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  • Bryan Ramos Alcantara

Selective Sympathy: Comparing previous Migrant Crisis to Ukraine’s Refugees

I write these thoughts as we witness a global migration crisis, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, the ever-increasing desire to close borders, and the exodus of refugees in various parts of the world. Today, some 80 million people worldwide are forced to leave their homes, although most of them (55 million) do not cross international borders and become internally displaced persons (IDPs). In Europe, the large-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russian armed forces on 24 February 2022 has forced more than 13 million people to flee their homes (UNHCR, 2022). To address this alarming situation, the desire to express solidarity with Ukraine has prompted the European Union to adopt simplified procedures for receiving the large numbers of refugees pouring across its borders.

On 2 March 2022, the unanimous decision of the 27 European Union member states to invoke the Temporary Protection Directive 2001/55 (European Commission, 2022), first proposed more than 20 years ago in the aftermath of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, gave Ukrainian citizens access to various social services such as housing, education, and health care. However, European solidarity to evoke the Temporary Protection Directive (TPD) and other rapid actions implemented in Europe for Ukrainian refugees have been overshadowed by contradictions that call into question the extent of the aid which was given to non-European refugees in previous (some even ongoing) humanitarian crises (Monreal B., 2022). According to the UN's refugee agency, over 3,000 migrants died at sea on their way to Europe in 2021 (Aljazeera, 2022). A tragic consequence of the scarce instruments to handle migratory flows in the Mediterranean Sea beyond expressing concern without a clearer strategy. For example: externalizing Europe's borders through deals with Turkey and Libya to keep migrants in refugee camps (Akkerman, M. 2018), or the plaintive panic with which Hungary and Poland greeted Afghans, Syrians, and Iraqis arriving via Belarus in 2015 (Gall, L. 2022 & Tondo, L. 2022). In more recent times, the segregation of non-white refugees at some of Ukraine’s exit points (Dovi, V. 2022). All of these are clear examples that in the exodus of conflict-induced migrants we can identify (a not necessarily overt) segregation of “first and second class refugees”.

Fear of what is different

"There is no doubt that it is, in its origins, a zoological fact: animals of the same species, but of different groups, manifest among themselves phenomena of intolerance” (Levi, 1947, p.257). Levi's words when he refers to the aversion against Jews as a particular case of a broader phenomenon: the aversion against those who are different from oneself. The racialization and rejection of refugees from the Middle East could go beyond any political positioning and be rooted in basic human instincts. The Ukrainian crisis and adoption of the TPD for Ukrainian refugees is arguably an example that race and identity have affected Europe’s response to this refugee crisis. At least one European political leader has openly stressed that the feeling of Ukrainians’ perceived whiteness, Christianity and “Europeanness” makes them more palatable than past refugee populations. “These people are Europeans,” Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov said. “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.” (Faiola A., Noack R. and Adam K., 2022).

The UK government, for example, has announced two new pathways through which Ukrainian refugees can obtain a rapid visa to enter British territory due to the ongoing crisis (Government UK, 2022). The Ukraine Family Scheme, opened to Ukrainian nationals with family members who are British citizens or are settled in the UK. This includes immediate and extended family (British Red Cross, 2022). The Homes for Ukraine Scheme launched on March 18th which allows Ukrainian nationals to stay with a sponsor in the UK for up to six months (ibid). Under the scheme, they will be able to stay in the UK for three years. During this time, they will be able to work and have access to benefits and public services – including healthcare, schooling (Government UK, 2022).

However, not all UK immigration policies are being employed to encourage refugees to stay (Nogueira T., 2022)). Under the Asylum Partnership Agreement (APA) signed in April 2022 by the United Kingdom and Rwanda governments, asylum seekers arriving in the UK illegally may be transferred to Rwanda, which will process asylum claims directly in the country (ibid). If the asylum is granted, under the UK-Rwanda deal migrants will be encouraged to stay in Rwanda for at least five years (Foden G., 2022). Thus far, with the London-Kigali deal already in place, the number of people crossing the channel continues to grow (Ramos R., 2022).

Representation & conflicting borders

Too often we ignore the voices of those who are being neglected. Without this voice, without listening to their fears and aspirations, how can we understand what it means to be a refugee? Iraqis, Afghans and Syrians and refugees from countries outside of Europe are not presented to us as individuals, but as a gray mass whose suffering has become normalized (Van Auken, B. 2022). This negligence only serves to perpetuate injustices, to which the wider world is oblivious (Global Detention Project, 2022).

As part of the TPD EU countries are obliged to provide: a residence permit for the entire duration of the protection, access to employment; access to medical care and education for persons under 18 years; free movement in EU countries and other policies that never applied before in the EU to help refugees (Temporary protection, 2022). Lurking behind tremendous generosity, States have treated arrivals from Ukraine differently than other recent flows of forced migrants and even some others fleeing Ukraine. Although differential treatment is not always discriminatory, some State responses to the current crisis arguably have been (Monreal Gainza B., 2022).

Poland, a country rather reluctant to accept refugees from the Middle East during the 2015 migrant crisis, was one of the first European countries that passed an act on assistance for Ukrainian nationals on 12 March 2022 (European Commission, 2022). Ukrainians who left the country as a result of Russian aggression can cross directly into Poland and then declare their intention to stay, have the right to stay for 18 months and have access to the labor market, health and social benefits. Polish state railways further announced free travel for Ukrainians (ibid). Under this law, companies and individuals aiding refugees from Ukraine in the form of accommodation and food will receive financial assistance for up to 60 days in the amount of PLN 1,200 per month (approximately 250 EUR)(UNHCR, 2022). Poland has shown immense support for Ukraine since the Russian invasion started.

This may partially be explained by the fact that the two countries share a history of oppression and bloodshed at the hands of great powers, but the war has brought them closer together (Pifczyk S., 2022). Some of the reasons for this willingness to help Ukrainians may be intrinsically connected to the troubled history Poland had with Moscow, dating as far back as the Partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to as recently as the Cold War (Brzozowski A., 2022).

“For us in Poland, it is difficult to resist the impression that the Russians in Ukraine behave exactly the same as the Red Army in Poland in 1944-45”

- Polish Deputy Prime Minister Piotr Gliński

However, the recently-enacted Polish law on aid to Ukrainian citizens evidently excludes from protection those without Ukrainian citizenship fleeing the war.

In November 2021, a rapidly evolving standoff between Poland and Belarus fueled a humanitarian crisis on the European Union's eastern border, with thousands of asylum seekers and migrants coming mostly from Middle Eastern countries who were used as pawns in a geopolitical dispute (Bala Akal A., 2021). People on the move fleeing mostly from conflicts were stuck between Poland and Belarus for weeks (Amnesty International, 2022). Moreover, in January this year, Poland stated its decision to deploy troops and build a $400 million 5.5-meter-high wall along 186 km of the border. This wall is believed to be aimed at deterring the crossing of refugees, mostly Muslim asylum seekers, at its border with Belarus (Aljazeera, 2022). On the other side, the government of Minsk is accused of having encouraged would-be asylum seekers to come to the country by promising them an "easy journey" on foot to the European Union as a means of antagonizing the EU over sanctions (ibid.). Human rights groups have criticized both Poland and Belarus for their treatment of nonwhite migrants and refugees, who have been stranded for weeks in refugee camps facing freezing weather conditions and a lack of food and medical care (Khurshudyan I., 2021). The incidents described involved at least 60 people (Human Rights Watch, 2022).


"In order to maintain secrecy, among other precautionary measures, only cautious and cynical euphemisms were used in official language: not 'extermination' but 'final solution'; not 'deportation' but 'transfer', not 'gassing' but 'special treatment', and so on" (Levi, 1947, p.241). What are the euphemisms that describe the reality of refugees today? They have to do with detention, repatriation and pushbacks. People coming from countries torn apart by latent conflicts are seriously exposed to the risk of exploitation, trafficking, smuggling, and inhuman and degrading treatment if they are abandoned by institutions.

As repatriation can be voluntary or forced, the term is often used as a euphemism for deportation. Involuntary or forced repatriation is the return of refugees to their country of origin under circumstances that leave no other viable alternatives. According to international law, refugees refusing repatriation, particularly if motivated by fears of political persecution in their own country, should be protected from refoulement and given, if possible, temporary or permanent asylum (1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees).

Lithuanian authorities have arbitrarily detained thousands of asylum seekers in militarized centres, where they have been subjected to inhumane conditions, torture and other ill-treatment (Amnesty International, 2022). Since January 2022, MSF has documented 18 cases of violence, aggression and mistreatment while in detention (Ibid). Refugees and migrants from countries including Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Nigeria, Syria and Sri Lanka are denied access to fair asylum procedures and face other serious human rights violations in the hope that they will ‘voluntarily’ return to the countries whence they fled (Ibid).

In July 2021, Lithuania adopted new legislation prescribing the automatic detention of people who illegally cross into Lithuanian territory, which was described by authorities as “temporary accommodation”. This has seen thousands of people detained for prolonged periods without any judicial oversight. Others have been pushed back across the border to Belarus. The actions are in breach of international and EU law (ibid).

As Lithuania attempted to ‘legalize’ pushbacks, automatic detention and the denial of asylum through its domestic legislation, the European Commission’s response ranged from outright praise to tacit endorsement (Amnesty International, 2022). The Commission’s leadership told Members of the European Parliament that pushbacks are clearly illegal but suggested that there is no hard evidence they were happening. However, international organizations have provided more than ample evidence, as have NGOs, human rights groups and local groups (Muižnieks N., 2022). A year after Lithuania tried to legalize pushbacks, the European Commission still has not taken any action to bring Lithuania’s legislation into line with EU law.

Pushbacks are the informal cross-border expulsion (without due process) of individuals or groups to another country. Pushbacks are illegal, but are an open secret. The Evros River border between Turkey and Greece is one of the easternmost frontiers of the European Union. Until a fence went up on all but 12 kilometers of the Evros in 2012, it was the easiest and safest path for asylum seekers from the Middle East and elsewhere to reach Europe, and nearly 55,000 people crossed the border in 2011 alone (Nielsen N., 2012). In recent years, with the intensification of migratory flows, refugees crossing the Evros River from Turkey to Greece have testified to being detained, beaten, and pushed back across the river to Turkey. Numerous reports by media and nongovernmental groups, including Human Rights Watch, expose how asylum seekers were detained, assaulted, robbed, and stripped of their belongings before being forced back to Turkey (Levidis S., 2022). Both Turkish, Greek, and EU authorities systematically deny any wrongdoing (ibid). No such actions have taken part in either state during the Ukraine Crisis, instead Ukrainian refugees are welcomed with open arms, though this is mainly due to the fact there is no land border between these two states and Ukraine.

Pushbacks were also registered in the recent Russian-Ukrainian war. Among the days-long queues of people trying to escape there was Ukrainian dissent, but also a large number of African students and professionals. Prior to the war, over 16,000 African-born students were studying in Ukraine, accounting for more than 20% of Ukraine’s international students (Inveen C. & Obulutsa G., 2022). Since the Russian invasion, there are many reported cases of these students being turned away at border crossings in favor of Ukrainians, leaving them stranded at the borders for days in brutal conditions (Busari S., Princewill N., Nasinde S., & Tawfeeq M., 2022). Once most Ukrainians were evacuated, only then were Africans evacuated. Comments made by Ukrainian officials and journalists also reveal this paradigm. Ukrainians are the “real refugees,” Greece's migration minister, Notis Mitarachi, declared on March 1 before the Hellenic Parliament (Aljazeera, 2022). In describing the traumatic impact of the Russian invasion to the BBC, Ukraine’s former deputy general prosecutor David Sakvarelidze stated: “It is really emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blond hair being killed, children being killed every day with Putin’s missiles” (Ibid).

The European Union has allowed a two-tier system to develop in the last few months. While Ukrainian nationals are given protection in the EU and treated with the compassion they deserve, people fleeing other countries are locked up and face countless barriers within a system that is shamefully tainted by racism and other forms of discrimination (Amnesty International, 2022). By April 2022 only a few Ukrainian asylum applications were filed. The decline in Ukrainian asylum applications occurred immediately after the activation of the EU’s Temporary Protection Directive on 4 March, which allowed persons fleeing Ukraine to directly register for temporary protection without going through the long asylum process (EUAA EPS, 2022). The recognition rate for this type of protection for Ukrainians is 97 %, as of April (ibid). Comparing it to May 2022, the EU recognition rate for Pakistanis was only 8 % of the total applications, when the preceding year’s figure was 11% (ibid). At the same time the EU recognition rate for Afghans decreased to 53%, the lowest since July 2021 (ibid). Numbers of recognition during the 2014-2015 migration crisis were also contained, from a record of 1.3 million migrants who applied for asylum in the European Union, Norway and Switzerland (Pew Research Center, 2016), protection status was granted to only 333,350 asylum seekers in 2015. The largest group of beneficiaries of protection status in the EU in 2015 were citizens of Syria (50% of the total number of persons granted protection status in the EU Member States), followed by citizens of Eritrea (8%) and those of Iraq (7%) (ibid).

It is crucial to remember that, under international refugee law, protection must be granted without any discrimination or distinction based on ethnicity, nationality, or legal status (Refugee Convention, 1951). Conflicts in Syria, Somalia, Afghanistan and other places have not received the wide-reaching international media coverage or urgent international government action that the invasion of Ukraine has inspired. As the world offers its support to Ukraine in its fight for freedom, we cannot abandon the equitable deployment of civil and human rights. Access, or lack thereof, to a form of protection can determine the lives and futures of those fleeing warzones and can alleviate or aggravate the traumas of war, as well as the vulnerabilities they carry with them. All people, regardless of race or nationality, must have equal access to cross borders for safety. The TPD as well as other measures implemented to help the Ukrainian people, however, seem to create a dangerous stratification between people who, although united by the horrors of war, are destined to be treated differently. Ukrainians, Syrians, Afghans, Kurds, and all refugees, in general, are first and foremost human beings.


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