets a double standard by permitting the safe entry of Ukrainian citizens into neighboring countries while withholding protection to third-party nationals escaping the same conflict.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has prompted an exodus of nearly 4 million people and an outpouring of support for many of the refugees. But a new report finds some of the nonwhite people who fled Ukraine are being held in detention centers in Poland and Estonia. An investigation by Lighthouse Reports with The Independent, Der Spiegel, Radio France and others documented how some African students who crossed the border to escape the war were detained in a long-term holding facility outside Warsaw. One of the students described his ordeal to an activist. The sound is bad, so listen very carefully.

DETAINED AFRICAN STUDENT: My mental health, I’m just scared. We escaped Ukraine. It was very, very horrible experience. And, you know, it’s very — the most biggest risk of my life. Now we’re under detention. At the beginning, I thought I was kidnapped.

AMY GOODMAN: the detained student says, “My mental health, I’m just scared. We escaped Ukraine. It was very, very horrible experience. It was the worst week [sic] of my life. Now we’re under detention. At the beginning, I thought I was kidnapped,” he said. This is the brother of another student, who says he was detained when he fled from Ukraine to Poland.

BROTHER OF DETAINED STUDENT: He stayed at the border for close to three days. And the last day that he left the border, there was — he had issues with the Ukrainian police, that were forcing them to go back into Ukraine to fight. But I think, as a student, he couldn’t stay back, because he is not a Ukrainian, and he doesn’t know anything about the country. So he decided, after the confrontation, the harassment from the Ukrainian police, he ran and ran and ran. They took away his bag with his laptop, with everything. But he succeeded to get into Poland. So, when he got into Poland, he immediately reported himself to the police. I was pretty sure that after signing this paper, he would be given some freedom, but limited freedom within Poland. But when he finished signing the paper, the next information that we got was that they were taking them into a camp.

AMY GOODMAN: Polish border police confirmed some 52 Ukrainians who fled to Poland, quote, “were admitted to guarded centers for foreigners,” unquote. The International Organization for Migration, the IOM, says non-Ukrainians who have fled the war are being detained in at least three facilities in Poland.

For more, we’re joined by Maud Jullien, investigations editor at Lighthouse Reports, which just published this package of stories last week.

We welcome you to Democracy Now! Can you tell us where the students were in Ukraine and how you located them in these different detention facilities, from Estonia to Poland?

MAUD JULLIEN: So, the students that we’re aware of, that we’ve been able to confirm are being held in Poland currently, there’s four of them. And when I say “confirmed,” it’s because we have their student identification, but we’re aware of six credible cases, actually, and we think that there’s probably a lot more. But these students were studying in different cities in Ukraine — in Kharkiv, in Lutsk, in Kyiv. They were studying telecommunications, management, language, languages, so in various fields. There’s actually a total of over 75,000 foreign students in Ukraine. And we were able to confirm, for these four students that I was mentioning, that they’re held in one long-term detention facility that’s 40 minutes away — a 40-minute drive from Warsaw, the capital of Poland.

Initially what happened is that we were contacted by activists who were saying that they were in touch with foreign students claiming to be in detention. We were given the address, and I went to this detention center. I said that I was press. I gave the four students’ names. And the guards of that detention center told me to wait. They went in, and then they came back out and told me, “Yeah, these four names are inside. And actually, there are 20 other African — young African people who fled Ukraine who are in this camp.” And then, later on, we managed to obtain a letter, an official letter, from the Polish border guard confirming that there were 52 people, third-party nationals who fled the Ukrainian conflict, in detention. And that was on March 15th they confirmed 52 people. There could be more. And we’re aware of six people having been recently released.

AMY GOODMAN: This letter you obtained from Poland’s border police admitting 52 third-country nationals who had fled Ukraine had been taken to detention facilities in the weeks after Russia’s invasion, if you can talk more about that? And you’re in Dakar, Senegal, now. Where are the students from, around Africa? Are they from Senegal? Are they from Nigeria?

MAUD JULLIEN: So, the students that, you know, we’re very much aware of and whose — we’ve also been speaking to their family members. We’ve spoken to several of them inside the center. They’re from Cameroon and Nigeria. We don’t know where the other people being held in that camp are from.

What we do know, and what I’ve heard very, very recently, is that there is also at least one African family that was held in one of the long-term detention centers. So, that family was a Nigerian man, their child and a Kenyan woman. They’ve been released, as far as we know, a few days ago, but that is to say that there is reason to believe that there may be other families held, held in detention, in long-term detention centers.

We’ve also been speaking to the Cameroonian and to the Nigerian embassies in Poland and in Berlin. And they’re saying that they do not know why their nationals are being detained. They’re working toward securing the release of their citizens. And it seems that they’ve been able to get — to secure the release of six Nigerians so far.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the temporary protection directive that was invoked by the EU on March 4th, what it means, and does it apply to students of African origin?

MAUD JULLIEN: So, the temporary protection directive is historic in the sense that all of the European countries agreed for the first time in 20 years to open their borders and to protect and to grant residency, to grant also allowances, to all of the Ukrainians fleeing the conflict. That temporary directive doesn’t lay things out quite as clearly for third-party nationals. It recommends that EU countries should facilitate their passage, their safe passage back to their country of origin, if that country is safe, and that they should provide humanitarian protection.

We’ve been speaking to lawyers about what’s been going on now, and they’ve been saying that it goes against EU law to detain people, because this temporary directive does say that countries should facilitate passage, should give humanitarian access, and that holding them in long-term detention facilities, where they are not provided with legal help, where they’ve been made to sign documents that they haven’t been able to understand, and where they’re — I mean, these are in fact — these are prisons, that this is contrary to EU law. But this temporary protection directive is not as clear when it comes to the rights of third-party nationals. And I think that that’s also where the issue lies, that it doesn’t guarantee the same rights to these people, and it allows European countries to sort of pick and choose who they let in and to decide how they treat these people.

AMY GOODMAN: Even Austria was holding some of these students?

MAUD JULLIEN: Yes. So, the latest information that we’ve been getting from the Nigerian diaspora is that, in Austria, one student was detained; in Estonia, one student was detained. And there’s reason to be concerned that we’re going to be hearing more and more of these cases —


MAUD JULLIEN: — because there’s a lack of EU clarity on what —


MAUD JULLIEN: — you know, how these people be treated.

AMY GOODMAN: The contrast between how Ukrainians are being treated — I mean, the pictures of the kindergarten children going into a school, and the whole class standing up and applauding them; you know, President Biden going to Poland to applaud the Polish government for being so welcoming to millions of Ukrainians. Have you heard — if you can comment on that and, finally, the conditions in these jails?

MAUD JULLIEN: It’s absolutely striking to all the people who have been working to help the thousands of people that have been trying to enter the EU for the past years, that have been fleeing conflicts in Syria, in Iraq, the difference in treatment. It was interesting in Poland, and striking in Poland especially, to speak with people who have been assisting refugees from the Belarus border. And, you know, near the Belarus border, it’s basically a situation where you have Polish border guards that are pushing people back into the Belarus — freezing Belarus forest. Just last week, there were Syrians, Iraqis who were pushed back. We know that at least one more person died. At least 20 people have died at that border. So, for people seeing this difference in treatment, these double standards based on where people are from, just the Ukrainian crisis has sort of left a lot of these people breathless. And now the fact that people are being treated differently based on where they’re from, even if they’re fleeing the same exact conflict, just makes these double standards even more obvious.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we will continue to follow this. Maud Jullien, I want to thank you for being with us, investigations editor at Lighthouse Reports, which published this investigation with The Independent, Der Spiegel, Mediapart, Radio France, about African students fleeing Ukraine being detained by European border officials. Maud Jullien was speaking to us from Dakar, Senegal.

Next up, we go to Jamaica, as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have just wrapped up a weeklong visit to former British colonies in the Caribbean. The royal visit was met by protests and demands for reparations. We’ll speak with a Jamaican MP. Stay with us.

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