Why is it that these refugees have been welcomed with open arms, while other recent waves of refugees have been walled off, contained, detained, and denied protection and access to basic services?

Dr. Ritesh Shah, Project Lead, ACCESS

Why can’t the west welcome all refugees?

The humanitarian response to Ukraine, welcome as it is for those fleeing war, raises some uncomfortable questions about the west’s views towards brown or black and non-Christian refugees.

The scope and scale of the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ukraine is unprecedented. More than 1.5 million refugees have left the country to seek refuge in neighbouring countries. Between 4 million and 10 million people may leave in the coming weeks and months. The situation for children living in Ukraine is particularly dire. For those in the east of the country, it has gone from bad to worse given the conflict never really stopped there after 2014.

Having spent my academic career exploring the experiences of children living in conflict and crisis, including Ukraine and other parts of the Middle East, I feel it is important to ask some thorny questions about how the current humanitarian response appears different, and why that might be.

In 2018, I travelled to the east of Ukraine and visited towns adjacent to the border dividing the separatist-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk from the rest of the country. One 13-year-old boy I spoke to recalled the situation in the previous winter. “Shelling started in our town, and it was quite scary,” he said. “It would start at dusk and not end until dawn. One morning when I stepped outside, I saw dead bodies around. I grew very afraid and would have a lot of nightmares. These dreams would keep me up at night.”

Rightfully such children deserve a future free of fear, and for many of them now, the only choice will be to flee their homes and seek sanctuary outside of Ukraine.

At present, we can be heartened by the warm welcome these refugees have received in Hungary, Romania, Poland, and Moldova. The EU has already agreed to grant temporary protection status to Ukrainian refugees who find themselves in any of the 27 member state countries. This status will afford these refugees immediate protection and rights, including to housing, social welfare, medical care, and access to education.

This response aligns with the UN Refugee Convention which stresses the importance of hosting countries providing protection to fleeing persecution or armed conflict. Yet the convention also notes that refugees should be treated equally without discrimination as to their “race, religion or country origin” (Article 3).

And this is where the difficult questions with the current humanitarian response arises. Why is it that these refugees have been welcomed with open arms, while other recent waves of refugees have been walled off, contained, detained, and denied protection and access to basic services?

Bulgaria’s Prime Minister was recently quoted as saying, “These people [Ukranians] are Europeans … [they 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 terrorists.”

The view that Ukrainian refugees are “us” while others fleeing persecution are not is unacceptable. It reflects orientalist underpinnings, which pits those with values perceived to be aligned to white, European, and predominantly Christian as more deserving of the benevolence of the west than those of other groups (particularly Muslims). This “us v them” narrative has justified the increasingly draconian measures taken to contain refugees who are brown or black, and non-Christian, under the guise of security.

It has led to walls being erected to keep out refugees and asylum seekers, not only along the US-Mexico border, but also in parts of Europe. The past few years have also seen invisible barriers to those fleeing persecution put up, where countries such as Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon have been asked to prevent an outflow of Syrian refugees into Europe and further afield, in exchange for billions of dollars of financing.

Closer to home, Australia has used this approach to protect its borders, while leaving thousands of asylum seekers languishing in offshore detention facilities. In Aotearoa New Zealand we do this more subtly by continuing to discriminate against people seeking asylum under the UN Refugee Convention, compared with those coming under the Refugee Resettlement Strategy.

Yet someone fleeing persecution and war shouldn’t be naturally assumed to be a security threat by the colour of their skin or the religion they practice. Doing so highlights the norms of whiteness, which influence our sympathies and alliances to certain groups over others. Media reporting of the situation in Ukraine is an indication of this.

One Syrian refugee I spoke to in Jordan in 2017 described the incredible challenges she faced in going to school there. She described when she and her family went to the school in the camp: “They told us to go home. They said they would call us back so that I could start school again, but they never did. I felt alone, and would relive memories of jet planes bombing our neighbourhood. I stayed at home cleaning and doing other housework.”

Despite being given sanctuary in Jordan, this girl was denied her basic rights to an education and a life with dignity. It illustrates the real injustices of humanitarian responses that value some children’s futures over others, and which sees some as more worthy of the west’s benevolence and protection than others. Refugees should be treated equally, irrespective of where they come from, or the ways they arrive on our shores.