“No One Cares About Africans”
The reception of Ukrainian refugees spotlights how badly Black and brown refugees are treated
There’s a scene in Ethiopian-American writer Dinaw Mengestu’s novel All Our Names that I think back on a lot. A white social worker, Helen, living in the effectively still segregated 1970s American Midwest, has decided she is going to make a point (maybe to herself) by bringing her lover Isaac—an Ethiopian foreign exchange student—to a local diner. Isaac was not consulted, and upon arrival immediately recognizes the racism he will experience there. Yet when Helen realizes she made a mistake and suggests that they leave, he requests that they stay, that she sit through their meal (his served on a paper plate with plastic utensils, hers on china) and witness how he is treated.
This scene is about the privilege of ignorance, a luxury much of the population doesn’t have. They are quizzed; interrogated; denied visas; held back from travel even when visas are granted. In more extreme but still common cases, they are subjected to violence, incarceration and torture for trying to reach a place of safety. If only, like Helen, the rest of us could be forced to look at racism directly; compelled to witness the brutal effects of it without the freedom to turn away.
In Swedish capital Stockholm, last summer, I sat in an airy restaurant with two former victims of Europe’s migration policy, as they explained what it feels like to starve. Teo, who asked that his name be changed, said his weight had risen to 67 kilograms, after dropping down to 42 kilograms when he was held in a Libyan migrant detention center nicknamed “Guantanamo.”
Fesseha, a polite man wearing a wooden cross tied around his neck with black string, now weighed 72 kilograms, up from 47. He showed me a photo of him taken then, his barely recognizable face attempting a smile that looked more like a skeletal grimace. At the time, his friends and fellow detainees had said he should be happy because he was going to be evacuated through the United Nations—a rare golden ticket to a safe country in the West. Shortly afterwards, Fesseha was told he would need to wait another year in detention, until he was fully recovered from tuberculosis. He wondered if he would die before the flight took off.
Both men—who come from Eritrea, a notorious African dictatorship—were held in Zintan detention center in Libya’s Nafusa Mountains, where detainees died from medical neglect and starvation an average of one every fortnight.
Most of them were originally caught on the Mediterranean Sea trying to reach Europe and locked up indefinitely, without charges or any legal recourse, in detention centers that Pope Francis, among others, has decried as “concentration camps.” Their stories are among hundreds I heard while reporting my book My Fourth Time, We Drowned.
Since 2017, when the EU began spending tens of millions of euros on training and equipping the Libyan coastguard to intercept boats, nearly 100,000 men, women and children have been caught. Many had previously escaped dictatorships in countries like Eritrea, or wars in Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan—mostly former European colonies. This system of interception and incarceration is known by many, but goes largely unquestioned by the European public.
Similar human rights abuses have been playing out across the borders of the rich world: on the southern border of the US; in the seas around Australia. For a long time, it seemed like a more empathetic policy was not possible.
Then came the invasion of Ukraine. In the first ten days after it began, more than 1.5 million refugees crossed into Europe, according to the UN Refugee Agency—topping the 1.3 million that claimed asylum in the EU in the whole of 2015, the year of the so-called “migrant crisis”. That number is now almost at 6 million. Nothing will be easy for them—being a refugee is never easy—but at least the borders are open.
The welcome received by the Ukrainian refugees has stunned experts who have been working on migration policy over the last decade: how is it that one group of refugees are welcomed seemingly with open arms, while another are forced back to a militia-run, war-torn country where a UN-appointed fact-finding mission recently confirmed there is evidence that crimes against humanity and war crimes are being carried out against them?
In Homegoing, her book about the legacy of the West African slave trade, Ghanaian-American novelist Yaa Gyasi writes: “We believe the one who has power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there you get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”
When it comes to the plight of Ukrainian refugees, there has been a notable difference in the way they are represented and spoken about in Europe and North America compared to refugees from other countries.
“These people are intelligent, they are educated people…. This is not the refugee wave we have been used to,” Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov told journalists, early on.
“This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European – I have to choose those words carefully, too – city where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen,” said CBS News senior correspondent Charlie D’Agata, speaking from Kyiv.
“They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking,” columnist Daniel Hannan wrote in the UK’s Daily Telegraph.
There is a pertinent and ongoing debate in the publishing industry about who gets to tell what story, particularly when it comes to the exploited and marginalized. I was aware of this when writing my book, which details the abuse of African refugees at Europe’s southern borders. But I see this as being an account as much about white supremacy as it is about Black or brown refugees; it is a documentation of a system which has been compared to a modern day global apartheid, in which the rich (largely white) world carries with it freedom of movement, whereas the rest of the globe’s population are stuck where they are.
“I don’t understand how people can minimize the pain many of us feel when we see how different Ukrainian refugees are being treated from other refugees,” tweeted Vanessa Tsehaye, a London-based Eritrean and Horn of Africa campaigner with Amnesty International. “It’s painful to constantly be reminded that this treatment could’ve been possible for our loved ones if only they were white… Don’t forget that the EU only treats African and Asian refugees like shit because they get away with it, because there is no real public pressure on them to stop.”
The increase in brutality against Black and brown refugees is widely said to have been a response to the rise of Europe’s far-right: a kind of appeasement, if you will. I thought about this too while reading Martha Gellhorn’s eighty-two year old novel A Stricken Field, which is based on her visit to Prague in 1938, before the Second World War officially began.
The city was already full of refugees who had fled Germany, but remained in grave danger. Some were “new to the profession of exile” and therefore still hoping for assistance, but quickly realized that no one would help them find somewhere secure to go, and that authorities had few qualms about sending them back to their deaths.
A typical scene shows refugees huddled over a tattered geography book open on a map of the world, searching for a place they can find safety. “Has anyone ever heard of Nicaragua?” one asks. “Maybe we can live there. Maybe it is a democracy.”
“All the people ask [for]… is some ground to sleep on in a country that is safe. And they are not allowed,” another refugee, a survivor of detention, tells American journalist Mary Douglas. She wants Douglas to write articles which may sway public opinion in their favor. “After they had public opinion all properly shaped, what good did it do? It was immensely easy to make people hate but it was almost impossible to make them help,” Douglas thinks to herself, before replying “you better not count too much on the moral indignation of the world. It has not been something you can count on. And if you have it, there’s not much you can exchange it for.”
“It’s racism, no one cares about Africans,” came a recent comment from one of my Eritrean contacts, a school teacher, who nearly died from tuberculosis in a Libyan detention center. Like other survivors of Europe’s migration policy, he was struck by how Ukrainian refugees are spoken about publicly and how that contrasts with coverage of refugees from mostly non-white countries.
Literature has documented how quickly sentiment can turn even against those who once had sympathy. In Exit West, Mohsin Hamid imagines a world where doors suddenly open up between different countries, allowing people to escape war. “In their phones were antennas, and these antennas sniffed out an invisible world, as if by magic, a world that was all around them, and also nowhere, transporting them to places distant and near, and to places that had never been and would never be,” he writes. In the UK, there is a build-up of resentment among those Hamid calls the “natives”—the white, British people—against the new arrivals.
“I can understand it,” Nadia, the female protagonist says, showing an unexpected and possibly misplaced sympathy I’ve also witnessed during my interviews with refugees in Europe. “Imagine if you lived here. And millions of people from all over the world suddenly arrived.”
“Millions arrived in our country when there were wars nearby,” her boyfriend replied.
“That was different. Our country was poor. We didn’t feel we had as much to lose,” Nadia answers.
In 2019, the European Union declared the “migrant crisis” over, ahead of parliamentary elections, but the reality was that refugees continue to be silenced and pushed out of sight into ever more horrific situations. Whether the invasion of Ukraine will lead to kinder policies in the longer term remains to be seen. Until now, the select people who make it to safety have to live with extreme trauma and the understanding that, to integrate into their new society, they must effectively forget what they have been through.
In Stockholm last summer, sitting in front of a meal of untouched injera flatbread, meat and vegetables, Fesseha looked around, calculating how many people would sleep inside the restaurant we were in if it was a Libyan detention center: around four hundred in three lines, he guessed. At one point, his eyes welled up; he said thinking about Libya made him “crazy.” I apologized and said we could talk about something else, but he countered that it was good for him, in a strange way. He had grown used to staying quiet about his past because European people had no understanding of it. “People like them, they see the glass only, they don’t look beyond,” he tried to explain to me, gesturing at a water glass on the wooden table between us.
“All my friends, they are in Libya still. It is not just my history, it is the history of refugees. I am lucky because I am…” Fesseha trailed off and gestured at the food in front of us. “Still now they are detained in the very dark jails of Libya. Even in Europe, it would not be easy to stay four years in one house. Being in Libya is like being in a morgue…you are ready to die.”