The war in Ukraine revealed selective empathy towards refugees

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (CNN) — The West has shown unprecedented coordination and unity in its response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Governments, corporations and individuals have come together to sanction and boycott Moscow, and Europe has opened its doors to a flood of refugees.

Yet amid this outpouring of empathy, stark contrasts have emerged in the way Europe has treated Ukrainian refugees vis-à-vis those from conflicts in the global south.

The refugee crisis in Ukraine is terrible. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), more than 3 million people have fled the country since the Russian invasion. To put that in context, it took a million refugees six months to leave Syria in 2013, almost two years after the civil war began in that country.

The two wars occurred at different times and on different continents, but unlike Syrians fleeing the conflict, Ukrainians find a much warmer welcome in Europe.

“It is extraordinary to see the relative ease with which they are accepted by almost all European governments, and how their plight against Russian aggression is resulting in overwhelming solidarity,” said HA Hellyer, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, based in in the city of Washington.

Martin Griffiths, the United Nations Emergency Relief and Humanitarian Affairs Coordinator, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour this week that there is a “shockingly different set of priorities for people” but added that it is not uncommon for neighboring countries to absorb large numbers of refugees, citing Syrians in Turkey and Afghans in Pakistan as examples.

Denmark is known for having some of the Europe’s strictest anti-immigration policies. The government has welcomed Ukrainian refugees with open arms, and while it says all refugees are treated the same, it urges some Syrian refugees living there to return home, despite the ongoing conflict in their country.

Worst cold in decades hits displaced communities in Syria 2:42

These examples abound throughout Europe.

In France, far-right presidential candidate Eric Zemmour told BFM TV on March 8 that it would be acceptable to have different rules for refugees coming from Europe and Arab Muslim countries.

“Everyone knows that Arab or Muslim immigration is too far from us and it is more difficult to acculturate and assimilate them. So, effectively, we are closer to European Christians,” he said.

A few days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, when Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov was asked about the possibility of accepting refugees, he said that no European country was afraid of the coming wave of migration.

“These are people who are European, so we and all other countries are ready to welcome them,” he said. “In other words, this is not the wave of refugees that we are used to, where we don’t know what to do, people with an uncertain past: are they terrorists? [o no]?”

The disparity in refugee treatment may be due to Ukraine’s proximity to host countries and the assessment in the West that Russia is threatening Europe’s security through war, Hellyer said.

“But we can’t underestimate a much more raw and tribal response, and that too many of us in Europe just saw refugees when they saw Ukrainians, because they were white and of Christian heritage,” he said.

Judith Sunderland, associate director of the Europe and Central Asia division of Human Rights Watch, told CNN that “empathy and solidarity must be extended to all those in need, not just people who may look and pray like us.”

“Europe is doing the right thing this time, keeping its borders open for all and moving quickly to grant temporary protection to Ukrainians, sending very strong messages of empathy and solidarity,” he said. “But this is in stark contrast to the policies and practices we continue to see regarding migrants and refugees from other parts of the world, most of them brown and black.”

According to a UN report As of 2021, of the almost 7 million Syrians forced to flee their country, around 1 million live in Europe, with 70% of them housed in two countries: Germany and Sweden.

In 2018, at the height of Europe’s migration crisis, Central European countries decided not attending an EU summit on migration, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said the issue would become a “pan-European frenzy.” The countries had previously rejected proposals from other European nations to allow a certain number of refugees into their countries. Now Central European countries like Hungary and Slovakia are hosting hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees.

“For a continent that tries to pride itself on the superiority of pluralism over fanaticism, after the terrible experiences of the Holocaust, the Bosnian genocide and civil rights struggles across the continent and the West in general,” Hellyer said, ” It’s a sad reminder that too many of us are still hugely tribal and racist.”

Three million refugees have been offered unconditional asylum and protection in countries neighboring the European Union, the UNHCR said in a statement to CNN. “Our hope is that the same solidarity, compassion and support can be extended to the other 84 million people forced to flee around the world.”

Ukrainians are welcomed in Poland with open arms 1:41

With additional reporting by Nadeen Ebrahim, CNN

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