As I’m sure we all know, Russia has invaded the sovereign country of Ukraine. Putin’s troops are attacking many significant Ukrainian cities and killing many soldiers and citizens in the process. This has led to around 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees fleeing the country.
Most of these refugees have been graciously taken in by neighboring countries including Poland, Germany, and Slovakia. These refugees have been granted temporary EU status and will be allowed to reside and freely travel within the EU without a VISA for 90 days, if not more.
Airbnb, a popular online marketplace for renting vacation homes, has even been encouraging and providing funding to homeowners to rent out their places for free to displaced Ukrainian refugees.
However, there have been reports of discrimination against African students trying to flee Ukraine. Ukrainian border guards have been refusing to let these students onto buses heading towards the Ukraine-Poland border, even going as far as to physically restrain people and remove them from buses to make more room for white Ukrainians.
So why do we as a society care about some refugees more than others? The answer is simple: skin color.
Most developing nations today have majority black and brown populations due to the history of colonization by European nations. This historic imperialism has stunted the economic growth of these nations for generations. We’re more used to seeing political unrest and refugee crises in developing nations simply because they’re still developing. It almost seems as if we expect these horrific situations to happen to people of color, but we’re shocked and appalled when they happen to white Europeans.
The Syrian refugee crisis has been going on for almost 11 years now, and remains the largest refugee displacement crisis of modern times. It is estimated that 13.5 million Syrians have been forcibly displaced as a result of the Syrian Civil War that began in 2011. European nations have closed their borders to Syrian refugees, leaving them with nowhere to go. These same European countries are the ones letting in thousands of Ukrainian refugees. See the difference?
Why do Ukrainian refugees get treated so drastically differently than Syrian refugees? I think we know.
It’s similar to the way Jewish refugees were treated during the Holocaust. The United States denied thousands of European Jews seeking asylum from the Nazi regime during World War 2. Most famously, a ship carrying nearly 1,000 Jewish refugees was turned away at a Miami port. The ship was forced to return back to Europe, and over ¼ of its passengers were sent to concentration camps where they were killed.
The global community has a shameful history of turning a blind eye to black, brown, or religious minority refugees in need. It is inspiring how so many have committed to helping Ukrainian refugees, but I can’t help but think that this response would be drastically different were the refugees people of color or religious minorities.
Average American citizens have even been volunteering themselves to travel to Ukraine and fight against Putin’s troops. It’s as if the Western world sees these atrocities and thinks, “if something so horrible can happen to white Europeans, maybe it can happen to us too.” Perhaps seeing white Europeans seeking asylum brings the issue “closer to home”, so to speak. Or perhaps most people have an underlying bias against minority refugees and don’t see them as victims the way they see white Ukrainian refugees.
The way that the Ukrainian refugee crisis has exposed underlying racism within the global community is unfortunately not very surprising. Of course it’s important that people support Ukrainians in their time of need, but let’s make sure we keep that same energy when we see similar atrocities happen to people of color.