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Joe Biden, Africans fleeing the war in Ukraine are imprisoned in Poland. Don’t forget them!

Mr. President,

By the time you read this letter, your feet will surely be on Polish soil.  

The war in Ukraine has led you to engage in a diplomatic marathon this week in Europe. On March 24th, 2022 alone, you attended three summits. The Nato, G7 and EU summits.

I have read and reread several articles following these major meetings. You spoke about the war itself, but above all about its consequences. In addition to the military and humanitarian aid to be provided to Ukraine, you were concerned about the question of energy, on which Europe is very dependent from Russia. You have also alerted the world to the threat of a food shortage.

I was left wanting more. For one of the appalling consequences of this war has unfortunately been overlooked. Non-Europeans, especially Africans stranded in Ukraine, are exposed to bombing and many are deprived of electricity and food. Those who manage to flee the conflict face discrimination at the borders and in the countries where they hope to find refuge.

Instead of the world showing a little bit of solidarity with Ukrainians at this time, many Africans, mostly students, are living in a situation that is akin to hell on earth.

An investigation published on 23 March, the day before the summits, by the tabloid “The Independent”, in partnership with Lighthouse Reports and other media partners such as “Mediapart” reveals some chilling lines of this tragedy.

Students describe in great detail how they were taken by force to a detention centre after crossing the Polish border. The Lesznowola centre, located in a village 40 kilometres from Warsaw, is mentioned by name. A student speaks of a “closed camp inside a forest”. According to the survey, there are three other such centres in Poland dedicated to the detention of non-Ukrainians fleeing the war.

Students also report having few means of communication with the outside world. The phones of several of them have been confiscated. They claim to have been forced to sign documents in a language they do not understand. One student even testified that he was brought before a judge without the benefit of a translator in Poland.

Mr. President,

you have repeatedly stated that human rights will be at the centre of your foreign policy,

you have repeatedly stated that human rights will be at the centre of your foreign policy. This year you marked the return of the United States to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

The treatment of African students violates human rights and fails to comply with the EU directive of 4 March on people fleeing war in Ukraine. Article 2 of this directive specifies the third-country nationals to whom temporary protection applies.

“In accordance with Article 2 paragraph 2 of the Council Decision temporary protection under Directive 2001/55/EC or adequate protection under the national law of the Member States shall apply to stateless persons and nationals of third countries other than Ukraine who can establish that they were lawfully staying in Ukraine before 24 February 2022 on the basis of a valid permanent residence permit issued in accordance with Ukrainian law and who are unable to return to their country [of origin] or region of origin [in their country] under safe and sustainable conditions. “

In the light of this provision, it is clear that African students fleeing war have no place in Polish prisons, nor in those of any European country. The parents of these young people have mostly gone into debt to send them to Ukraine to continue their studies. Today, the war is shattering their dreams. When you add to this the trauma of the bombings, you realise that these students need the world to show them a minimum of humanity, just as it does the Ukrainians.

Mr. President,

I call on you to work for the release of all non-Europeans, especially African students, who are fleeing the conflict and are unjustly imprisoned in Poland or elsewhere in Europe.

I ask you to work for the release of all non-Europeans, especially African students, fleeing the conflict and who are unjustly imprisoned in Poland or elsewhere in Europe. Ask Polish President Andrzej Duda to guarantee their integrity and the protection due to war displaced persons under the Geneva Conventions.

I cannot tell you exactly how many people I am telling you about. There are media reports of 16,000 African students fleeing this war, but your intelligence services will know better than I.

Under normal circumstances, I should address this request to the African Union first. But for the sake of efficiency, and given that you will be speaking in the ear of Polish President Andrzej Duda today, I dare to see in you the greeting that these young Africans are waiting for.

Meeting this challenge will set you apart from European leaders who, by their different treatment of refugees from the war in Ukraine, are writing an inglorious page in history with the African continent.

There is also a need for coherence. As President of the EU Council, French President Emmanuel Macron proposed on 24 March in Brussels a “food security initiative” involving the African Union. 

Any talk of concern about hunger in Africa would ring hollow to millions of Africans if Europe fails to offer a minimum of protection to their war-torn sons and daughters on its territory. Instead, it erects barriers and discriminations that create two categories of people affected by the same war. It would also be difficult to explain to Africans that the intervention in Mali is to protect Africans from terrorism if Europe misses the opportunity to protect them on its soil.

Mr. President,

Before leaving Poland, it would be useful to deliver a message to the Africans fleeing the war in Ukraine who are detained and discriminated against in Europe. Or at least, let these next few days be a testament to your commitment to this cause, which seems difficult but not impossible for a human rights defender.

The millions of justice-loving Africans and citizens of the world are watching you. With the hope that you will rise to the challenge. The clock is ticking. Your response or your silence will be seen on the ground.

Thank you, Mr. President, for reading.

Sion, Suisse, le 25 mars 2022

Etonam Ahianyo, Journalist, African, coordinator of the SaveAfricans-Ukraine initiative and human rights defender like you