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Does the Ukraine exodus reveal a ‘shocking distinction’ on refugees in some parts of the EU?

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By Joshua Berlinger
Refugees from Ukraine cross into Poland at the Medyka crossing, Tuesday, March 1, 2022
Refugees from Ukraine cross into Poland at the Medyka crossing, Tuesday, March 1, 2022   -   Copyright  Credit: AP

Countries like Romania, Hungary and Poland are being praised for letting in tens of thousands of people who fled Ukraine after Russia's invasion last week, but the open-door policy of several states has highlighted an apparent double-standard.

These refugees, who are largely white and Christian, can enter some countries more easily than those escaping violence in the Middle East or North Africa.

Political scientist Ziad Majed told AFP news agency the "magnificent solidarity and humanism" towards Ukraine illustrates a "shocking distinction" which reveals a "dehumanization of refugees from the Middle East".

"When you hear certain comments talking about 'people like us' it suggests that those who come from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or Africa are not", adds the professor at the American University of Paris.

More than a half a million refugees have left Ukraine already, the head of the UN's refugee agency (UNHCR) said on Monday. To cope with the influx, the European Union has invoked a never-before-used law to help the traditional asylum system when it is overwhelmed by a mass and unexpected arrival of migrants.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said his country is "letting everyone in", while Poland declared its border open to fleeing Ukrainians -- even those without official documents -- and dropped its requirement to show a negative COVID-19 test. On Sunday, the UNHCR said 45,200 refugees had arrived in Poland in just 15 hours.

"We must be prepared to accept many refugees from Ukraine. People who will seek a safe haven with us fleeing the tragedy of war," Polish President Andrzej Duda said last week.

The Polish right has historically opposed almost all immigration, and Orbán is one of the EU's most outspoken opponents of the EU's migration policy. He said in 2018 that "migration is dangerous to public security, to our welfare and to the European Christian culture".

While geopolitics may be at play here -- these are refugees of a Russian invasion that Europe has universally condemned -- there is also the fact that Ukrainian people are ethnically and culturally similar to their new hosts.

“These are not the refugees we are used to … these people (Ukrainians) are Europeans,” Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov told journalists earlier this week, The Associated Press reported. 

“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."

"In other words," he added, "there is not a single European country now which is afraid of the current wave of refugees."

Petkov's comments have drawn allegations of racism, as it implies that non-European migrants are less intelligent, less educated and more dangerous.

In fact, many who fled Syria for Europe during the 2015 crisis were from the professional middle class, according to reports at the time, and only sought to escape the civil strife in their country that has left at least 350,000 people dead.

Members of the news media have landed in hot water for similar -- if unintended -- implications. A reporter from CBS News apologised after facing backlash for his comments about why the violence was surprising in "relatively civilised" and "relatively European" Ukraine. And Al Jazeera issued an apology after a presenter on its English network made "unfair comparisons between Ukrainians fleeing the war and refugees from the MENA region".

Refugees and migrants attempting to reach Europe in recent years from conflict zones in the Middle East and North Africa have faced much more perilous journeys. In 2021, the Greek Coast Guard was accused of repeatedly accused of illegally abusing and pushing migrants back to sea; the number of migrants and refugees who died while trying to reach Spain more than doubled to 4,404; and 1,315 people died trying to cross the central Mediterranean, the highest since 2018.

Equal treatment

Refugees are not supposed to face discrimination based on race, religion or country of origin, according to the UN Refugee Convention.

"In an ideal world, we would like everyone to be treated equally," said Jeff Crisp, an expert at the University of Oxford's Refugee Studies Centre.

The reality, however, is that "both people and states do treat different groups of refugees in different ways, according to where they come from; according to their own perceptions of those people, and according to their own political interests," said Crisp, who previously headed policy development and evaluation for the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).

The issue has already presented itself with those leaving Ukraine. Crisp pointed to the increasing number of reports that Africans have had issues trying to leave Ukraine.

A spokesman for Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said his office had received reports of Ukraine police and security personnel refusing to allow Nigerians to leave for the Polish border.

Jean-Jacques Kabea, a Congolese pharmacy student, told AFP that he spent four days in the cold without anything to eat. Kabea said that Ukrainian forces told him and Congolese students had to stay and fight, as men have been ordered to stay in the country.

"They tell you: "you are going to stay here, you are fleeing the war, stay here, you are going to fight with us, you are not going to leave, especially you black people," Kabea said.

Crisp, the migration expert at Oxford, said that it's imperative those fleeing Ukraine be treated equally.

"Clearly, if you're escaping from Ukraine at the moment, then it doesn't matter what your nationality is, what the colour of your skin is, what your culture is. You can understand why people would want to get out of their situation and seek safety elsewhere," he said.

Down the line, Crisp is worried that the goodwill among European states could evaporate if Ukrainian refugees continue to flood in -- especially if their homes are destroyed or their democratically elected government is overthrown, making it more difficult to return home.

"The big question is how long is the invasion and the conflict in Ukraine going to persist? What level of destruction will take place in that country? And what are the implications of that level of destruction for the, for the eventual return of refugees," Crisp said. "If there are high levels of destruction within Ukraine, particularly if some kind of Russian backed public government is installed, then I think we have to start thinking about the Ukrainian refugee situation in Europe being a long term one."

"I wouldn't be at all surprised if, in four or five years' time, we're still talking about the situation of Ukrainian refugees in Europe," Crisp said.