Foreigners walk to Shehyni checkpoint to cross from Ukraine into Poland on March 1, 2022 | Photo: Picture-alliance
Foreigners walk to Shehyni checkpoint to cross from Ukraine into Poland on March 1, 2022 | Photo: Picture-alliance

Since the beginning of the mass exodus from Ukraine to EU countries, there have been reports of unequal treatment and discrimination against non-Ukrainians at train stations, border crossings and elsewhere. Now that these third-country nationals are scattered across Europe trying to figure out their options, they face additional challenges, as reports about confiscated passports show.

Reports of discrimination, violence and xenophobia against people escaping bombs and bullets in Ukraine are almost as old as Russia's full-scale invasion of its neighbor Ukraine itself. In the weeks following February 24, a growing number of these reports prompted a debate over the unequal treatment of refugees depending on where they're from.

In light of these "verified" and "credible" reports, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has repeatedly called for an end to the discrimination of who they call third-country nationals (TCNs) trying to escape the war in Ukraine and staying in other countries.

"We applaud the warm welcome Ukrainians and people from other countries have received in the neighboring countries," IOM Deputy Director General Ugochi Daniels said at a press briefing at IOM's Berlin office on Thursday (April 7). "At the same time, we continue to emphasize that this support must be provided without discrimination based on sex, race, gender, ethnicity or religious basis."

Those who intend to stay in EU countries need to have access to basic social services, the labor market, educational opportunities as well as housing and return assistance, Daniels stressed.

Regarding reports of discrimination Daniels told InfoMigrants: "Authorities in different EU countries ensured us it's not state policy and that acts of discrimination happened on an individual basis." Authorities went to great lengths to ensure, for example, that there was enough space on evacuation trains for Ukrainians and TCNs alike, according to Daniels. However, she added that IOM currently does not have access to verify the authorities' claims and independently assess the situation of TCNs fleeing Ukraine.

Over 200,000 foreigners have fled Ukraine

Of the roughly 450,000 third-country nationals who lived in Ukraine prior to the war, an estimated 213,000 have left the country so far, IOM figures as of April 12 show.

According to the State Migration Service of Ukraine, close to 300,000 foreigners lived in Ukraine in 2020 with permanent resident status. An additional 150,000 people lived there with a temporary residence title, around half of them international students who primarily hailed from India (24%), Morocco (12%), Turkmenistan (7%), Azerbaijan and Nigeria (6% each) as well as China and Turkey (5% each), according to the Ukrainian State Center for International Education.

Among the TCNs in Ukraine are also nearly 5,000 asylum seekers and recognized refugees, according to UNHCR. Most of them came from Afghanistan and Syria. Migration researcher Frank Düvell, however, estimates that the number of refugees in Ukraine is a lot higher. According to Düvell, some 20,000 Afghan refugees alone have sought protection in Ukraine since the 1980s.

According to the latest UNHCR data from April 7, some 4.4 million people have left Ukraine in the first six weeks of the war. When adding the 7.1 million people the IOM estimates have been internally displaced (as of April 1), the figure is staggering: Some 11.5 million, or around a quarter of the Ukrainian population, is on the move.

Read more: Ukraine war -- African students face Russian missiles and racism

Reports of confiscated passports

Tareq Alaows, a Syrian refugee who arrived in Germany in 2015, said on Twitter on April 1 that Germany's federal police in March confiscated the passports of three non-Ukrainian families fleeing Ukraine. "This is illegal and leads to these people becoming unable to act," tweeted Alaows, who currently works for different refugee aid initiatives including Berlin's refugee council.

Speaking to InfoMigrants, Alaows claimed that the police officers took the passports without providing an explanation. The families, mostly made up of African students, got their passports back after three weeks, and only after the refugee council contacted the police.

According to Alaows, Berlin state police told the refugee council the officers weren't informed which legal basis applied to the people. While they were waiting for their passports to be returned, the alleged victims had difficulties navigating their lives in Berlin, according to Alaows, including one case of a blocked bank account. InfoMigrants wasn't able to verify this and the other claims.

Alaows further told InfoMigrants about "several dozen" cases of TCNs having their passports confiscated when they tried to get registered at foreigners' offices in several German states, including Berlin and Bavaria. According to the refugee activist, those affected were able to pick up their passports one day after the refugee council raised the issue with the foreigners' office. Alaows also said one group of TCNs told him they were kept in police detention for 24 hours in the city of Dresden without being given a reason.

These cases were clear examples of racial profiling and racism, according to Alaows. "All people have the right to be told why their passports are taken from them," he told InfoMigrants. "These cases had no justification or legal basis. TCNs are affected by the war just like Ukrainians. They deserve to be treated equally and be offered educational and other opportunities to be able to stay in Germany and other European countries."

The 32-year-old activist last year announced that racist attacks and personal threats had forced him to withdraw a political candidacy for Germany's parliament.

Syrian refugee activist Tareq Alaows | Photo: Reuters
Syrian refugee activist Tareq Alaows | Photo: Reuters

What's the legal situation of third-country nationals in Europe?

Thanks to the temporary protection directive, approved by the EU interior ministers on March 4, people fleeing the war in Ukraine automatically receive temporary protection for up to three years. The protective measures, which includes a residence permit as well as access to housing, medical assistance, employment and social welfare, will be provided to the war refugees without them having to go through lengthy asylum procedures. 

The scheme essentially means that everyone is allowed to enter EU countries regardless of their nationality. The EU said the proposal would also cover "non-Ukrainian nationals and stateless people legally residing in Ukraine" such as asylum seekers.

However, those on short-term stays in Ukraine and who can safely return to their country of origin will not be eligible. This will usually be the case for foreign students, a European Commission official said.

In other words: The temporary protection directive only applies to TCNs if they either enjoyed international protection in Ukraine, such as refugee status, or if their residence permit was permanent and they cannot safely return to their home country.

Those TCNs who don't meet these criteria can usually try to get a residence permit in a different way, such as a student visa or a humanitarian residence permit or visa, which requires going through the asylum process.

According to the EC, those who fall outside the scope of temporary protection will still be granted access to the EU. "Depending on your circumstances, you can apply for international protection or a legal migration status. The authorities may also decide to give you temporary protection," it says on the EC's 'Information for people fleeing the war in Ukraine' website, which also provides information about national authorities and free travel options.

In Germany, the national rules for TCNs about entering and staying in Germany are similar to those of the EC, even though the government said that it would take in refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine no matter their nationality. Everyone who was staying in Ukraine on February 24 and has fled to Germany, however, can legally reside in Germany through August 31. This Q&A document by the German Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF), last revised on April 6, has important information for TCNs in Germany.

Read more: The story of one Kenyan student fleeing Ukraine

Third-country nationals in Belgium -- IOM survey

Of the estimated 213,000 third-country nationals who have left Ukraine since February 24, thousands have arrived in EU member state Belgium. In late March, the IOM conducted a survey among TCNs there to better understand their situation.

Some two thirds of the 41 respondents had lived in Ukraine for more than three years. For seven out of ten, it was the first time they left Ukraine since they arrived. 30% indicated they wish to return to Ukraine. Unlike Ukrainian refugees fleeing their home country, who mainly consist of women, children and the elderly, almost all of the TCNs who have arrived in Belgium are male. It took the average 28-year-old respondent more than nine days to arrive in Belgium.

In terms of their situation in Belgium as well as their support needs and goals, the survey found that a majority of interviewees mentioned the toll that stress, violence and discrimination took on them while fleeing Ukraine and during their onward journey in the EU. Moreover, they cited friends, diaspora and relatives as the most important sources of information. In terms of support needs, they requested education most often (50% of them were students). 73% said they would like to find a job as soon as possible.

Daniels, the IOM Deputy Director General, said the IOM was offering help to those TCNs who wish to stay in Europe and have lost their documentation by trying to reestablish it together with the embassies of the TCNs' countries. 

Moreover, the IOM has assisted some 700 TCNs in returning to their home countries including Tunisia, Ghana, Lebanon and Ecuador. Many of them were students. The IOM was also providing "post-arrival services" for returnees once they've arrived in their home countries, Daniels said.

Also read: Migrants trapped in Ukrainian detention center while war rages on

Lack of registration

Under the protection directive, beneficiaries have freedom of movement and are usually not subjected to border checks in the EU's Schengen area. Furthermore, Ukrainian nationals can enter the EU without a visa for a 90-day period without having to register anywhere. This is why the number registrations of refugees by authorities might not reflect the actual numbers of people and where they are. There has also been no distribution quota.

Registering more refugees who fled Ukraine was a "key contribution" for EU governments trying to implement the temporary direction directive, Daniels said. Registrations would allow authorities to better understand refugees' needs and vulnerabilities, education levels, their whereabouts and other important things, according to Daniels.

"Registration provides the data," the Daniels told InfoMigrants in Berlin. "It's the entry point from which you can then do all of the planning, and understand the support needs." Daniels also said data would reveal which information is available to them. "Did they take a well-informed decision when they applied for protection status? That's what we need to find out," she said.

Refugees from Ukraine at Tegel airport in Berlin | Photo: Steffi Loos/AP/Picture-alliance
Refugees from Ukraine at Tegel airport in Berlin | Photo: Steffi Loos/AP/Picture-alliance

More comprehensive registration would also help refugees get better protection from human traffickers, in particular minors and orphans, Daniels added.

TCNs and Ukrainians usually get registered at hubs in large cities like Berlin's central station. But oftentimes, they still have to go to authorities afterwards, such as foreigners' offices in Germany.

Also read: Berlin's main train station, a place of help and hope for refugees fleeing Ukraine


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