“Civilized versus Uncivilized Refugees”: The Political Consequences of the narrative on the Ukrainian crisis

The conflict in Ukraine has created another refugee crisis. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), in two weeks (since 24 February), over 2 million people have fled Ukraine. Many of them are being welcomed by neighboring countries, particularly Poland (1,2 million), but also Hungary (over 191,000), Slovakia (over 140,000), Moldova and Romania (over 82,000 each), Belarus (over 450), and other European countries (over 210,000) [1].

The European “open door” policy to Ukrainian refugees has highlighted the difference in treatment of refugees from other parts of the world. When 1,3 million refugees crossed into Europe in 2015 – mostly fleeing Syria, but also Afghanistan, Iraq, and other countries – support from European societies was quite high at first. However, the warm welcome ended after European countries disagreed among them over how to share responsibility, and governments started to restrict asylum policies [2]. According to UNHCR, the war in Syria created the world’s largest refugee crisis in decades, and over 10 years after the beginning of this war – which has also involved the military intervention of Russia, among other international and regional powers –, there are 6,6 million Syrian refugees and 6,7 million are internally displaced [3]. Most Syrian refugees (5,6 million) are hosted in neighboring countries, while European countries have received around 1 million – mostly Germany (59%) and Sweden (11%) [4].

The drastic change in tone towards Ukrainian refugees has been particularly striking in the case of Hungary and Poland. Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, shifted from telling the EU “We aren’t going to let anyone in” last December – after the European Court of Justice ruled that the country’s asylum policy contradicted the EU law [5] – to saying “We’re letting everyone in”, addressing people from Ukraine last week [6]. Poland also opposed an EU open-door policy to asylum seekers and migrants from outside the continent in the past, including during the 2015 crisis, while Polish authorities are now fully mobilized – added to an enormous grassroots effort – to support Ukrainians fleeing the conflict [7].

Europe’s more positive response towards refugees fleeing the Ukrainian war might be rooted in the geopolitical implications and the geographical proximity of this war, in opposition to conflicts in other continents. However, several reports have emphasized the different narrative towards refugees fleeing Ukraine compared with the one about refugees from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. Since the beginning of the conflict, narratives have emerged among several centre- and right-wing politicians and journalists framing Ukrainian refugees as “civilized”, “intelligent and educated”, “prosperous middle-class people” with “blue eyes and blonde hair” and who “seem so like us”, clearly contrasting them to the “other” refugees – sometimes even associating the latter to “terrorists”.

In addition, some reports posted in social media [8] have denounced the different treatment of specific groups of refugees fleeing Ukraine, stating that “non-white” residents – including Nigerians, Indians, and Lebanese – have been getting stuck at borders. The African Union has urged all countries to “show the same empathy and support to all people fleeing war notwithstanding their racial identity” [9]. Polish UN Ambassador, Krzysztof Szczerski, declared at the General Assembly that accusations of race- or religion-based discrimination at Poland’s border are a “complete lie and terrible insult” [10].

Political figures, media outlets and journalists alike have been criticized on social media for having double standards [11], both in terms of their refugee policies and of the terminology used to refer to these populations, pointing at underlying racist and Islamophobic narratives.

Political narratives

High-level politicians in the EU have presented Ukrainians as different from other victims of conflict.

Jean-Louis Bourlanges, member of the French National Assembly and chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, told the TV channel Europe Matin that the Ukrainian refugees will be “an immigration of great quality, intellectuals, one that we will be able to take advantage of” [12] – likely suggesting that this differs from others types of refugees.

Similarly, referring to Ukrainians, Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov told journalists: “These are not the refugees we are used to; these people are Europeans”. “These people are intelligent, they are educated… This is not the refugee wave we have been used to, people we were not sure about their identity, people with unclear pasts, who could have been even terrorists,” he added. “In other words,” he concluded, “there is not a single European country now which is afraid of the current wave of refugees”. The Syrian journalist Okba Mohammad told Associated Press that this statement “mixes racism and Islamophobia”. “A refugee is a refugee, whether European, African or Asian”, he added [13].

Media narratives

Additionally, several journalists and media outlets have contrasted the situation in Ukraine with other conflicts. In response, social media users have accused several media of hypocrisy in their coverage of Russia’s war on Ukraine [14]. 

In the UK, the columnist Daniel Hannan, former Conservative member of the European Parliament, wrote an article in The Telegraph about Ukraine in which he stated: “They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking. War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations. It can happen to anyone” [15]. In turn, the BBC hosted David Sakvarelidze, a former Georgian-Ukrainian prosecutor, declared: “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed, children being killed every day with Putin’s missiles and his helicopters and his rockets” [16] – to which the presenter responded: “I understand and respect the emotion”. 

Similarly, French journalist Philippe Corbe said on the news channel BFM TV: “We’re not talking about Syrians fleeing the bombing of the Syrian regime backed by Vladimir Putin, we’re talking about Europeans leaving in their cars, that look like our cars… and who are just trying to save their lives” [17]. Contacted by AFP, the broadcaster said that Corbe’s remarks were “clumsy but taken out of context” [18].

There has also been a wide controversy over the following comments made by Peter Dobbie, Al Jazeera English television presenter: “What’s compelling is, just looking at them [refugees trying to get out of Ukraine], the way they are dressed… These are prosperous – I am loath to use the expression – prosperous, middle-class people. These are not obviously refugees trying to get away from areas in the Middle East that are still in a big state of war; these are not people trying to get away from areas in North Africa. They look like any European family that you would live next door to” [19]. The media network issued an apology, saying the presenter’s comments “were insensitive and irresponsible” [20]. “We apologize to our audiences worldwide and the breach of professionalism is being dealt with,” the channel said in a Twitter statement [21].

In the USA, CBS News senior foreign correspondent, Charlie D’Agata, declared that Kyiv “isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European – I have to choose those words carefully, too – city where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen” [22]. He was heavily criticized on social media, as many pointed out that his comments contributed to the dehumanization of “non-white”, non-European people suffering from conflict. A day later, he apologized on air stating: “I spoke in a way that I regret, and for that, I am sorry. What I hope to convey is that what’s unique about the fighting underway here is that this country has not really seen this scale of war in recent years, unlike some conflicts in countries I’ve covered […]I used a poor choice of words, and I apologize for any offense I may have caused” [23].

Political Consequences

These narratives can have an impact on political actions. Rana Khoury, Research Associate at Princeton University described on the radio station NPR how language impacts global refugee policy: “We certainly do see it play out in terms of the politics of refugee reception in the idea of whose burden should it be to take refugees who are from the global South, the Middle East, Africa, versus who is welcome and who can be brought in here” [24].

Already in 2018, the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees (MFA), a US-based network of over 90 organizations, issued a report addressing the “Three Great Fears” about Syrian refugees: possible negative economic impact, terrorism, and Islamophobia towards refugees. The MFA pointed out that because of these fears, fueled by misinformation and disinformation, some lawmakers called for favoring Syrian Christians in refugee resettlement – following the unfounded belief that Muslims would not “integrate” in host societies [25].

Mahdis Keshavarz, board member of the Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association, when commenting on the Ukraine crisis on NPR, warned about the danger of becoming “desensitized to the suffering of different peoples of color, specifically people that are in war zones” and not seeing the suffering “on the same level playing field” as when something happens “in your backyard” – when, in fact, “things are happening in other people’s backyards all the time” [26]. Political scientist Ziad Majed, professor at the American University of Paris, told France 24 that the discrepancies in media treatment of refugees reveal the “dehumanization of refugees from the Middle East” [27].

While taking care of the Ukrainian refugees, it is vital that other refugees do not get forgotten and that European countries provide equal opportunities to all. Moreover, in the words of Mahdis Keshavarz, “it’s really critical that we look at that duality” in political and journalistic approaches to different groups of refugees and that “we question why that is”.

By Ada Mullol

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