How race defines international compassion

For the people of Ukraine, Feb. 24 was accompanied by ground shaking explosions of airstrikes and the sight of Russian tanks advancing on the capital of Kyiv. It was the first day of Russia’s destructive and ongoing invasion of Ukraine. The invasion has exemplified the human suffering inevitable in war, as well as the incredible actions taken to aid those attempting to flee the conflict. But the acceptance of millions of Ukrainian refugees starkly contrasts the inhumane treatment of non-European refugees seeking asylum from very similar conflicts in the past. Comparing the ease of immigration for Ukrainians today to those escaping conflicts in the 2015 “migration crisis,” the undeniable influence of racism is clear. 

While the international outpouring of support for Ukraine and Ukrainian citizens is without a doubt morally necessary, it acts as another instance of the invidious obstacles people of color face during these conflicts. Countries must receive asylum seekers of future conflicts with the same acceptance of those fleeing Ukraine, and revoke the racist disregard for life so prevalent in Europe in 2015.  

This “migration crisis” prompted an uproar from countries in the European Union (EU). During the height of the crisis, around one million people entered Europe, which pales in comparison to the 3.5 million people who have fled Ukraine in the last month alone. The majority of refugees in 2015, however, were from Middle Eastern countries, mainly fleeing Syria’s Civil War. The strain on the countries receiving refugees in 2015 was far less than that of those absorbing the refugees from the ongoing war in Ukraine, yet Syrian refugees were not met with the acceptance that has been afforded to Ukrainians.

The support of the international community has been instrumental in the evacuation of Ukraine. Congress recently approved a $13.6 billion emergency aid packet to Ukraine, and there have been countless private fundraising attempts to provide financial support to Ukraine. But the aid that Ukraine’s neighboring countries have provided to those seeking asylum is far more important. Poland alone has accepted more than 2 million people into the country. 

The arms of acceptance have not been open to all. On top of the challenge of fleeing from war, Africans in Ukraine have faced discrimination, making the emigration process even more difficult. Ukrainian police officers have been said to violently prevent Africans from getting on trains and buses heading towards the border. Isaac, a Nigerian man trying to seek asylum in Poland, said in an interview with the BBC that the Ukrainian police have chased him away from the trains and even hit him with sticks. Without the ability to take trains or buses, people have been forced to walk up to 12 hours a day to get to the border. 

The disregard for the lives of people of color seeking asylum from conflicts is not a new one. Italy is an example of a country that took horrific steps in its attempt to lessen the number of refugees coming to its shore in 2015. As Syrians took the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea it was discovered that Italian officials were leaving them to die at sea, and arresting individuals that attempted to save refugees. This is a breach of human rights that pointed to a complete disregard for the lives of Syrian refugees.

The striking juxtaposition between the international response to the war in Ukraine and the conflicts that led to the 2015 “migration crisis” speaks to the Eurocentric racism so prevalent in our world today. This racism is seen in legislation as well as media coverage about the conflicts, which undeniably shapes the general consensus of who deserves our sympathy. CBS News senior foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata exemplifies the double standard of how people view Ukrainian refugees in comparison to those fleeing conflicts in the Middle East. He has described Ukraine as a relatively civilized and European country, one he didn’t expect or hope war would ever impact. He uses the words civilized and European to contrast Ukraine to countries like Iran and Afghanistan. In doing so, he humanizes and creates sympathy for Ukrainians while disregarding the lives of those living through conflicts in the Middle East. 

The discrepancy between the treatment of the Ukraine crisis compared to other crises does not, however, diminish the devastation the country has faced. Nowhere else exemplifies the horror facing the Ukrainian people as the city of Mariupol. As a city on the border of Russia, Mariupol was one of the cities first and hardest hit by the airstrikes and it has already seen the death of up to 20,000 people. Those that have survived are forced to live without food, water, and shelter in the face of near-constant bombardment. While the invasion across Ukraine has only been ongoing for a month, the damage to public and private property already exceeds $100 billion dollars

It is only with the support of the international community that Ukraine has a chance to effectively rebuild and recover. This support is disproportionately offered to those who fit the rigid mold of white and European. The acceptance of refugees should never be decided on the basis of race but as a moral obligation to those in need.

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