Europe Helping Ukrainian Refugees — A Story of Racial Discrimination?
Summer 2016, I’m walking the streets of Paris looking for croissants. I plan to bring them to my coworkers for the last day of my internship. Of course, it didn’t take me long to find some as there are boulangeries at each corner in France. On my way back to the office, I stumbled upon a homeless family warming up under a blanket. They were Syrian refugees.
I wasn’t used to seeing families living on the street. Yet, I felt they were ignored by the majority of people passing by, if not perceived as an undesirable burden. I was ashamed. So, as some croissants were still left at noon, I took them to the couple and their two children down the street. I felt odd because it didn’t look like many people demonstrated charity toward refugees at the time.
During the same week, I recall seeing a woman retrieve a doll from the bottom of a dumpster and handing it to her daughter. There were families packing up their tents after passing a clandestine night in a park downtown. Surprisingly, I felt very lonely noticing children living in the street. Even though I was disturbed by those visions, it seemed so taboo to talk about that I never mentioned it to my co-workers.
Today is 2022, and it’s been a while since I haven’t seen such situations. This year, Russia invaded Ukraine, causing the citizens to flee their country.
The solidarity we are deploying in response to the war is incredible. There are initiatives all over the web in favor of the Ukrainian people. With each Paypal payment, you can donate one euro to an association helping Ukrainian get to safety.
It’s not been that long since the war started, but Europeans have opened their arms to the three million refugees who left Ukraine. I haven’t seen them sleeping in the street yet. Three million is also the number of Syrians who fled their country during the civil war, although it took two years to reach that point.
I took a weekend away in Bretagne recently. I went to a seaside resort station that would usually be crowded in summer but was very quiet outside of the holiday season. There was a gorgeous site at the end of the Guérande peninsula that offered a nice view over the ocean. The tranquil and preserved area had, for only inhabitation, a hotel complex that went through bankruptcy during the covid 19 crisis.
As I walked towards the point of view, I saw a group of people dining quietly inside the hotel restaurant —families with children, tired faces and not a sound. How strange, I thought. Then I saw a yellow and blue flag over a sign boarded to a door and understood the bankrupt hotel had been converted into a shelter for refugees.
I wasn’t expecting this place to host Ukrainians. It’s secluded and far from the capital where I saw most Syrian refugees back in 2016. The Ukrainian war didn’t start that long ago, yet we already have structures all over Europe to help its people.
I recalled the hotel’s families while driving later in the week, and an uncomfortable question came to my mind. Why did we not show as much solidarity towards the Syrian refugees just a few years ago?
As a journalist from Foreign Policy pointed out, the very same guards and police who are today distributing food to Ukrainians were forcing Middle-Eastern refugees back across their frontiers as recently as last year, on the Belarusian-Polish border.
It's a “shocking contrast”, said the journalist, “between the brutality meted out to Syrian refugees who tried to enter Eastern Europe in 2015 and the willing, even eager, acts of self-sacrifice toward the 3 million and counting Ukrainians who have poured into Poland and neighboring countries”.
There should be no double standards. The 1951 Refugee Convention protects equally the citizens of Ukraine and Syria by its universal nature, forbidding governments to send back refugees to a country where their life or freedom is under serious threat.
The treatment difference from my fellow compatriots is even more surprising when you think Syria used to be under the French administration at the beginning of the past century. It didn’t translate into much help towards the refugees, even in the name of our shared history.
I kept watching the news with my question in mind. The solidarity toward Ukrainian refugees stems from a sense that if Ukraine is not in the European Union, its citizens are still European. We, Europeans, see the Ukrainian refugees escaping war with the same sense of desperation, apprehension, and devastation that a conflict on the EU’s soil would cause.
As for the double standards, Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov’s declarations undeniably tie it all to racial identification:
“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”.
I don’t think Petkov’s racism-imbued statement needs further commentary.
European identify with Ukrainians in a way they couldn’t with Syrian people. The barrier seems to be sociological more than political.
If you wonder how it feels like to be treated like a second-grade refugee, the media Aljazeera interviewed a couple of people who have fled Syria and Iraq since 2016.
“We were treated like criminals by the government and the media, not as people fleeing war in our home country. … It’s great that Ukrainians are being looked after at the political level in this way, but the message that I see is that there is a difference between those who are Europeans with blond hair and blue eyes and non-European Arabs and Muslims.” Said Jawad Aljeblawy, 34.
I don’t pretend to understand the whole political context behind European governments' decisions toward refugees. Still, it’s incontestable that racism stands between refugees and their rights and status.
What can we do with all of this?
We could stay aware that the efforts made by European countries in favor of the Ukrainians are opportunistic. It’s worth noting that the application of international conventions relies on governments diligence.
That, for refugees, gathering the resources to get such conventions applied is challenging. Because it takes juridical expertise and getting a lawyer in a foreign country is not an easy task. People often rely on the help of associations and volunteers to obtain the help they need.
From a social point of view, we should stay aware of the disparity in the treatment of refugees of different nationalities, and realize our perception is biased by stereotypes related to ethnicity and religion. We aren’t moved by the Ukrainian conflict only for a question of geographical proximity, but it’s also a matter of racial identification, which should not stand in the way of the universal protection granted by the International Law.
If the victims of today have a different face, the broader international context is not unrelated to that of the Middle-Eastern wars a few years ago. The Russian government had already delivered a similar treatment to civilians during the Syrian civil war, destroying hospitals and medical facilities within areas that weren’t under its control.
Those conflicts are global, and we have a role in them, if not directly, by making decisions affecting the future of refugees.