“These people are not people we are used to ... these people are Europeans.”
— Kiril Petkov, Bulgarian Prime Minister, Associated Press, March 1, 2022
In the history of accepting refugees, universal human characteristics are often overlooked in favour of the particular: race, cultural habits, religion. Even the so-called “immigration nations”, such as the United States and Australia, have taken xenophobic positions about who to accept, be they victims of pogroms, war crimes, genocide, or famine.
The Russian attack on Ukraine has already produced refugees in the hundreds of thousands. By March 2, with the war one week old, 874,000 people were estimated to have left Ukraine. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that up to four million may leave, while the European Union adds a further three million to the figure.
This is already producing a growing capital of hypocrisy on the part of receiving states who have shown deep reluctance in accepting refugees of colour from other conflicts. Tellingly, some of these conflicts have been the noxious fruit of campaigns or interventions waged by Western states.
Offers of generosity — at least to white Ukrainians — are everywhere. Poland, which will be a major recipient and country of passage for many Ukrainians, is showing ample consideration to the arrivals as they make their way across the border. They find themselves playing moral priests of salvation.
A report from the UNHCR notes that facilities at Polish border crossings are stocked with “food, water, clothes, sleeping bags, shoes, blankets, nappies and sanitary products for people arriving with only what they can carry”. Anna Dąbrowska, head of the NGO Homo Faber, explains Polish sentiment: “our two peoples have always had close relations… of course, we help our neighbours!”
But such solidarity has been selective. Those of African and Middle Eastern background have faced rather different treatment at the border — if and when they get there. There are growing reports of obstructions and violence, both within Ukraine and at the border.
Polish authorities have been accused of explicitly targeting African students by refusing them entry in preference for white Ukrainians, though the Polish Ambassador to the UN Krzysztof Szczerski told the General Assembly on February 28 that this was “a complete lie and a terrible insult to us.” According to Szczerski, as many as 125 nationalities have been admitted into Poland from Ukraine.
The sceptics have every reason to be doubtful. Only last year, the Polish Minister of the Interior Mariusz Kamiński, and National Defence Minister, Mariusz Błaszczak, gave a very different impression, suggesting that black and brown refugees — those from the Middle East, in particular — were immoral types tending towards bestiality. Such arrivals were accused of being weaponised by the Alexander Lukashenko regime in Belarus as part of a program of “hybrid warfare”. Polish President Adrzej Duda also signed a bill into law to construct what has been described as “a high-tech barrier on the border with Belarus to guard against an influx of irregular migrants.”
It’s all very well to accuse the Russians of disinformation, but the Polish authorities have not been averse to sowing their own sordid variants, targeting vulnerable arrivals and demonising them in the process. In 2021, those fleeing Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Yemen were left stranded by their hundreds in the freezing woods along the Polish-Belarusian border. Eight individuals perished.
In this cruel farce of inhumanity, the European Union, along with Poland and the Baltic States, notably Lithuania, must shoulder the blame. The President of the European Council, Charles Michel, openly accused Lukashenko of engineering the refugee crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border. Michel said it was “a hybrid attack, a brutal attack, a violent attack and a shameful attack.” Using refugees as political leverage makes it easier for politicians to care less about the human cost.
Globally, the war in Ukraine gives countries a chance to show more accommodating colours to the right type of refugee — one who is fleeing the ravages and viciousness of the Russian Bear, the bully of history. If nothing else, this new found charity also provides a distracting cover for the more brutal policies used against other, less desirable arrivals.
This is a strategy that is working, with media outlets such as USA Today running amnesiac pieces claiming that Ukrainian families, in fighting “Putin’s murderous regime”, were engaged in a “battle … for life and death; there is no time for debates about political correctness”.
Countries in Western Europe are also showing a different face to those fleeing Ukraine. Britain, which is seeking to adopt an Australian version of refugee processing — the use of distant offshore islands and third countries, lengthy detention spells and the frustrating of asylum claims — has now opened arms for 200,000 Ukrainian refugees.
Distant Australia, whose participation in the illegal war against Iraq which produced refugees and asylum seekers that would eventually head towards the antipodes, is now offering to accept a higher intake of refugees from Ukraine and “fast track” their applications. The same politicians speak approvingly of a system that imprisons asylum seekers and refugees indefinitely in Pacific outposts, promising to never resettle them in Australia. The subtext here is that those sorts — the Behrouz Boochani-types — deserve it.
The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) said “the Morrison government has presided over the dismantling of Australia’s refugee intake, leaving Australia unable to adequately respond to emergencies”, with 2022 “marking the lowest refugee intake in nearly 50 years”. True, the global pandemic did not aid matters, but COVID-19 did little in terms of seeing a precipitous decline in refugee places. Australia’s refugee intake cap was lowered from 18,750 persons in 2018-2019 to 13,750 in 2020–2021.
The reduction of such places has taken place despite Canberra’s role in a range of conflicts that have fed the global refugee crisis. Australia’s failure in Afghanistan, and its imperilling of hundreds of local translators and security personnel, only saw a half-hearted effort in opening the doors. The effort was characterised by incompetence and poorly deployed resources.
The grim reality in refugee politics is that governments always make choices and show preferences. “Talk of moving some applications ‘to the top of the pile’ pits the most vulnerable against each other”, said ASRC founder Kon Karapanagiotidis. “This is a moral aberration and completely out of step with the Australian public”.
In an election year, accepting Ukrainian refugees will be seen as good politics, just as indefinitely detaining boat arrivals from impoverished and war-ravaged lands — many Muslim majority states affected by the policies of Western states — will continue to be praised.
[Dr Binoy Kampmark lectures at RMIT University.]