The Ukraine Crisis Double Standards
Russia's invasion of Ukraine stunned the world as full-scale war broke out. This has triggered one of the largest and fastest refugee movements that Europe has witnessed since the end of World War II. The atrocities in Ukraine have garnered widespread coverage across the globe. But this reporting has unsheathed the flagrant racist and biased attitudes toward the value (or the lack thereof) of non-European life. The brazen attitude toward the hundreds of thousands of lives lost in Iraq and Afghanistan is deplorable and legitimizes conflict in the Middle East.
"This isn't a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades," Charlie D'Agata, a senior CBS News correspondent, reported from Kyiv. "You know, 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." His comments resulted in swift online backlash, forcing the seasoned correspondent to apologize. His remarks are not part of an isolated incident, but have underlined a worrying fact: the Western world values white lives over those dying in conflicts outside Europe.
"Now the unthinkable has happened to them, and this is not a developing, third world nation; this is Europe," a visibly emotional Lucy Watson proclaimed for ITV News in Kyiv, as if 11 years ago Syrians had been expecting to wake up to a devastating war. Anyone would fear cruise missiles, but for one French commentator on BFM TV, it is only conceivable to have attacks elsewhere.
While the EU calls this the largest humanitarian crisis that Europe has witnessed in "many, many years," it is important to remember that it was not so long ago that the continent faced another critical humanitarian challenge, the 2015 refugee "crisis" spurred by the conflict in Syria. But the starkly different responses---to date---that Europe has directed at these two situations provide a cautionary lesson for those hoping for a more humane, generous Europe. The differences also help explain why some of those fleeing Ukraine---in particular, nationals from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East---are not getting the same generous treatment as the citizens of Ukraine.
This is how the international refugee protection regime should work, especially in times of crisis: countries keep their borders open to those fleeing wars and conflict; unnecessary identity and security checks are avoided; those fleeing warfare are not penalized for arriving without valid identity and travel documents; detention measures are not used; refugees are able to freely join family members in other countries; communities and their leaders welcome refugees with generosity and solidarity.
But we know that this is not how the international protection regime has operated in Europe, particularly in those same countries that are now welcoming refugees from Ukraine. A case in point is Hungary: The country has refused to admit refugees from non-EU countries since the 2015 "refugee crisis." In late 2021, the terrible treatment of migrants and asylum seekers, most of them from Iraq and Afghanistan, trapped on Belarus’s borders with Poland and Lithuania sparked outrage across Europe. Polish border guards were brutal in their treatment of these refugees and migrants.
The double standards and racism inherent in Europe's refugee responses are glaring. There are no calls from Brussels today to detain refugees fleeing Ukraine for up to 18 months. Why? Because, as Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov said recently about people from Ukraine: "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 could have been even terrorists."
Sadly, these double standards have reared in the response to non-Ukrainians fleeing the war in Ukraine. There are a growing number of accounts of students and migrants from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia who have faced racist treatment, obstruction, and violence trying to flee Ukraine. Many described being prevented from boarding trains and buses in Ukrainian towns while priority was given to Ukrainian nationals; others described being aggressively pulled aside and stopped by Ukrainian border guards when trying to cross into neighbouring countries.
Critics also pointed out the hypocrisy of crowdsourcing and setting up online donations to fund Kyiv’s military without facing any government backlash or suspension of their monetary accounts. “I love how people are literally crowdfunding Ukraine's military equipment online. My subscribers get their PayPal donations taken aside for using the word "Palestine" or "Syria". If you crowdfunded for the Palestinian resistance you'd be put in jail. Ah the double standards.” Richard Medhurst twitted.
The double standards regarding calls for excluding Russia from cultural and sporting events and not extending the same move to other occupying entities have not been lost on social media either. Examples were drawn between the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel – often touted by Western governments as anti-Semitic. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has backed the boycott of Russia from sports, but criticised the boycott of last month’s Sydney Cultural Festival over receiving sponsorship from the Israeli embassy.