In the month and a half since the start of the war in Ukraine on 24 February, the Operational Data Portal estimates that a total of 4,244,595 refugees have fled Ukraine, creating the largest European refugee crisis since World War II. Despite the panic and fear that prevailed in Eastern Europe, the continent has expressed relentless support for Ukraine and its people.
According to the BBC, Europe’s generosity towards refugees is nothing short of “extraordinary”. Human Rights Watch has identified a number of countries bordering Ukraine that have opened their borders to refugees, citizens who have been cautious in donating food and offering their homes, and the European Union setting up a mechanism by which refugees can begin life outside the typical asylum process.
What is it that inspired this generosity? According to Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, “there is a slightly double-edged aspect of the situation – ‘Ukrainians are more like us, they are Europeans’ and so it is a little easier to welcome.”
Reports suggest that not everyone is on the leniency’s end, with many involved in the treatment and acceptance of refugees from various wars in the Middle East.
Due to the Syrian refugee crisis, Europe received over one million refugees in 2015. In response, in March 2016, the European Union struck an agreement with Turkey to slow and ultimately limit the arrival of asylum seekers, reports the Migration Policy Institute. Many Turkish migrants who attempted to enter Greece were deported, and the EU decided to “reset Syrian refugees from Turkey on a one-to-one basis and ease visa restrictions for Turkish citizens”. ” According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, of the 6.6 million Syrians forced to become refugees in 2011, only 1 million live in Europe.
During the start of the Russian offensive, an article in the Guardian reported on a statement by CBS News correspondent Charlie D’Agata: “Ukraine is not a place with full respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, which has seen conflict raging for decades. It’s relatively civilized, relatively European – I have to choose those words too carefully – city, where you wouldn’t expect it, or expect it’s going to be.” The reporter later issued an apology. A French journalist for BFM TV openly said, “We are not talking here about Syrians fleeing the bombings of the Syrian regime backed by Putin. We are talking about Europeans trying to save their lives. For going in cars that look like us.”
The Washington Post reported an ITV News correspondent, while in a Ukrainian train station, said, “Now the unthinkable has happened with them. And this is not a developing Third World nation. This is Europe.”
In a BBC segment interviewing former Ukraine deputy prosecutor David Sakvarelidze, he described his emotional reaction to seeing “Europeans with blue eyes and blonde hair, killing children every day”. Even Britain’s Prince William joined in on the fun, suggesting that seeing war in Europe was “foreign”, per The Washington Post.
Compared to the US, a country with a rich and largely racist past, it is easy to overlook both past and present racism in the continent of Europe. This is generally held to be the norm in the West. However, this startling disparity in response to the “white” refugee crisis has revealed a deep fracture in the need for serious treatment, affecting and traumatizing not only for international students and Ukrainians of color, but also for the future of Europe. .
Eastern Europe’s response has appeared particularly surprising in comparison to its more recent and married history with refugees and immigrants. In 2015, according to the BBC, the country of Slovakia announced that it would host only Christian Syrian migrants. A 2015 report by Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty hosted a commentary by then-Czech President Milos German, which said that “the wave of refugees that arrived in Europe this year is ‘an organized invasion’ and a group of young Syrians and Iraqis.” should fight against the Islamic State group.”
In 2020, according to Al Jazeera, an EU court ruled that Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic had violated the law by refusing to offer asylum to refugees and undermining the load of southern countries such as Greece and Italy. In late 2021, as Syrians and other Middle Eastern refugees were finally making their way into Eastern Europe, a migrant-focused crisis erupted on the border between Poland and Belarus.
Eastern European hostility to non-white refugees has reared its ugly head amid the conflict. As Ukrainians fled to neighboring countries, several sources reported instances of racial discrimination on their borders. Many international students coming from countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East faced hostility compared to their white counterparts. ABC News reports that male African migrants seen as Ukrainians of all ages and genders boarded a train to Poland, only to be stopped by police, who insisted it was only women and is for children. A British black medical student living in Ukraine waited 40 hours with her family in a line of cars on the Romanian border and faced hostility from white Ukrainians who did not want her to enter. Bloomberg Equity recalled three international Ukrainians of color who “repeatedly pushed themselves back, pulled out of evacuation trains and threatened violence when they tried to board.”
Time tells the story of a Congolese migrant displaced from his home in Ukraine. Looking for an escape and a train to safety, the Ukrainian army divided the people into groups based on whitewashing. When her train halted for 17 hours at the Polish border, Ukrainian train guards openly ignored African passengers while giving bread and sausages to refugees. Later, he got stale ends. A report in The Guardian indicates that refugees of color once faced racist violence from Polish nationalists inside their borders.
Photo courtesy of Imad Alasiri at Unsplash