Jamaican students stranded in Ukraine now home

4th March 2022

Photo by L.Filipe C.Sousa 

Twenty Jamaican students finally arrived home in Jamaica yesterday after a tortuous journey out of Kyiv.   

Jamaica was the only country in the Caribbean with a sizeable number of known nationals in Ukraine at the time of the invasion since many students pursue medical studies there. 

In the days before the Russia launched its military invasion of Ukraine, governments across the globe worked to get their citizens out of the country and to safety. The Jamaican Government was no different, but has been criticised for offering a loan facility to the students instead of paying for their evacuation directly.  

Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Kamina Johnson-Smith said that “the Government of Jamaica had made a special offer to assist Jamaican students seeking to return home, and ultimately, no student had utilised it”.  

Under the offer, the Government would book and pay for the plane tickets for the students to return home, with the money to be repaid to the state at a later date. While some students did request assistance, they decided against taking up the loan; opting to make private arrangements or remain in Ukraine in hopes that the invasion would not occur. 

As news broke that President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine and scenes of war emerged, the Jamaican Foreign Ministry reported that of the 43 students studying there, 15 had left the country. Of the 28 remaining students, 25 were located in Kharkiv, one in L’viv, and two had not provided their location. 

Some of the students said that they did not evacuate because they could not afford to repay the loan offered by the Foreign Affairs Ministry. Several of those who remained in the country after fighting started were forced to leave their homes and seek refuge in bomb shelters.  

The Government has come under fire for its initial decision to offer a loan rather than repatriate students at the cost to the state. Opposition Spokesperson on Youth and Sports, Senator Gabriela Morris criticised the Government. “This practice of leaving our citizens stranded when they face crises overseas has become a routine for this Government. We recall the fishermen left stranded in a US immigration facility in 2020, as well as the Jamaican cruise ship workers left to languish at sea,” she said in a statement.  

Prime Minister Andrew Holness has defended his administration’s handling of the situation. He said that the procedure of offering a loan to citizens for travel is not unusual to governments and that this is not the first time such an offer has been made. 

“The offer of a loan must be placed into context. This is not the first time that Jamaican students have been stuck in Ukraine. In about 2013/2014, when a similar situation, less intense at the time compared to this, occurred with Crimea… It was the same procedure,” said Holness.  

Since then, the Prime Minister through his charity, Positive Jamaica Foundation, and the PNP have raised US$11,500 and US$10,000, respectively to assist the students. Both entities indicated that the funds would be routed through the Foreign Ministry to ensure that the efforts are coordinated and seamless. 

In a statement, the PNP said that at the request of the students, PNP President Mark Golding provided a personal donation to cover the cost of train tickets for 25 students from the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, who were seeking to get to Poland. 

Later, the Government made the decision to foot to bill for the repatriation efforts. Foreign Minister Johnson-Smith announced that “the Government will underwrite the cost of subsistence in L’viv and in Poland as well as the transportation cost for the students from L’viv to Poland” and the cost for air travel to Jamaica.  

News has since emerged that the 24 students made it to Poland by completing a 20-kilometre journey by foot after their travel by bus from L’viv was disrupted. Jamaica’s Charge d’Affaires in Berlin was deployed to Poland to receive the Jamaican students and facilitate their crossing at the border. Two of the students needed medical attention due to the low temperatures.  

Twenty of the students have now arrived safely back in Jamaica after continuing their journey via Poland and Germany. It was noted that efforts will be made to monitor and assist remaining students and other Jamaican nationals in Ukraine as the conflict continues. Discussion is underway about what Government support can be provided to them to enable them to complete their studies.  

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