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The Grim Status Quo: A Deep Dive into the Pervasive Racism Exposed by the Ukrainian Refugee Crisis

Image Credit: Justine Goode; MSNBC / Getty Images

The war in Ukraine, when viewed side by side with recent wars around the world from Yemen to Syria to Ethiopia, indicates disturbing global trends. There is far too little protection for civilians, and the detrimental impact is heightened for already vulnerable groups. Civilians displaced by war sit in limbo for years, and those lucky enough to escape their war-torn countries are relegated to overcrowded and under-resourced camps. The Council on Foreign Relations reports shrinking opportunities for refugee resettlement, a result of the international community’s inability and/or unwillingness to support them or resolve the conflict that caused their displacement in the first place. Refugees in camps can face intense discrimination and fall victim to starvation, illness, and human trafficking. And the perpetrators of all this global violence and suffering tend to be met with impunity. This is the grim status quo.

Certainly, in some ways the war in Ukraine has united the international community, illuminating human resilience and our global connectivity. Since Russian forces officially invaded Ukraine in February of 2022, over 5 million Ukranians have fled to neighboring countries, creating one of the largest refugee crises in recent history. But despite the volume of displaced people streaming from Ukraine, the refugees have largely been met with overwhelming support. Journalists and activists from around the world have been at the forefront of advocacy efforts for displaced Ukranians. Social media posts coming out of Ukraine, depicting demolished city structures and dead civilians in the streets, have mobilized grassroot fundraising efforts. Neighboring countries have met the outpour of refugees with an “open arms” policy much broader than previously seen in recent refugee crises. Civilians in Poland and Germany have gone to extraordinary lengths to shelter and assist the refugees. The European Union website states that “all EU countries bordering Ukraine are allowing entry to all people fleeing the war in Ukraine on humanitarian grounds regardless of whether or not you have a biometric passport.” 

Yet despite these open border policies, and despite the usage of the term “all people” on the EU website, the global response to Ukrainian refugees has emphasized a unity based on discriminatory and often racist ideas of who defines “us” and who defines “them.” Refugees are not welcomed equitably based on their skin color or country of origin, reflecting a long legacy of defining some as more human, and therefore more deserving of protection, than others. The biased reception of Ukrainian refugees because of their perceived whiteness and familiarity has been evident in governmental responses and international policy, in the reporting on the war, and in posts on social media. 

Refugees are not welcomed equitably based on their skin color or country of origin, reflecting a long legacy of defining some as more human, and therefore more deserving of protection, than others.

In a statement to journalists, Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov expressed this sentiment with no ambiguity, saying “These are not the refugees we are used to; these people are Europeans. These people are intelligent. They are educated people… This is not the refugee wave we have been used to, people we were not sure about their identity, people with unclear pasts, who have been even terrorists. In other words, there is not a single European country now which is afraid of the current wave of refugees.” And while he has been widely criticized for the racist and Islamophobic undertones of this statement, it reflects a wider xenophobic ideology towards migrants and refugees that is shared by many across Europe and the broader international community. Thus, in the ways that the international response to the war in Ukraine has projected a show of global unity, it has also revealed that we are just as divided as ever.

Brown and black refugees fleeing from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa are met with much more resistance and policy restrictions than Ukrainian refugees. Over the lifecycle of any global crisis, support for refugees is typically higher at the outbreak and wanes over time as a result of conflict fatigue. For refugees from countries like Syria, however, support even at the height of the refugee crises was limited and waned rapidly. In fact, a 2017 report by the European Network Against Racism noted that, at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015, several European states “made it clear that irregular and in particular Muslim migrants were not welcome.” Even the language used during the Syrian refugee crisis, which was widely referred to as an “invasion,” indicated widespread bias against refugees of color. The war in Syria produced 1.3 million refugees in 2015, which pales in comparison to the 5 million refugees produced by the war in Ukraine in less than a year. Yet there has been no such categorization of the flow of Ukrainian refugees as an “invasion” in media or governmental discourse regarding the crisis.

Brown and black refugees fleeing from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa are met with much more resistance and policy restrictions than Ukrainian refugees.

The difference between the acceptance of Ukrainian refugees in comparison to Syrian refugees is striking not just in discourse, but also in the implementation of policy. In December  2021, conservative and nationalist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban made a statement addressing migrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa, the main message of which was “we are not going to accept any refugees.” Orban has a reputation for xenophobia and harsh policies towards refugees, largely as a result of his actions in response to the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis. His response included building a razor-wire fence along Hungary’s southern border and deploying armed forces to violently expel refugees who Orban labeled as illegals, rapists, and terrorists. In contrast, in April of 2022 Orban made a statement regarding Ukrainian refugees with a very different message from his usual anti-immigrant rhetoric. He told reporters “Hungary is a good friend of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. If they need any help, we are here and they can count on us.” This is in spite of Orban’s apparent alliance with Vladimir Putin. So far, approximately 400,000 Ukranians have been admitted into Hungary.

Interestingly, Russia is at least partially responsible for many of the refugee crises that have burdened Europe for decades. Syrian refugee and journalist Okba Mohammad described a feeling of déjà vu as he followed reports of the crisis unfolding in Ukraine. Likewise, in his article titled “Why Ukraine is a Syrian Cause,” prominent Syrian writer and political dissident Yassin al-Haj Saleh emphasizes the many similarities between the brutal Russian occupation of Syria in 2015 and the brutal Russian occupation of Ukraine today. For over six years, Russia has held a major military base in northwestern Syria, using the country as a testing ground for Russia’s military. Saleh describes the war in Syria as an imperialist war waged by Russia, during which the Russian military bombed civilian facilities and targeted hospitals, schools, and markets. Now, “encouraged by a costless mandate over Syria, Putin wants to annex Ukraine.”

Given these parallels between the Syrian and Ukrainian refugee crises, the difference in response is telling. Saleh points out that “there have hardly been enough voices in the West condemning Putin’s war in Syria,” indicating the double standards in the urgency with which countries and the media responded to Ukraine compared to Syria.  

Given these parallels between the Syrian and Ukrainian refugee crises, the difference in response is telling.

Beyond their biased reception of certain refugee groups, the EU and the US have been criticized for their direct deportation of refugees of color back to unstable and violent homelands where “they’ve faced rape, torture, arbitrary arrest, and other abuses.” The EU was recently criticized for paying Libya to intercept migrants trying to reach European shores, returning them to the dangerous situations they were fleeing or leaving them in perilous detention centers. And while the US is preparing to accept thousands of Ukrainian refugees, the country continues to deport African, South American, and Caribbean refugees back to their unstable homelands. Less than a year ago, the brutal expulsion of Haitian refugees crossing the US border stirred significant controversy when photos of American border patrol agents whipping the refugees seeking asylum became public. A recent report by Human Rights Watch found that many refugees deported from the US face brutal persecution and human rights violations upon returning to their country of origin. 

There are, of course, a variety of factors that contribute to a government’s response to crises, including a confluence of geopolitical considerations. Migration policy in the US and Europe has always been politically fraught. Arguably, the Western objective of advancing Western-style democracies over Russian authoritarianism means that the US and the EU have more to gain politically from accepting Ukrainian refugees than refugees displaced by internal conflicts. However, both Syrian and Ukrainian refugees share Russia as their common enemy with the US and the EU. Regardless, nationalism and xenophobia (and the biases that accompany these ideologies) underly every aspect of geopolitics, whether or not they are overtly tied to race.

That being said, colonial and racist ideology has been quite blatantly expressed in response to the war in Ukraine, especially by news reporters and commentators. NBC News Correspondent Kelly Cobiella stated on air that “these are not refugees from Syria, they are refugees from Ukraine… They’re Christian, they’re white, they’re very similar.” Journalist and politician Daniel Hannah wrote in Britain’s Telegraph newspaper “they seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking. Ukraine is a European country. Its people watch Netflix and have Instagram accounts, vote in free elections and read uncensored newspapers. War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations. It can happen to anyone.” David Sakvarelidze, Ukraine’s former deputy general prosecutor, said to BBC in an interview, “it’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed.” 

The racist rhetoric perpetuated by governments and the media alike, and the stark differences between the reception of refugees of color compared to that of Ukrainian refugees, is obviously harmful. Just as Putin is seeking to dehumanize and delegitimize Ukrainians in order to justify his destructive war against them, the racist and xenophobic logic that defines the global response to brown and black refugees is likewise dehumanizing and justifies the violence inflicted upon them. And clearly the prioritization of Ukrainian refugees over refugees from the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Central and South America is not just discursive. 

Just as Putin is seeking to dehumanize and delegitimize Ukrainians in order to justify his destructive war against them, the racist and xenophobic logic that defines the global response to brown and black refugees is likewise dehumanizing and justifies the violence inflicted upon them.

The Ukrainian refugee crisis is indicative of widespread systemic racism in another concerning way. Since the start of the war, people of color fleeing Ukraine have been met with racial profiling, violence, and exclusion. This includes Ukrainian citizens who do not appear white, as well as students from Africa and the Middle East pursuing degrees in Ukraine. Bijan Hosseini, a journalist and producer for CNN, posted a Twitter thread describing the racism his sister experienced while trying to escape Ukraine as a West African national who had been staying in Kyiv when the war broke out. Hosseini shared videos from his sister at the border where two lines were formed: one for white people, and one for everyone else. The line for white people advanced and they were slowly let over the border. The line of “others” were held back and forced to sleep outside in the snow.

Hosseini shared videos from his sister at the border where two lines were formed: one for white people, and one for everyone else.

There are many examples of this discrimination and segregation on the basis of racial profiling, some of which can be found under the hashtag #AfricansinUkraine on Twitter. African nationals living in Ukraine posted videos of Ukrainians blocking Africans from getting on trains, and the chaos that ensued as people trying to flee were categorized and prioritized on racialized assumptions of who was “Ukrainian” or not. Africans who were blocked from trains but managed to escape by car arrived at the border only to be blocked from leaving there as well. More videos posted to social media depict large groups of black people stranded in Ukraine, taking shelter after being prevented from leaving and looking exhausted and dejected. 

This is problematic not just in its clear display of pervasive racism, but also in the ways this discrimination will only exacerbate the crisis further. By enhancing the vulnerability of already vulnerable populations, the inherent racism underlying the Ukrainian refugee crisis will create even more of a strain on the international community in the long term. The consequences of the millions of displaced Ukrainians are being felt across the globe, but are especially hard-hitting for parts of the world where there are already underfunded refugee efforts, where displaced and vulnerable populations from other conflicts have been sitting in camps for years. As the world’s attention turns to Ukraine, the fate of the millions of already half-forgotten refugees and displaced people becomes even more tenuous. For example, Vox reports that “though Yemenis should receive protection under the EU’s refugee settlement plan, the Yemeni Embassy in Poland posted a statement on February 26 implying that resettlement in the EU would be difficult. There’s been no further information since.”

By enhancing the vulnerability of already vulnerable populations, the inherent racism underlying the Ukrainian refugee crisis will create even more of a strain on the international community in the long term.

Of course, all this is not to say that the Ukrainian refugees who receive support and access to resources do not deserve safety and well-being. But it is necessary to address the double standard applied to refugees, victims of war, and migrants at large. Racist ideology has characterized wars in Syria or Ethiopia as more acceptable than the war in Ukraine. A similar phenomenon happened decades ago in Yugoslavia, where the victims of war were seen as “white” as well. Ironically, the perceived whiteness of eastern Europeans in the western imagination has always been ambiguous. While today Europeans may embrace Ukranians as European, this is a rather recent development. Kenan Malik, a journalist for the Guardian, suggests that “the boundaries of those who are ‘like us,’ of those who are European, of even those who are considered ‘white,’ are not fixed but shift according to political and social need. And those ever-changing boundaries are defined as much by those deemed to be not like us as by those whom we acknowledge are.”

Racist ideology has characterized wars in Syria or Ethiopia as more acceptable than the war in Ukraine.

Acknowledging the disparity in the global reaction to the war in Ukraine compared to past refugee crises does not mean we should reduce support for the Ukrainian people. Instead, it means we should be extending that same support to all refugees, regardless of race, color, or creed. Clearly, it was not the volume of refugees coming from Syria, or Haiti, or Congo that prevented the international community from supporting them and granting them safety. Kenan Malik reaffirms that “the issue is one not of numbers but of political will and of the social and imaginative borders we draw.”

The challenge now facing the international community is to confront those social and imaginative borders, and acknowledge the ways in which they perpetuate and exacerbate global violence and destruction. We must, as an international community, disrupt this grim status quo built on hundreds of years of colonialism, xenophobia, racism, and discrimination.

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