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On February 24, after years of threats and escalating tensions, Russian forces advanced into Ukraine, plunging millions of Ukrainians into the middle of conflict and tragedy; in this digital age, we were able to watch day by day as the tragedy unfolds and see how lives of Ukrainian people had been irrevocably changed. An estimated 8-12 million people were displaced, with a reported 6.5 million fleeing the country as refugees. Through this digital verse, we watched what followed: nations in the western world flinging open the gates for Ukrainian refugees, implementing unprecedented measures to accommodate them, with their actions heralded and passionately pleaded for by news anchors and journalists as they reported on the war. The online world gave me the platform to watch all of this unfold and as I did, I realized the blatant bias and prejudice prevalent in the media coverage, the political response, and the treatment of refugee communities. It showed me that the western world had decided that there was a “right” kind of refugee, and it was one that looked like them.
It hadn’t been hard to notice, having spent my teenage years as a young Muslim POC watching news coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2014, hearing Western/European politicians use dehumanizing, minimizing phrases like ‘aliens’, ‘foreigner’, ‘illegals’, and ‘migrants’ [which they have since the 2014 crisis rapidly took a negative tilt], callously replacing the word refugee, villainizing the entire Syrian population, adopting hostile policies and attitudes toward refugees, proudly showing images of barbed wire and fenced borders in construction guarded by armed soldiers. The headlines took an incredibly cruel turn during the 2014 refugee crisis, writing headers like: ‘The Swarm on our Streets’, ‘Halt the Asylum Tide Now’, and ‘Calais Crisis: Send in the Dogs’ in thick, black font. It was during this period that I experienced an incredible amount of racial prejudice and Islamophobia. Yet, when the same tragedy occurred in Europe and the Ukrainian people fled to the western world and beyond, it was a completely different situation.
Unprecedented measures were taken to handle the influx of Ukrainian refugees, with the European Union enacting a completely new programme that gave all Ukrainian nationals the right to live in, work, and receive access to public services in any European country for the next three years. In the UK, programmes like ‘Homes for Ukraine’ were adopted–a volunteer hosting policy— which gave UK residents the opportunity to host refugees in their homes for six months. What a thing it was to witness and the complex feelings it brought– elation at the rapid action taken to protect and provide for refugees and horror at the complete policy change the western world had taken. In watching this, there was this sense of justified preferential treatment, something which seems to pervade the western media and political narrative on the Ukraine War. A constant othering of refugee communities accompanied by racist language or implications that Ukraine refugees are morally, civilly, and/or intellectually advanced.
Louis Bourlanges, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the French National Assembly, was quoted numerous times stating, ‘the Ukrainian refugees will be “an immigration of great quality, intellectuals, one that we will be able to take advantage of”.’ The Bulgarian Prime Minister echoed similar sentiments when he was recorded, stating that “these are not the refugees we are used to… these people are intelligent, they are educated people”. The arrogance of these leaders to completely devalue the abilities, talents, and strengths of millions of refugees as though they are just a commodity. Justifying their blatant prejudice to bring in more ‘valuable stock’ [while also dehumanizing Ukrainian refugees] simply on the shallow presumption that European heritage equals intellectual superiority.
In the UK, an ITV journalist reported from Poland, “Now the unthinkable has happened to them. And this is not a developing third-world nation. This is Europe!’ From America, Charlie D’Agata, a foreign correspondent for CBS News reported: “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 — a city where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen.”
These quotes, especially western media coverage, imply that this is the first war or conflict to come to Europe since WWI and WWII, that since then such violence and destruction have only existed in developing nations when that is simply not the case– there are many examples– 1990 Balkan/Yugoslav War, the Troubles in Ireland 1968-98 and Bosnian War 1992-1995. Yet these messages continue to imply that western or European nations have elevated above such acts. Professor Moustafa Bayoumi, effectively said: ‘the implication [made by western media platforms] is clear: war is a natural state for people of color while white people naturally gravitate towards peace.’
The right kind of refugee-a phrase perfectly summing up this arrogant western act of distinguishing the profoundness of a community’s agony, civility, and displacement based on nationality and ethnicity.