As the death toll of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ticks up, so do the number of refugees. The United Nations estimates that about 1 million refugees have already exited the country, a number that could swell up to 4 million. Filippo Grandi, the U.N.’s high commissioner for refugees, tweeted a thank-you to governments for “keeping their borders open and welcoming refugees,” an enormous undertaking as the crisis in Ukraine deepens.
But this welcome development has also troubled some who have watched Europe’s treatment of other refugees in recent years. Poland, for example, took a break from erecting a border wall intended to keep refugees from the Middle East out to accept Ukrainians, promising to welcome anyone fleeing the Russian invasion. Much of Europe has committed to giving the welcome to Ukrainian refugees that others before them were routinely denied. The contradiction was further highlighted by comments from newscasters in Europe and America, who drew offensive comparisons between “civilized” Ukrainians and presumed nonwhite, non-Christian others.
These disparities have been roundly condemned. But for aid workers and advocates I spoke to, the open embrace of fleeing Ukrainians has trigged complicated reactions—and the real-life fallout is beginning to unfold.
“All people who are fleeing a situation of conflict deserve protection,” said Daniel Balson, Amnesty International’s advocacy director for Europe and Central Asia. “States are obligated to respect the rights of refugees and asylum-seekers, regardless, of course, of the identity of the individual fleeing.” Still, he said, “I don’t think your readers or anybody else will be surprised to see that the welcome has been more robust for Ukrainians heading across the border.”
Balson added that despite the clear change in rhetoric toward the Ukrainian refugees versus people fleeing from the Middle East, the policies were always going to be different. “Part of this is a function of the fact that legal mechanisms are in place already, through various agreements between Ukraine and the European Union that facilitate the transit of Ukrainians across the border, that aren’t in place, for instance, between Afghanistan and the European Union,” he said. Since 2017, Ukrainians have been able to access the Schengen Zone for 90 days without a visa, which helped facilitate their entry into neighboring countries whether or not they have made an explicit commitment to shelter Ukrainians.
Balson also stressed how many vulnerable populations are among those fleeing, and said Europe’s response has been appropriate. “I think it’s an important point that over the past several years, Ukraine has become a safe harbor of sorts for individuals who’ve criticized their governments. Whether that’s Russian dissidents or Belarusian activists or Crimean Tatar activists who fled Crimea for safety. That’s all at risk now,” he said. “A lot of these people were quite public in their criticisms. They have extensive public profiles, are easily findable and identifiable. And as well as specifically vulnerable groups the Russian government has a history of targeting and abusing, such as the LGBTI community, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other such individuals.”
Niamh Keady-Tabbal, a researcher at the Irish Centre for Human Rights who focuses on border violence and has documented refugees from the Middle East being pushed out to sea from Greece, said the extraordinary response to refugees from Ukraine is also already playing out in policy.
“The press release that came out of the European Commission about proposals to activate the temporary protection directive I think highlights the uniqueness of the current response,” she said. The temporary protection directive in Europe offers refugees a kind of legal status to live freely and work, cutting much of the red tape that can clog the pipeline leaving refugees in limbo for months at a time. “That’s something that hasn’t been activated previously, despite very large numbers of individuals seeking international protection in the EU,” Keady-Tabbal said.
“The political will that we see to expand and extend protection and rights to certain displaced people is taking place while pushbacks, illegal expulsions, and border violence is going on elsewhere in the EU,” she said.
Jibran Alsaeed, a Syrian humanitarian worker now in Ireland, knows well the world of difference these kinds of protections make. He told me how onerous the process was for him when he fled Syria as a refugee in 2016 after five years of war. His journey to the EU coincided with the beginning of the controversial EU-Turkey deal to allow for European countries—like Greece, where Alsaeed arrived—to deport refugees to Turkey. Today he is watching the developments with Ukrainian refugees closely.
“Nowhere in the refugee convention does it say you have to have blue eyes or white skin or a Netflix account or drive a car to be a refugee. The refugee convention did not discriminate on any basis, whether it’s religion or nationality,” he said. “However, this isn’t the European approach in practice. In practice, such segregations are taking place. And the disparity between white and nonwhite refugees is particularly visible now because of the Ukrainian current circumstances. Europe’s response to Ukrainian refugees shows the disparity of the inherent racism within European border policies.”
Alsaeed said he’s seen videos circulating of refugees at the Polish border this past week being separated between white and nonwhite. “It’s something—although extremely devastating and depressing—it’s not something new to relatively any country in Europe,” he said. “Pushbacks of nonwhite refugees has been taking place in the very countries who are now welcoming people, such as Poland.”
He noted that Poland is even welcoming Ukrainians to bring their cats and dogs. “Not too long ago, Iraqi and Syrian refugees in Poland have died from freezing in the cold, being stuck between the borders of Belarus and Poland. There is probably to this day many on the ground there,” he said.
For Alsaeed, the lesson of the moment is clear. “You don’t get to pick and choose which war is more urgent, or which flagrant violations of international law are more important. A violation is a violation,” he said. “Both need equal attention at this point. Bombs don’t pick and choose which people die or are affected. Neither should our policies select which people we let in and which people we let out.”
Balson, of Amnesty International, said he also sees a more complicated phenomenon playing out in the embrace of fleeing Ukrainians. “Part of it is a function of the fact that people are necessarily going to be more attuned to conflict and political dynamics in proximate spaces. I imagine Pakistanis are broadly more aware of what’s happening in Afghanistan. People in Thailand are more closely tracking what’s happening in Myanmar. And this is all understandable,” he said, stressing that all refugees deserve equal access to protection and safety.
“It’s absolutely, frankly, unacceptable that large numbers of refugees from the Middle East, from Central Asia, were denied the opportunity to seek refuge. But I think the key point here is not to pit different populations against each other. We’re obviously having a conversation about Ukrainian refugees, given what is happening in Ukraine. Those individuals absolutely require protection, and it’s critical that they be given it,” he said. “We’ve of course been disappointed at some of the treatment refugees in the past have received in Europe. We continue to be. But none of this takes away from the people of Ukraine’s genuine plight and genuine need for protection at this time.”