Unpacking Europe’s different approach to Ukrainians and Syrians

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has triggered Europe’s biggest refugee crisis in decades, with more than 2 million Ukrainians fleeing their country within two weeks.

Europeans have stepped up, welcoming Ukrainian refugees with open arms, in stark contrast to their response to Syrian refugees a few years ago.

Western media has been accused of double standard and hypocrisy in its coverage of the crisis, with many critics pointing out “racial bias” in the way “white refugees” were being portrayed vis-à-vis refugees of colour.

Al Jazeera spoke to professor Serena Parekh, author of the book, No Refuge: Ethics and the Global Refugee Crisis.

Al Jazeera: How do you see the current refugee crisis?
Serena Parekh: One of the features of this crisis is that the refugees are almost entirely women and children – because Ukrainian men between 18 to 60 have to stay in the country – as well as people from Yemen, Afghanistan and other countries who had previously claimed asylum in Ukraine.

There’s a big grassroots support movement both on the Ukrainian side and the Eastern European side. To me, that’s probably the most unprecedented aspect of this crisis – the strong and immediate support European countries are giving refugees.

Al Jazeera: How is the current crisis different from others?
Parekh: Let me start by saying how it differs from the response of European countries – particularly Eastern European countries – to the Syrian refugee crisis. That period [2015-2016] saw the arrival of Syrians and other people from the Middle East, and Africa, largely through Italy and Greece using unauthorised boats.

Initially, there was an outpouring of sympathy but very quickly, it turned to hostility.

The seemingly large number – in the first year there were well over 1 million people – was considered unprecedented and impossible to deal with. But now, more than two million people have arrived fairly orderly within two weeks, revealing perhaps the falsity of the claim that Europe could not handle a million refugees within few months.

Refugees waiting to cross into Poland camp near the Bruzgi-Kuznica crossing on the Belarus-Poland border [File: Maxim Guchek//AFP]

The 2015 refugee crisis saw the creation of a fear that those coming might be “terrorists” – because we did not know anything about their background. But the more critical perspective is to say it was connected with a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment – Islamophobia that ties all Middle Eastern men to “terrorism” inherently.

Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, who has been welcoming Ukrainian refugees, legalised pushbacks, put up a razor-wire fence and closed the border with Serbia. Many people in Hungary expressed very xenophobic and hostile views against refugees.

Ultimately, a lot of refugees were taken in as asylum seekers [across Europe], close to 2 million over a period of several years.

But what we have seen in the current crisis is quite the opposite. European countries seemed prepared to welcome refugees from the very start. A day after the invasion, there were already reception centres set up on the border with Ukraine facilitated by Poland’s government. There were also aid donations, while the US military helped with logistical support.

The striking difference is the attitude and the tone of both politicians and citizens towards Ukrainians – even the so-called “anti-immigrant towns” are welcoming refugees.

Al Jazeera: Europe’s welcome of Ukrainian refugees, compared with what critics describe as cruelty towards Arab, Asian and African refugees, triggered a debate around racism. Can it be interpreted in racialised terms?
Parekh: The answer is very complex – but it’d be a disservice to not take race and racism into account in understanding the difference in response.

There are obvious reasons why Eastern Europeans would be more sympathetic to Ukrainians: these are neighbouring countries, with large diasporas in each other’s country. Eastern Europeans also know what it feels like to live under Soviet aggression and occupation.

REUTERS PULITZER PRIZE BREAKING NEWS PHOTOGRAPHY ENTRY
Syrian refugees walk through mud to cross the border from Greece into Macedonia in 2015 [Yannis Behrakis/Reuters]

There’s also geopolitical motivation.

Ukrainians have a legal right to enter the European Union and can stay for up to 90 days. So, there wasn’t a question of whether or not they should be allowed to enter. This is a key difference with Syrians, Afghans and others. Even though all asylum seekers have the universally recognised right to seek asylum, this right is often not recognised for those coming from outside of Europe.

Race also plays a role. One of the reasons people give for being more sympathetic towards Ukrainians goes along these lines: “Look, Ukrainians are like us, they have blonde hair, blue eyes, they drive the same car as we do, they are educated.”

Many Syrians were also highly educated and skilled, but they were not perceived as such.

We can see this as a kind of racism. That because certain asylum seekers share our race, they are more deserving of help than others. It is the use of race to deny people the rights, aid and protection.

Racialised language goes much deeper; there are politicians who’ve said things like: “We know who Ukrainians are, they are not violent, they are not ‘terrorists’,” implying that Iraqis, Syrians and Afghans are.

Europeans have committed all sorts of violent acts historically in Europe, which saw big wars. The largest number of domestic “terrorism” acts, for example in the US, are committed by white people, not by people of Middle Eastern descent. When white people commit “terrorism” this is seen as an individual act that does not represent the entire race, we do not have a stereotype of white people being inherently violent and prone to domestic “terrorism”.

And therefore, Ukrainians are perceived as non-violent while people from the Middle East are perceived to be violent – and that plays into racialised thinking about refugees. This is racial thinking disguised as security motivation.

My goal is not to criticise Poland, Hungary, Romania and others by pointing this out, but rather to bring it to the surface so that, hopefully, when another refugee crisis happens, we will be able to look at those refugees and say: “They do not look like us but nonetheless, they deserve our help.” Hopefully, we can focus on the commonalities instead of the differences: These are families desperate to protect their children, these are people who fled and left behind all of their belongings.

Al Jazeera: What’s the media’s role in shaping the narrative? Does the current coverage help the Ukrainian refugee cause?
Serena Parekh: Much of the response has to do with how people understand who the refugees are, why are they fleeing and what they are looking for.

In 2015-2016, you would be forgiven to think that refugees were inherently criminals, because of the number of stories connecting refugees and “terrorism”.

Women refugees look for baby food after they arrived at the border crossing in Medyka, Poland
Refugees look for baby food after arriving at the border crossing in Medyka in Poland [Visar Kryeziu/AP Photo]

In 2016, when my first book on refugees came out, I was doing a lot of public talks, and would always start by saying here’s the data on “terrorism” and refugees in the US, being that there isn’t any evidence to suggest there are “terrorists” who come via the US refugee programme.

I remember one woman in the audience saying, “Well if what you are saying is correct, then why am I so afraid of refugees?” And that really summed up how the media creates a negative stereotype. Even if you do not fully understand the situation and are not following the nuance, you just have the sense that refugees are humans we should be afraid of and protected from rather than being open or sympathetic to.

There was a recent comment by a CBS reporter who said something along the lines of: “How could this happen in a civilized country?” and that really highlights the media narrative. Some called it Orientalism in media. As a philosopher I call it “structural racism”, where the norm you come to expect in the world is that violence happens “over there” but it does not happen in European countries.

People have also pointed out that newsrooms are dominated by white people, lacking diversity and perspective. As a result, stereotypes are perpetuated and reproduced without question. It seems normal to say Ukraine is a civilized country and of course, we should be sympathetic towards them, and not see that’s somehow problematic and reflects very poorly on your understanding of other countries in the world and stereotypes of refugees who are not white.

Al Jazeera: Should Europeans duplicate this example in other refugee crises?
Parekh: Yes, exactly. My intention is not to criticise the response to Ukraine, but to say if we can behave like this now, can’t we do the same in another situation?

This is the focus of my book – that we can and should be doing more to help refugees around the world. The vast majority of refugees are in the Global South, in part because of deliberate policies by Western countries to ensure that seeking asylum is extremely difficult, if not deadly.

Western countries have been very active in keeping asylum seekers from exercising their universally recognised right to seek asylum using various deterrence policies – from pushbacks and criminalising rescuing people at sea to setting up offshore processing centres.

While refugee camps do provide housing and food, they largely deny the right to freedom of movement and most forms of basic autonomy – most inhabitants are not legally allowed to work except for in UN-run places.

Since 2005, half of the refugees choose not to go to refugee camps and will instead go to cities and bypass any kind of UN aid. Fewer than one in 10 urban refugees across the world get any kind of international aid.

Migrants walk next to the razor wire fence at the Serbia-Hungary border
Refugees walk by a razor-wire fence at the Serbia-Hungary border, September 2015 [Darko Dozet/EPA]

In contrast, as of Thursday [February 24], if you are Ukrainian you can apply for temporary asylum status in the EU and obtain legal authorisation to work and access to social services like healthcare and education for up to three years.

We should be thinking about reforming refugee policies as the average time a person is going to be a refugee is 17 years, and 25 years if you are fleeing war. This is an extraordinary amount of time refugees are being asked to put their lives on hold and wait for something to happen.

This also contributes to the number of people seeking asylum, because they are not able to access “minimum conditions of human dignity”.

And, if you think in more human terms, it’s what we are offering Ukrainian refugees almost as soon as they are able to cross the border. They are welcomed, they are taken in, they are given a decent place to live and the ability to carry on with their lives. And this is not to take away the extraordinary suffering and loss they have to deal with being separated from the men of the family.

The way we are responding to Ukrainian refugees, absolutely, could be a model for how we respond to other refugee situations.

This interview has been edited for style and clarity.

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