Biden's Big Chance: Kyiv Visit Offers Opportunity to Combat Racist Violence in Ukraine

Mr. Biden should take this opportunity to encourage the Ukrainian government to take practical and concrete steps to strengthen its response to hate crime.
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By Charles Asante-Yeboa President, African Center of Kyiv

In January 2008, I was returning home from a meeting with a Nigerian man who had been a victim of a violent racist attack a few days earlier. Standing at the bus stop near Shuliavska metro station, I was suddenly attacked by a group of young men. One of the attackers first hit me with a metal bar in the back of the head, as others--up to 15 persons--joined in kicking and beating me with a variety of objects. I was also stabbed in several places, including one deep wound in the back of my head. The attackers shouted "let's slit his throat" and "no, let's cut his head in two." I kept struggling for my life until a minivan approached, causing them to flee. I am yet to recover fully from the wounds that I suffered, and the memory of that evening still makes me cautious as I walk down even busy city streets. Furthermore, I am still waiting for the perpetrators to be brought to justice. Like in most other cases of racist violence in Ukraine, there is a general climate of impunity for those who commit these brazen acts of discrimination.

After arriving in Ukraine from my native Ghana a decade ago, I quickly came to see the many problems faced by foreigners, especially Africans, in Ukraine. In order to address those grievances, I spearheaded the establishment of the African Center. My colleagues and I advise and provide legal assistance to people of African origin living in Ukraine; help to improve their living standards; facilitate their return home if necessary; and promote discussions on African culture and politics, among other subjects. Regrettably, dealing with problems related to racially motivated attacks on members of our community in Ukraine has taken a bulk of our time and resources, particularly over the past several years. In this effort, we have worked closely in the framework of the "Diversity Initiative" -- a coalition of international and domestic organizations based in Ukraine, spearheaded by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

Since 2005, nongovernmental monitors in Ukraine have documented a dramatic rise in violent crimes with a suspected bias motivation. Violence against foreigners and other visible minorities is taking place throughout the country, although incidents occurring in Kyiv have been relatively better reported. This violence has been largely committed against people of African and Asian origin, Jews and Roma, as well as people from the Caucasus and the Middle East. Asylum seekers, refugees, and labor migrants are among the victims. Foreign students, of which there are some forty thousand and who bring substantial funds to Ukrainian universities, have been among the principal victims of hate crimes.

Immigrants like myself are vulnerable targets of racism and xenophobia because we are highly visible in society. Although relatively few people of African origin reside in Ukraine, the rate of violence against this group has been extraordinary. The attacks are rampant and unpredictable, and could happen anywhere: on subway and buses, in downtown and outskirts, in front of many witnesses or in dark alleys, and even near student hostels.

I was lucky enough to survive the brutal attack described above. However, Julius Igbodunu Azike's Ukrainian wife and three kids are still mourning the death of their father, a Nigerian national who was shot outside their home in Kyiv on June 26, 2009. The latest murder has renewed--or rather increased--the sense of fear and desperation among foreigners, especially African migrants.

Last year, a 19-year-old Congolese asylum seeker Joseph Bunta was found with seventeen knife wounds to his head, chest, and back. Another victim's funeral turned into a march against racism, as antiracism activists joined the friends and family of Gbenda-Charles Victor, a 39-year-old refugee from Sierra Leone, who was stabbed some ten times and died in front of his wife. The list goes on.

We are still seeking justice for the murders of Julius, Joseph, Charles, and others, who perished in these hateful attacks. Although there have been some improvements, police and prosecutors have been largely ineffective in investigating these incidents, recognizing the racist motives, and in bring the perpetrators to justice.

The Ukrainian government needs to step up efforts to combat hate crimes. The international community can support those efforts by reminding the government of its international commitments in this area. The visit to Kyiv of U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden represents one such opportunity. We recognize that his meetings with Ukrainian officials will likely focus on important economic and security matters. However, Mr. Biden should also use the opportunity to encourage the Ukrainian government to take practical and concrete steps - like those outlined by Human Rights First - to strengthen its response to hate crime. The best way to ensure Ukraine's European integration is by strengthening the government's commitment to advancing human rights and the rule of law. A strong response to racist violence is one important barometer of that commitment.

Recognition of this problem at the highest levels of government is ever so important. After the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC was attacked in June, President Obama came forth to make a strong statement, unequivocally reaffirming that "we must remain vigilant against antisemitism and prejudice in all its forms." President Yuschenko could take a page out of Mr. Obama's book and react to violence in Ukraine in a similar fashion, sending strong messages to law enforcement and criminal justice authorities that impunity for bias-motivated violence is inexcusable.

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