Double Standards: What the Ukrainian Refugee Crisis Reveals About Western Racism

By: Jenna Barhoush

The Russo-Ukrainian war is a localized invasion that managed to expose the global
human rights violations of refugees from around the world. In the span of the first few days of
the attacks, Europe’s acceptance of White Ukrainian refugees and the media’s overtly racist
portrayals and discrimination of non-European refugees all quickly played out to show the
blatant double standards of Western dealings with the refugee crisis.

Following the third week of the influx of 3 million Ukrainian displaced persons into
Europe, the European Union (EU) activated a renewed Temporary Protection Directive (TPD)
that aimed for the immediate integration of Ukrainian refugees into other European societies and
their protection for the span of one year. The original TPD was initially formed in 2001 to
establish the required process for hosting asylum seekers fleeing persecution or conflict. It was
renewed March of 2022 to specifically address the needs of Ukrainian citizens. The renewed
TPD’s first few articles grant Ukrainians the ability to travel without a visa for 90 days out of a
180 day span as a way to maintain autonomy over their choice of residence, and to spread the
burden of hosting refugees across Europe. The directive also provides Ukrainians the right to
medical care, employment, education and shelter.

Although the TPD was already well-established during the wars in Iraq, Syria,
Afghanistan, and Yemen, it was not extended to the refugees of these countries. During the influx
of Syrian citizens in 2015, European countries did not activate the TPD with the claim that the
refugees had not met the required criteria to put the directive into effect. Most Syrians were
placed in temporary camps and not given the necessary aid as stipulated by the directive, putting
them in a ‘state of limbo.’

In as recent as 2021, European states including Denmark, Turkey and Sweden intensified
the pressure put on Syrian refugees to return to their countries, and protection was restrained. A
report by Amnesty International identified that those who did return to Syria faced harrowing
consequences of torture, rape and disappearance. While military attacks were less frequent, the
“Coverage of Ukraine Refugee crisis is ‘racist’” – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]
instability of the region and its ongoing human rights abuses did not cease. European countries,
however, declared Syria a safe zone and enforced deportation strategies. The pressure put on
Syrians is only made worse with the hostilities held by European citizens who continue to
express blatant Islamophobia and nationalism. In Turkey, mob attacks and a public outcry against
Syrians pressured the government to deport some of the refugees in 2019. Denmark was one
step ahead and decided to not deal with the issue at all by preventing refugees from any form of
aid with its self-declared “zero-asylum policy.” It also instituted a “jewelry law” that granted
the government the right to seize refugee assets as a way to ‘pay rent’ for their stay. These laws
do not extend to Ukrainians.

Poland is another European country exhibiting striking double standards. It has been
praised for its open-door policy as it welcomes all Ukrainian refugees and encourages its citizens
to be generous hosts. Poland’s humanitarian efforts extend from the community to the federal
and military levels who, as borders open up to 1.4 million Ukrainians, offer transportation
services, shelter and healthcare upon arrival. Poland’s hypocrisy exposes itself when looking at
its past dealings with refugees that are as recent as late 2021. In the fall and winter of 2021,
between 2,000 and 4,000 Afghan, Iraqi and Syrian refugees were left stranded between the
borders of Poland and Belarus, prevented entry from either country. They were not allowed
proper shelter, food, clean water or medicine. 13 people died from hypothermia as temperatures
fell to below freezing, and 431 Iraqis were forcefully sent back to Iraq in repatriation flights. In
October of 2021, Poland adopted an amendment that denies refugees the right to seek asylum
and dismisses further applicants, an illegal violation of international refugee law of which Poland
is a signatory.

Even when looking at Ukrainian refugees today, discriminatory practices are still
prevalent as Polish generosity is only extended to White Ukrainians. African students recount the
segregation process initiated by Polish forces, where students were explicitly given second
priority to entry and forms of humanitarian aid, sometimes being charged for it. Their spots
on buses and trains were taken to make room for Ukrainians and, upon arrival in Poland,
refugees were separated into two lines: one for White Ukrainians, and the other for visible
minorities. Visual footage and personal accounts further reveal that physical and verbal abuse
was a common tactic used against African, Indian and Arab students upon entry into European
countries.

Public portrayals of the Ukrainian crisis only furthers the antagonism, while also
revealing the racist criteria of refugee admission and hypocritical nature of European
governmental intervention. A popular justification for the conflicting treatments of Ukrainian
refugees as opposed to Syrian, Afghani, and Yemeni refugees has been the different proposed
levels of civility. Undue judgements are made that accuse non-White refugees of posing a
threat to European culture, and sometimes going to the extent of claiming that refugees might be
harbouring potential terrorists. While Ukrainians are praised for their armed resistance,
Palestinian and South African struggles for freedom are simultaneously condemned and given
the label of ‘violent terrorism.’ The strategies taken by governments, corporations and media
outlets are also revealing of the double standards they inhibit. Examples include the immediate
sanctions imposed on Russia and the promotion of cultural boycotts, two tactics USA and Europe
refrained from using against Apartheid South Africa and Israel. Biden’s rash labelling of Putin
as “war criminal” – a contradictory term previously avoided until thorough investigation has
been conducted – also exposes the politically-motivated and far from righteous double standards
when dealing with oppressive regimes.

Political science assistant professor Lamis Abdelaaty points to the astounding immediacy
of labelling oncoming Ukrainians as refugees. She draws on the 1951 Refugee Convention that
defines the status of a refugee as one that is directly persecuted and unable to return to their
country of origin. Contrastingly, while not dismissing the dangerous state of Ukraine, its
citizens are fleeing generalized violence rather than persecution. They have the ability and
capacity to flee as opposed to other refugees whose treks across the world were arguably as
dangerous as their presence in their country of origin. Syrians were not initially given the status
of refugees and were subliminally portrayed as migrants, the former being a term to represent
temporary asylum seekers in need of aid, while the latter encompassing individuals seeking
permanent residence and hence ones who are in competition with the locals for employment and
shelter.

The striking double standards presented by the Ukrainian crisis are attributed to two
factors: the inherent racism of European states that were built on the exploitation of the Global
South, and the political motivations of USA and Europe that jump at the chance of delegitimizing
Russia. However, such motivations are not credible enough to justify the continued racist
treatment of non-European asylum seekers. Afghans and Iraqis, who are in the situation they
currently are in due to US and Western interference, and Syrians and Yemenis, are still victims of
persecution in their origin countries and should thus be extended the protection of Europe’s TPD.
The same goes for non-European asylum seekers from Ukraine, who are fleeing from the same
threats as European Ukrainians.

The most important action we can take as individuals is to dismantle our societies’
inherently racist structures that exhibit themselves most vividly during times of crisis and to call
out the institutions and individuals who harbour such hostilities. Humanitarian efforts supporting
victims of malicious war crimes and racist refugee policy must be endorsed so they can continue
to help refugees who face physical and psychological trauma in both their home countries and
European countries alike.

Solidarity is an action that must be equally extended to all victims of oppression and its
selective use is a facade calling for deconstruction. If you stand in solidarity with Ukrainians,
you must extend the same empathy to African-Ukrainians, Indian-Ukrainians, Syrians, Iraqis,
Afghanis, Yemenis, Palestinians, Indigenous communities, Sahrawis, the Rohingya, Uyghur and
every other oppressed group around the world that you have the power of supporting.

References:

  1. ‘European Union Council directive 2001/55/EC establishing the existence of a mass influx of displaced
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  2. Micinski, N.R. (2022). The E.U. granted Ukrainian refugees temporary protection. Why the different response from past migrant crises? The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/03/16/eu-granted-ukrainian-refugees-temporary-protection-why-different-response-past-migrantcrises/
  3. ‘European Union Council directive 2001/55/EC establishing the existence of a mass influx of displaced persons from Ukraine’ (2022) Official Journal of the European Union L 71 p. 2
  4. Micinski, N.R. (2022). The E.U. granted Ukrainian refugees temporary protection. Why the different response from past migrant crises? The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/03/16/eu-granted-ukrainian-refugees-temporary-protection-why-different-response-past-migrantcrises/
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