The Federal Government on Friday said there can be no evacuation of Nigerians in Ukraine until the airports in the European country, which is under attack by Russia, are reopened.
The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, in the early hours of Thursday, had ordered an invasion of Ukraine.
The invasion was marked with shelling and rocket attacks on several Ukrainian major cities, including the capital, Kyiv, leading to dozens of deaths.
The invasion, which has continued, has created widespread panic and seen many fleeing Ukraine.
Countries such as India, South Africa, among others had announced the facilitation of the evacuation of their nationals from Ukraine to neighbouring Poland by setting up offices at the Ukrainian-Polish borders.
According to the Nigerian Foreign Affairs Ministry, there are no fewer than 5,600 Nigerians in Ukraine, majority of who are students.
Ukraine is a choice destination for many Nigerian students, especially those in medical-related fields, because it is cheaper compared with other western countries.
The National Association of Nigerian Students in Ukraine had sent out a Save Our Soul message to the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), seeking immediate evacuation from Ukraine.
On Friday, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, said the Federal Government was concerned about the safety of the 5,600 Nigerians in Ukraine.
“The advice we were getting is that we should not panic. The embassy was in touch with the students telling them to take reasonable precautions,” Onyeama said.
The foreign affairs minister spoke in Abuja after having separate meetings with the Ukrainian ambassador to Nigeria, Kirdoda Valerii, and his Russian counterpart, Alexei Shebarshin.
Onyeama disclosed that during his meeting with the Russian envoy, he discussed the possibility of Nigeria getting her citizens out of Ukraine but the Russian envoy told him there might be risk involved.
According to him, Shebarshin, however, said Russia was mindful of the civilians from foreign countries and would take all the necessary measures to ensure their security.
“He was a lot more sanguine, optimistic that no harm will come to them, but we cannot take any risks,” the minister quoted Shebarshin to have said.
However, Onyeama said he made it clear to the Russian envoy that the Federal Government of Nigeria would not condone the violation of the territorial integrity of a United Nations member state with which Nigeria has diplomatic relations.
Onyema said he told Shebarshin that Nigeria was urging Russia to revert to the status quo before the military action on Ukraine and to prioritise diplomacy and dialogue.
“This is really the position of the government. And also, that we have 5,600 Nigerians in Ukraine and we are very concerned about what we are hearing and what we are seeing, regarding missiles and bombs about the safety of our Nigerian citizens over there, that we would like to be able to evacuate them.
“This would be communicated to his headquarters and that obviously, they consider Nigeria a friendly country and Nigerians; and that they would do nothing to harm Nigerians and assured me that their action is targeted at military installations and that they are not about to start attacking civilian areas and so forth,” Onyeama said.
On his meeting with the Ukrainian envoy, Onyeama said he told Valerii that Nigeria has over 5,000 students and citizens in the country and was very concerned about their safety and welfare.
“And we certainly want the cooperation of the Government of Ukraine to do whatever is possible to ensure their safety and security and to also seek advice as to how the evacuation can be facilitated,” he said.
He quoted the Ukrainian envoy to have said the evacuation of Nigerians in the European country, whose airspace had been shut down following Russia’s invasion, was not possible for now.
Valerii, however, said the Ukrainian government had given safety tips and instructions to residents, adding that there was no discrimination between Ukrainians and foreigners in the safety measures.
Onyeama quoted the Ukrainian envoy to have stated that, “Right now, we are in a very difficult situation, but we are fighting against the aggression and we believe that we will all win.
“Ukrainian Government does not differentiate between people on the basis of their nationality and that is the best effort to protect everybody.
“Currently, the evacuation of Nigerian students is not possible because it is not safe to fly in the sky of Ukraine. As soon as it is safe to fly on the sky of Ukraine, we will join the Embassy of Nigeria in Ukraine and jointly with the Nigerian Government, we will arrange for the evacuation of Nigerian students.”
Valerii expressed gratitude to the Federal Government and people of Nigeria for their support.
Fleeing Nigerian students stranded at Poland border
Nigerians in students fleeing the conflict in Ukraine have been denied access to Poland and are currently stranded at Yarviv, a border town in Ukraine, Saturday PUNCH learnt.
It was gathered that Polish immigration officials are demanding that all Nigerians who wish to enter must possess visas and authorisation letters which the students have been unable to provide as the Nigerian embassy in Poland has yet to intervene.
The students had headed for the Polish border due to the shutting of Ukraine’s airspace. However, after being denied access to Poland, many of the students are now considering returning to Kyiv, which is now under attack.
A Nigerian student, who gave her name as Victoria, told Saturday PUNCH that, “We were not allowed to pass the Yarviv border. We were told that we had to present visas or authorisation letters. One of the officials here who spoke English told us that our embassy will have to issue us letters of authorisation. The issue now is that they are letting some people stay at the refugee camps but they will take your passports from you.
“We are scared, they are sending us back. It was not even easy to get to the border. Some of us here do not understand the language. So, we can’t even communicate with the locals. We try to use Google translator but we can’t even communicate. It’s not so easy moving in the cold.
“I am afraid; I don’t know what to do. My school sent an email and told us to remain calm and not panic but to be honest, it is hard to tell someone not to panic in this kind of situation. We’ve returned to the bunkers but we will still continue to try our luck.”
Another student, Obinna Victor, they had to seek shelter in subway as buildings were being hit by bombs. He further stated that roads were deserted while supermarkets had run out of supplies.
“So far, I have not received any news of anyone that crossed the border to the Poland side. But I think it’s much safer to be closer to the border until the Nigeria government makes an agreement with the Polish government about Nigerians crossing over,” he said.
A relative of one of the students in Ukraine, who identified herself as Mfon John, told Saturday PUNCH that her sister informed her that many were turned back at the Polish border.
She said, “My sister is still in Kyiv. She told us that some people who tried to enter Poland were turned back because they had no letters of authorisation. She can’t speak the language, so it’s hard communicating with the locals. She says they are in the bunkers and things do not look good. She is afraid and we here are also afraid. We need the Federal Government to please step in.”
Also speaking with one of our correspondents, an official of the Nigerians in Diaspora, Poland, Rawlings Onyi, explained that the Nigerian community in Poland was doing everything possible to ensure that the students get access into the country.
“We are trying to work with the embassy to make sure that something is done. We have written to them and we expect that they attend to us. We are also trying to look for borders that will be easy for them to pass through,” said Onyi.
Saturday PUNCH made unsuccessful attempts to speak with the Nigerian embassy in Warsaw, Poland on steps being taken to ensure that fleeing students are granted letters of authorisations at the border.
Calls and emails sent to the contacts on the website of the embassy were not answered as of the time of filing this report.
Another Nigerian student, David Catalyst, told our correspondent that students could not travel anymore because of the hike in the cost of transportation.
“I left Kyiv for Lviv this afternoon. This is not funny at all. Some students couldn’t even travel because of the hike in the cost of transportation. It gets more dangerous every more minute spent in the major cities of Ukraine. Your prayers are needed here.”
The leader of the Nigerians in Diaspora, Poland, Dr Tade Omotosho, said during a live broadcast by Channels TV, “Nigerian communities have been rallying around to see how we can help and provide shelter to people. We need people from the other side. We haven’t got any official statement from the Nigerian Embassy in Poland and the Embassy in Kyiv as they have not been on top of the situations as we would have wanted them to. They should do better.
“We have been contacting them, but the Embassy in Kyiv cannot do anything to help. The only thing they have said is that we should remain calm and protect ourselves.
A group of six female students who spoke to Channels Television on Friday from Ukraine also confirmed that the Nigerian embassy in Ukraine had neither responded to telephone calls nor text messages despite earlier promises that they would continue to provide support to citizens.
“We have made calls to the Nigerian embassy and we have also sent out emails but we have received no responses,” they said.
Victor, another Nigerian student in the embattled country, told Saturday PUNCH, “We are trapped. We are in trouble. We are hiding in our rooms. But we (Nigerian students in the same building) have agreed to stay together. We are not actually expecting anything good from the Nigerian government. The Nigerian government won’t do anything to help us. So sad!”
News medium, Aljazeera, also spoke with some Nigerian students who confirmed their current predicament.
Annora Omolu, a Nigerian undergraduate at Kyiv Medical University, said she heard a small blast by the window of her apartment.
Confused and scared, she began to reach out to the Nigerian embassy in Ukraine for assistance. “Can they send us flights? Everybody is absolutely on their own,” she said.
Nigerian student unions in Ukraine said they made several calls to the Nigerian embassy in Kyiv without getting a response.
“There has been no embassy response,’’ Anjola Ero-Phillips, President of the Nigerian Students Union in Lviv, told Al Jazeera. “All they say is check the website and the last update on the website is January 26. Everybody is absolutely on their own,’’ he added.
The House of Representatives had called on the Federal Government to immediately begin the evacuation of Nigerian students. The lower chamber also pleaded with Nigerian airline, Air Peace, to assist with the evacuation.
However, human rights lawyer, Mr Femi Falana (SAN), lambasted the House of Representatives for calling on Air Peace to evacuate Nigerians.
Falana told Saturday PUNCH that it was not the job of a private organisation to evacuate Nigerians but the primary responsibility of the government to coordinate such.
Falana said, “Air Peace is a private business, so the National Assembly has no business asking Air Peace to evacuate students. Will the government pay? Will the National Assembly appropriate money for it instead of appealing to Air Peace?
“It is the government that should spend money on rescuing stranded Nigerians, not a private airline. Unfortunately, this is one of the prices we have to pay for our dysfunctional educational system. The government is not fixing things. Hence we have been witnessing exodus.”
Act now, Aisha Buhari tells FG
The wife of the President, Mrs Aisha Buhari, on Friday backed the called by the National Assembly abd appealed to the Foreign Affairs Ministry to handle the situation as quick as possible.
“The Minister of Foreign Affairs should treat this matter as an emergency, while our citizens should stay calm, comply with safety procedures and avoid self-help in order to avoid the mischief of human traffickers,” Mrs Buhari said.