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Can the Ukraine war help Europe humanize all refugees?

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The writer is a senior manager for Africa, Middle East and Asia at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. She is a former Pentagon official who served as a Middle East policy advisor under four US secretaries of defense. ©Syndication Bureau. (Illustration: Freepick)
In the four weeks since Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, defying the West and decimating Ukrainian cities, over three million Ukrainians fled the country for their lives. They sought refuge across Europe, in countries like Germany, Poland, Romania and the UK. The UN called it “Europe’s fastest growing refugee crisis since World War II”. As Europe rightly opens its borders to Ukrainians fleeing Putin’s bombs, can European governments extend the same generosity to people who “do not look like them?”اضافة اعلان

Global coverage of Ukrainian civilians crushed under the weight of Russia’s merciless and expansionist tactics has highlighted the humanity of those fleeing the war. Stories of brave mothers desperately seeking safety for their children, heart-wrenching photos of those who did not make it, and a general disbelief permeating the coverage that this could happen in Europe served to humanize the Ukraine war and its victims in ways that others would not.

Reporters and politicians alike have spoken about Ukraine and its citizens in terms that call to attention how “different” it is from countries like Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and others outside Europe. Terms like “civilized”, “they look like us”, and “this is Europe” implied that non-Europeans are a possible threat to Western societies.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov bluntly told journalists late last month that Ukrainians are “intelligent, they are educated people”, because they are “Europeans”.

“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.”

In Petkov’s eyes, Ukrainian refugees are a potential workforce, while non-European refugees are potential terrorists. Hungary, despite its hardline approach to migrants seeking entry into the country, is also welcoming Ukrainian refugees, with Prime Minister Viktor Orban saying: “We are able to tell the difference between who is a migrant and who is a refugee … migrants are stopped. Refugees can get all the help.”

And it is not only politicians painting this contrast between “good” and “bad” refugees, or the welcome and unwelcome. Some journalists are speaking the same language.

“These are prosperous, middle-class people,” Al Jazeera English television presenter Peter Dobbie said.

“These are not people trying to get away from areas in the Middle East that are still in a big state of war … they look like any European family that you would live next door to.”

The prevailing view of non-European refugees as “the other” and a potential threat to Western lives and livelihoods has enabled countries to weaponize, monetize and demonize innocent people fleeing violence and devastation in their homelands.

In 2019, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed to “open the gates” for potentially millions of Syrian refugees eager to set foot on European soil, in response to what he deemed insufficient European support for a safe zone across Turkey’s border with Syria.

In Libya, the EU enables the existence of wretched prisons and rampant torture by funding the Libyan Coast Guard as it intercepts African migrants desperately trying to reach Europe.

In November 2021, an international outcry over the horrifying drowning of 27 people from Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan, among other countries, in the English Channel as they tried to make it to the UK from France did not change British or French refugee policy. The tragedy only resulted in a public blame game between British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron.

Non-European refugees are regularly used by European candidates come election time to score points in debates or prove their patriotism to potential voters, consciously or inadvertently — but either way irresponsibly – driving Europe further and further into the hands of populist, nationalist and anti-immigrant movements.

One must ask if there is a different path Europe can take moving forward that does not categorize human beings according to their race, nationality, or familiarity to those in power. Should Putin be pushed back in Ukraine and his dwindling military might no longer serve as a threat to the Ukrainian people, could Europe find a way to normalize the acceptance of refugees regardless of where they come from or what they look like?

More than half of global refugees are from just three countries: Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan, thousands of whom try and fail to make it to Europe under increasingly strict immigration laws across the continent. The fear of “unfamiliar” people coming to Europe prevails partly because one never actually sees someone from “those countries” unless they are covered by the media or discussed by politicians in the context of war, terrorism or predatory economic intentions.

A more equitable and humane global refugee response might just make it more difficult for refugees or migrants from developing or failed states to be viewed as “the other”, nameless, faceless masses to be feared or forgotten.

The war in Ukraine might serve as a reminder of the common experience of human suffering in times of conflict. The response to the war shows that the potential does exist for the same European kindness and generosity that has been so hearteningly on display for Ukrainians can be extended to others that may not look exactly like them.


The writer is a senior manager for Africa, Middle East and Asia at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. She is a former Pentagon official who served as a Middle East policy advisor under four US secretaries of defense.


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