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Global group of Black attorneys file U.N. complaint for African refugees

The group of lawyers, which includes Ben Crump, will send the complaint to two agencies with the United Nations.
People wait for the bus to leave the border area at the Medyka border crossing on Feb. 28, 2022, in Medyka, Poland.
People wait for the bus to leave the border area at the Medyka border crossing on Feb. 28, 2022, in Medyka, Poland.Alejandro Martinez Velez / Europa Press via Getty Images

An alliance of prominent civil rights lawyers from around the world on Wednesday announced it will file an appeal to the United Nations on behalf of Black refugees facing discrimination while trying to flee Ukraine.  

The group includes Ben Crump, the civil rights attorney for the families of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery; attorney Jasmine Rand, who represented the families of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown; Peter Herbert, one of Britain’s few nonwhite judges; Jamaican Member of Parliament G. Anthony Hylton; British solicitor Jacqueline McKenzie; and Carlos Moore, president of the National Bar Association in the U.S. They plan to file the appeal to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights as well as the U.N.’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Earlier this week Filippo Grandi, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, and Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s minister of foreign affairs, acknowledged that some Africans looking to escape the Russian invasion of Ukraine had experienced discriminatory practices at the country’s borders. 

“Such blatant racism cannot be tolerated,” Zita Holbourne, the chairwoman of the Black Activists Rising Against the Cuts U.K. told The Independent. “Human rights of Black and brown people, predominantly students situated in Ukraine, must be honored and safe exit facilitated for all, free of discriminatory selection processes at borders. The targeting of Black and brown people in this way is a racist human rights abuse on top of a human rights crisis impacting all people forced to flee Ukraine.”

Robert A. Sanders, a retired U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps captain and a legal and national security educator at the University of New Haven, hailed the lawyers’ announcement.

“It’s totally appropriate,” Sanders told NBC News. Filippo Grandi, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, “issued statements to Russia about its human rights activities during its attack on Ukraine. And so, it is completely appropriate for that same body to examine what Ukraine is doing, which, while sad, is not surprising because we live in a world that has structures and systemic pieces built up over centuries that make Black and brown people less than.”

Dammy Raji.
Dammy Raji.Courtesy Dammy Raji

Dammy Raji, a Nigerian medical student in Ukraine, had planned to stay in Lviv, until the Russian invasion became “too intense.” So she packed up to leave.

She said she had heard about racism at the borders, where Black people had been routinely denied entry into safe countries. When Raji and friends attempted to flee to Poland this week, she said they endured what other Africans had shared around the world via social media.

They were not allowed to board two trains in Lviv, as “Ukrainians want their people to go first,” she said.

Raji said the reports of the trouble at the borders for Black people have been beneficial in her attempts to leave. Even though she had trouble getting across, she eventually made it to Poland.

“We took the train because we heard that was easier at the border,” she said. “But it was really hard to get onto the train as Blacks. They prioritized their people, especially women and children. … The Ukrainians that want their people to go first.”

Sanders said it was disingenuous for non-Black people to dismiss the early reports of racism at the borders.

“One of those things that struck me was the immediate failure of white people all over the place,” he said. “To be in disbelief that racism was happening at the borders … ‘Oh, well, there must be some other reason why they’re holding them back. They’re letting women and children out.’

“I hear that and I say, ‘You’re giving me an invalid excuse because you can’t fess up and come to grips with the reality of the world that you live in and, in part, some of you helped create.”

Safely in Poland, Raji said a nongovernmental organization helped her and her friends get settled. She said the Polish people were not the problem at the borders.

They are “very accommodating,” she said. “They are really nice, and there are many places organized by NGOs for foreigners because of what they are hearing online. So I think the awareness is what has helped us.”

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