Ukraine’s refugees: will compassion prevail over prejudice?
A response of overwhelming compassion has been extended to the estimated 2.8 million people who have so far fled Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine. But deeply troubling reports of racism towards non-white refugees point to a broader structural problem. Media reporting of the Ukrainian exodus has been very different to the way the arrival of non-European refugees is covered. The right-wing leaders of Hungary and Poland, who for years gained political advantage in stoking enmity towards Middle Eastern migrants and refugees, now welcome white refugees with open arms. It’s time to dismantle Europe’s sense of exceptionalism, which continues to enable systematic violations of the rights of non-European migrants and everyday racism against non-white Europeans.
Every day they line up in their thousands to cross Ukraine’s borders, queueing for hours in freezing conditions after arduous journeys. According to the United Nations (UN) Refugee Agency, over 2.8 million people have now fled Ukraine, and the number rises rapidly every day, as people seek to escape Vladimir Putin’s brutal war of aggression. The UN estimates that overall 4 million people may eventually flee Ukraine – 10 per cent of its population.
People who flee are overwhelmingly being met with kindness and compassion. Volunteers have flocked to the border to provide material support and offers of help. Civil society organisations have mobilised to meet the urgent new need. Every day brings a new symbol of all that is best about humanity in its darkest moments – such as the baby strollers that Polish women lined up near the border for Ukrainian mothers to use on arrival.
Voluntary response has been matched by the decision of the European Union (EU) to sweep away its normal asylum rules. Ukrainian refugees now have the right to live, work and access housing, education and healthcare in EU countries for up to three years, without having to go through the usual lengthy asylum procedures.
Double standards on full display
This is how all refugees should be treated. But it’s the exception rather than the norm. The support being offered to Ukrainian refugees stands in violent contrast to the EU’s harsh treatment of refugees from further afield – and particularly those who have undertaken their own dangerous journeys to escape conflict and repression in countries such as Afghanistan and Syria.
Instead of receiving support, these refugees encounter a myriad of obstacles created by the EU and its member states: pushbacks at sea, detention in Libyan camps characterised by appalling living conditions and human rights violations and, if they manage to reach Europe, lengthy stays in refugee camps and years of waiting to receive documentation and have basic rights recognised.
Missing from the current narrative is any reference to the Ukrainian exodus as a ‘migrant crisis’ for countries receiving refugees. This was the expression used across the board in 2015, when an estimated 1.2 million Syrians arrived in Europe. Then, most governments went out of their way to avoid receiving refugees – they rejected them, tried to return them and leveraged economic aid to try to keep refugees in transit countries. Their arrival was largely not recognised as an emergency for people fleeing desperate conditions, but rather as a crisis for the countries in which they arrived.
When the EU established quotas to distribute Syrian refugees landing in Greece and Italy among EU countries, Hungary and Poland were among the states that simply refused to accept them. Hungary’s and Poland’s leaders have for years benefited from opposing immigration, stoking toxic racist politics and divisive populist narratives to galvanise support.
When Belarus’s dictator Alexander Lukashenko used refugees as a human weapon, flying in desperate people from Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen and urging them to flee west in an attempt to destabilise neighbouring countries, Poland deployed soldiers to keep them out, leaving people to starve in no man’s land. Several people died. In January, the Polish government started building a border wall.
Now these countries are opening the door to Ukrainian refugees, and winning international plaudits for doing so. Poland has welcomed over 1.7 million refugees, and rising. Hungary is second, albeit a distant one, with over 250,000.
Hungary’s authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is less than a month away from an election that promises to be tight. In what may be an attempt to downplay his embarrassing history of close connections to Putin, he has suddenly switched from staunch nationalist opposition to migration to apparent warmth towards Ukrainian refugees.
Racism on both sides of the border
These double standards are being reproduced where it matters most: at the border. While the response has been overwhelmingly compassionate, several reports indicate the selective exercise of empathy. The evidence has piled up that non-white Ukrainians and foreign nationals living in Ukraine are finding it much harder to cross the border than white Ukrainians.
Pre-war, the country was home to many international students. Far from home, caught up in a conflict they could never have foreseen, they’ve sought protection in other countries. War should be a great leveller – but it is not. Like other crises and emergencies, such as the pandemic, the worst impacts fall on already marginalised groups. All refugees have the same rights under the Refugee Convention – but in practice, the evidence is that white refugees are being seen as more deserving, while non-white ones are being treated as second-class citizens.
In the early days of the conflict, the government of Nigeria reported that its citizens were being denied entry to Poland, and forced to make the long trek south to Hungary; there were an estimated 4,000 Nigerian students in Ukraine.
But the problem has not been confined to the Polish side of the border: African students have complained of being prevented from boarding trains heading out of Ukraine. African and Asian people have reported experiencing segregation at the hands of Ukrainian security guards, and being on the receiving end of violence from guards, while checkpoints have refused to let them through.
Sickeningly, Polish far-right groups, for once not finding an ally in the ruling Law and Justice Party, have reportedly attacked groups of African, Asian and Middle Eastern people who’ve been able to make their way across. Police reported that to encourage attacks, far-right groups are spreading false rumours that non-white groups of refugees have committed crimes.
All refugees have the same rights under the Refugee Convention – but in practice, non-white refugees are being treated as second-class citizens.
The EU doesn’t look like it’s going to defend them. Non-Ukrainian citizens have been left out of the agreement granting refugees broad rights to live in other countries, reportedly at the urging of Hungary and Poland. If non-Ukrainians fleeing the country with virtually nothing want to stay in Europe, they’ll have to go through the same arduous asylum procedures as those arriving on Europe’s shores by sea.
Ukraine’s Black and Brown population aren’t the only ones being left behind in a crisis. Many trans people are effectively trapped in Ukraine, unable to leave because their IDs don’t match their post-transition gender, name or appearance. Trans women are officially still recognised as men, and so at risk of being barred from leaving, since men under 60 are ordered to stay and fight. Their predicament shows that the legal rights LGBTQI+ organisations campaign for aren’t just nice things to have – they can literally be the difference between life and death.
Time to rethink European exceptionalism
Russia’s war of aggression towards Ukraine has global significance. It’s a move unprecedented in recent history: a permanent member of the UN Security Council has invaded a neighbouring state with zero justification, in what threatens to spill over into a broader – and potentially nuclear – conflict.
But some of the terms in which the conflict is being discussed are alarming. Some commentators see the conflict as significant only because it is taking place in Europe, or because those involved are white and relatively affluent. Other conflicts, including in Ethiopia, Syria, Yemen and across the Sahel, haven’t been covered in such terms.
This is no trivial matter. It points to a wider structure of western exceptionalism in which the selective treatment of migrants and refugees is embedded: in which Black and Brown people at Ukraine’s border are discriminated against and refugees from the Middle East and North Africa can, on a wholesale basis, be denied the rights currently extended to Ukrainians.
It suggests troubling questions about the way Europe has constructed and understood itself, particularly in the wake of the 2015 arrival of refugees and the rise in influence of far-right parties: around a broadly white, Christian identity that others the rest of the world and the global non-white majority. This enables the racism that Black and Brown Europeans experience daily.
The voluntary response at the border shows humanity as its best, but also some of its deepest miseries. Compassion needs to be practised towards everyone, in the spirit of humanitarianism and respect for universal rights that motivates civil society. European states and the EU should rethink their prejudice and extend towards everyone the same empathy they have rightly found in their hearts for Ukrainian refugees.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
All reports of racist treatment of refugees must be urgently investigated, those responsible held to account and refugee policies revised accordingly.
The EU should revise its migration and refugee policy to extend the same compassion it is showing towards Ukrainian refugees to refugees escaping conflict and repression in other countries.
Civil society in countries receiving Ukrainian refugees, particularly Poland, should work to ensure that all refugees are treated equally and counter disinformation from far-right groups.
Cover photo by Hannibal Hanschke/Getty Images