Since the invasion of Russia in February 2022, more than 5.8 million refugees have fled Ukraine; the largest exodus of refugees in Europe since World War II [08 May 2022, UNHCR]. With extensive media attention given to refugees fleeing Ukraine, one cannot draw attention away, and rightly so, from the dire situation in which they find themselves. However, the unprecedented response garnered from the international community, in particular from the western nations, has left a sense of discomfort for those who have long seen the inhospitable reception reserved for refugees from the Middle East, African and Asian states. The outpouring of compassion is a welcome change. Still, the discrepancy in the treatment of refugees highlights an alarming realisation that states possessed the capability to offer support yet actively chose not to.
The reactionary policies taken by governments to lift visa restrictions and border controls are at a level unfamiliar to most. This hospitality is in contravention to Europe’s stance in relation to refugees from Middle Eastern, African and Asian countries. Prior to the influx of Ukrainian refugees, those seeking asylum were met with a number of hurdles, both physical and mental, and they received a largely negative reception from authorities when they approached the borders of European countries.
The 2021 Belarus-European Union border crisis perfectly exemplifies the stark difference in response from Europe. The erection of a 5.5 metre high and 115-mile long wall aimed to deter refugee crossings on the Poland-Belarus border [Al Jazeera, ‘Poland begins work on $400m Belarus border wall against refugees’, 25 January 2022], is a juxtaposition to their warm welcome of more than 3.2 million refugees on the Poland-Ukraine border [08 May 2022 UNHCR]. Whilst Poland may raise the concerted push from Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko to encourage migration onto the border as a “hybrid operation” [Stanisław Żaryn (Spokesperson of Poland’s Minister-Special Services), Twitter @StZaryn, 21 November 2021], there is an active level of hypocrisy in effect when those refugees from predominantly Middle Eastern origins are vehemently resisted and their status as refugees is questioned, whilst Ukrainians are received with goodwill and generosity.
Another example can be found in the actions of Greece and the Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi who referred to Ukrainians fleeing their homes as, “real refugees”. The insinuation that there is the precedence of protection afforded to a certain ‘type’ of a refugee is deeply disturbing, but not surprising when one considers the pushback policy Greece carries out against refugees that find themselves on the Greece-Turkey border. Despite the continued denial from the Greek government, numerous nongovernmental organisations have reported on accounts from refugees who have experienced horrific pushback actions carried out by the Greek government [Human Rights Watch, ‘Their Faces Were Covered: Greece’s Use of Migrants as Police Auxiliaries in Pushbacks’ April 7 2022]. The evidence of bias is manifest via state actors and their vastly different reception of those refugees who come from Middle Eastern, African and Asian countries, and those who have fled from Ukraine.
The bias is more apparent when you compare the way in which European leaders refer to the different groups of refugees. In 2015 Czech President Milos Zenman spoke of Syrian refugees seeking asylum as “an organised invasion”, whilst Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov connoted Ukrainian refugees as being “intelligent” and “educated people”. The double standards of state actors are apparent through comparative treatment of refugees who find themselves on their borders; there is a clear disparity in treatment from those borders in connection to the Middle Eastern regions. The rhetoric surrounding Ukrainian refugees is that they are more deserving of assistance, and it is clear from the dialogue used that the distinguishing factor is race and that discrimination contributes to the differential treatment of refugees.
Beyond an external presence of bias, the scenes witnessed in Ukraine against African students and professionals highlight that there is an element of discrimination present that cannot be denied. Footage surfaced on social media of Ukrainian citizens and officials forcibly pushing back and physically removing any Africans who managed to board trains under an “Ukrainians first’ policy. It is striking the levels at which bias for Eurocentric ideals operates, the discrimination was transparent and even attracted the attention of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi;
“While I am humbled by the outpouring of support we witnessed by host countries and communities, we also bore witness to the ugly reality that some Black and Brown people fleeing Ukraine…have not received the same treatment as Ukrainian refugees. They reported disturbing incidents of discrimination, violence, and racism”.[International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, 21.03.2022].
Some may contend that there is a differentiated approach due to the neighbouring principle, and how states that border the country from where refugees flee hold a greater comradery to accept an influx of refugees, as was the case with Pakistan and refugees fleeing from Afghanistan. This, in combination with the fact that “Ukrainians are seen as European…[and] there are “very strong” historical and cultural links between Poland and Ukraine” [Deena Zaru, ABC News, ‘Europe’s unified welcome of Ukrainian refugees exposes a ‘double standard’ for non-white asylum seekers: Experts’ March 8, 2022] would lead one to assume that there is a greater potential for amalgamation into society if refugees shared the same cultural norms as the host country. However, this narrative is used to the detriment of the plight of those refugees from Middle Eastern, African, and Asian countries, who are seen as dissimilar and thereby garner less support. The media is therefore a key tool in amassing sympathy for refugees’ plight, and when the media feeds into racial bias, they further contribute to the disparity of refugee treatment.
Bias reporting in the media is not a novel concept, and it has been clear for some time that certain crises do not receive extensive coverage if any at all. Conflicts in the Middle East have seen minimal coverage and garnering support via mainstream media outlets is something unseen in comparison to the Ukrainian coverage. This imbalance in treatment is widely recognised, World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus noted that “the world is not treating the human race the same way. Some are more equal than others” and the Ukrainian crisis has illuminated this disproportion on a greater scale.
The media has exemplified this inequality by channelling a Eurocentric double standard in their reporting of the events in Ukraine. It has been unfathomable to those reporting on the events in Ukraine that such a ‘civilised’ nation can be exposed to a conflict of this scale, and countless comparisons have been made to the Middle East and African countries by way of justification for their astonishment. Such coverage rationalises the war and conflict in Middle Eastern, African and Asian states, by insinuating that brutalities committed in those regions are plausible. The double standard in reception is prominent when Ukraine’s armed resistance is applauded, whilst across the region, in Palestine, those fighting for freedom are denounced. The below commentary is a modicum of the media bias prejudicing the Eurocentric narrative:
Daniel Hannan, The Telegraph:
“They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking. War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations. It can happen to anyone”.
Charlie D’Agata, CBS News:
“This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European — I have to choose those words carefully, too — city, where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen”.
Peter Dobbie, Al Jazeera:
“What’s compelling is looking at them, the way they are dressed.” These are prosperous, middle-class people. These are not obviously refugees trying to get away from areas in the Middle East that are still in a state of war; these are not people trying to get away from areas in North Africa, they look like any European family that you would live with next door to”.
Such discourse is dangerous, as it stems from the narrative of Eurocentric ideals being of greater value and thereby deserving of greater protection. Under international human rights law, “everyone has the right to seek and enjoy asylum in other countries” [Article 14, 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights], and a ‘refugee’ is determined on the basis of their risk of persecution in their own country. The protection afforded to those seeking their right to asylum is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and any attempt to de-classify the authenticity of Middle Eastern, African, and Asian refugees is an attempt to divert from the overall shared responsibility of states to provide asylum to those who seek it.
It is clear that there is a western bias present, and the war in Ukraine has brought attention to the double standards of both western nations and their media outlets. Although the disparity in media coverage is disconcerting, there is a reassuring element that the plight of refugees has never been more apparent. One can only hope that as focus shifts, the international community heeds the plight of refugees to the broader scale of refugee hardships, as nations have proven the right to asylum is more practical than previously envisioned.