We Must Not Ignore the Ongoing Plight of International Students in Ukraine

After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, the EU granted asylum to millions of Ukrainian refugees. However, international students and other non-Ukrainians caught in the conflict have struggled to receive similar protection.

Relatives of a Zambian student who died in the conflict in Ukraine last September console one another as his coffin arrives at the Kenneth Kaunda International Airport in Lusaka on December 11, 2022. (Salim Dawood / AFP via Getty Images)

After the Yugoslav wars that rocked Europe between 1991 and 2001, the European Union established a system of temporary protections for displaced people outside the bloc’s external borders. It would take the EU over two decades to activate this directive, which stood unused even during the height of the refugee crisis that began 2015, during which the absence of safe means of entry into the bloc has thus far led to the deaths of 22,993 people at sea.

Following the start of Russia’s war on Ukraine, the EU triggered the Temporary Protection Directive, offering asylum to the millions of Ukrainians displaced by the bloody war from March 2022. Since then, the number of people who — fleeing either permanently or briefly — left Ukraine since February 24, 2022, when the war began, is estimated at 19,505,596. This is a largest influx of migrants that the EU has witnessed since its founding in 1993.

The Temporary Protections Directive, despite its clear benefits, has one glaring problem: it does not offer protection to everyone in Ukraine suffering from the effects of the war. To be eligible for international protection, you need to be either a Ukrainian national or be a close family member of Ukrainian nationals. Though this covers the vast majority of people living in the country, it leaves out many vulnerable groups. These include non-Ukrainian nationals and stateless people whose legal status in Ukraine is guaranteed by international law, refugees and beneficiaries of subsidiary protection and their families, and non-Ukrainian nationals with a permanent residence permit who cannot return to their country of origin for safety reasons.

Many Ukrainians whose African or Asian partners, spouses, or parents did not have citizenship were forced to make the difficult decision of leaving their loved ones or staying with them in a country ravaged by war.

The problem with the directive is that there is no country in the world in which every inhabitant is also a citizen. The Temporary Protection Directive consequently overlooks a considerable number of migrants in Ukraine who are international students — who have also been living, working, and studying in the country since before the war.

It is estimated that there were around seventy thousand international students in Ukraine before the war, many of whom would have been midway or even almost finishing multiyear degrees before the war started.

International students in Ukraine aren’t a particularly recent phenomenon. Over one hundred thousand of them had studied in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic during the existence of the USSR. The close ties between the socialist bloc and countries predominantly in the Global South, from which much of the current intake of international students is still drawn, persisted despite the collapse of state socialism. Many citizens of countries in the developing world have remained in Ukraine for years and had children and careers there. The main subjects that were studied by international students were medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine, pharmacology, computer science, mechanical engineering, and aeronautical engineering, as well as business management, economics, banking, finance, and business administration programs.

In the first weeks of the war, I found myself involved in a number of grassroots online networks to help people escape Ukraine. At first, I seemed to be using my rather rusty Russian to help people with type one diabetes flee the country in order to gain access to insulin in Poland and Hungary. But the more time I spent in the networks of refugees based in Ukraine, the more I found myself meeting people from countries outside of the West and the EU.

These people, mainly from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, faced huge difficulties in trying to flee Ukraine. Although some of them were technically eligible for support via the EU’s directive, border police pushed them back as they attempted to flee Ukraine into the EU. They faced racism and harassment for the crime of trying to cross a border during a war.

A lot of the people I encountered were international students, but many had also been living in Ukraine for years and so were permanent residents. They had been working in Ukraine for many years. Some were married and/or the parents of Ukrainian citizens, or their children were born there and had permanent residency. These networks of support and advice were facilitated by Twitter and Telegram groups shared by non-Ukrainian nationals to discuss the difficulties they were facing with one another.

According to many of the people I spoke to, border officials (and in some cases charities) encouraged other non-Ukrainian nationals to offer bribes in exchange for safe passage. Deprived of the international attention that has rightly been focused on the plight of Ukrainian citizens, these refugees often waited for hours without food or water, and were often neglected by international charities.

Online, the global network (onto which I had inadvertently stumbled) that had emerged to help non-Western nationals spread worldwide. I only came across it after a friend sent me a link to one of the many Twitter pages on which refugees discussed their experiences of how difficult it was for them to try and find safety.

International students are often viewed in the West as affluent. From speaking to and reading the testimonies of non-Western refugees online, it is clear that many of them have had to make massive personal sacrifices in order to study in Ukraine. The families of some of these international students sold their property back home just so they could study in Ukraine. Others had their families borrow from loan sharks. These lenders have gone on to harass the families of students who, stuck in Ukraine and in bordering EU countries, are unable to complete their studies.

Some universities held onto first-year students’ passports as part of their application process. Due to the war, these students couldn’t contact the university to go pick up their passports during a very active conflict. These individuals were forced to head straight to the border with hopes for the best, accompanied by their friends, many of whom were other non-Western nationals.

A considerable amount of the students used “education agencies” to help them with the visa and application processes in getting into a university in Ukraine. In exchange for this support, agencies ask students to pay lofty fees, even if they have fled Ukraine and are unable to continue studying. Some of these agencies have used horrific tactics to prey on students and scare them into sending them more money.

International students have shared with me letters they have received from these agencies. In these letters, which are often littered with spelling mistakes, agencies threaten to fine and report to Interpol students unable to satisfy these aggressive demands. Of course, these threats have absolutely no basis in reality. Interpol has far bigger concerns than chasing international students who have crossed a border due to war. The only point of these lies is to spread fear in order to make students fork out cash.

For the non-Western students who have remained in Ukraine, their main reason for doing so is the high cost of migrating. Some students had saved for years to be able to study STEM subjects, and it was their entire life dream to become a doctor or an engineer. While many Ukrainian universities have moved their classes online, remote learning has not been possible for dentistry and other practical degrees. The Medical and Dental Council of Nigeria in June of last year issued a statement that degree certificates from Ukraine will no longer be honored by the of council “until when normal academic activities resume”.

The way the EU, UK, United States, and Canada have eased their border regimes for Ukrainian nationals should be a model for a more inclusive and open migrant policy for refugees of all nationalities. Instead, the EU bloc and its allies have reinforced a two-tiered refugee status system, grounded in ideas of citizenship that exclude some of the most marginalized people.