Europe’s Open Door for Ukrainians Reinforces a Double Standard on Refugees

Europe’s Open Door for Ukrainians Reinforces a Double Standard on Refugees
Refugees from Ukraine arrive at the railway station in Przemysl, Poland, Feb. 27, 2022 (AP photo by Czarek Sokolowski).
As the uncertainties surrounding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continue to multiply, one thing seems clear: Europe is poised to experience a level of population upheaval not seen on the continent since the 1940s. Exactly a week has passed since the war began, and already more than 1 million Ukrainians have fled to neighboring Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Moldova. European Union and United Nations officials are warning that the number seeking refuge in the EU could soon exceed 7 million. Such a figure, which would vault Ukrainians into being the world’s largest refugee group, may well prove an underestimate. Russia’s much more localized invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014 forced 1.5 million Ukrainians from their homes. This time, the entire country is under assault. The last time Europe saw a refugee movement on anything close to this scale was in 2015, when more than 1 million mainly Syrian refugees arrived on the continent. Back then, few countries rose to the challenge. With the notable exceptions of Germany and Sweden, Europe responded with a mixture of heavy-handedness and brinkmanship that made a mockery of its declared commitment to human rights, while fueling xenophobia and nearly splintering the bloc. But if, as is likely, Russian President Vladimir Putin was hoping for similar levels of discord this time around, he will be sorely disappointed. Despite the scale of the looming crisis, the EU is remarkably united in its intention to welcome Ukrainian refugees. Poland alone is preparing to receive upward of 1 million to 2 million of them. Slovakia has announced that all Ukrainians entering the country, even those who lack valid travel documents, will be granted temporary residence, free health care, and work permits. Even Hungary, which has been vocally hostile to migrants under Prime Minister Viktor Orban, will accommodate every Ukrainian that reaches its territory. Nor will Ukraine’s neighbors be left to shoulder the burden alone. With few exceptions, Western Europe is waiving visa rules and providing Ukrainians with 3-year residency permits, foregoing the draconian border policies and asylum procedures of crises past. As German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser recently put it, “It’s war in Europe again for the first time, and that is also leading to a different way of thinking among member states.” Faeser likened this to a “total paradigm shift.” It is indeed a rare and desperately needed instance of collective solidarity in the face of abject calamity. But it also reinforces the double standard that has, for far too long, driven global and European refugee policy. Adopted in 1951, the U.N. Refugee Convention defined the term “refugee” to apply only to persons displaced by World War II in Europe, excluding tens of millions of people then uprooted in Asia and Africa. When, during the Cold War, it became politically expedient for Western states to admit Eastern Europeans fleeing Soviet expansion, the definition grew to encompass them. Years later, when non-European refugees were finally recognized as such, a two-tiered system of robust protections for Europeans and closed-door policies for non-European refugees persisted.

The EU’s response to Ukrainian refugees is a rare and desperately needed instance of collective solidarity. But it also reinforces the double standard that has, for far too long, driven global and European refugee policy.

This dynamic is once again on display today. The same EU states preparing to welcome Ukrainians with open arms continue to erect legal and physical barriers to deter a far smaller number of non-European refugees currently languishing—and freezing—on the EU’s borders. In Poland, for example, authorities are building border walls and allowing border guards to routinely push back Middle Eastern refugees and migrants into Belarus. In Southern Europe, authorities continue to forcibly return refugees to Libya, where most end up in militia-run prisons so hellish that European diplomats themselves have likened them to concentration camps. Just last week, the U.N. Refugee Agency warned that illegal pushbacks and other abuses have become “normalised” across Europe. The same incongruity is already evident in the bloc’s response to the Ukrainian crisis itself. Reports are growing of discrimination and violence against African, Asian and Caribbean migrants as they attempt to flee Ukraine. Footage showing Black migrants being barred from boarding trains for the border have gone viral. News headlines along the lines of “Pushed back because we’re Black” are proliferating. EU authorities have responded by saying that “Everyone who has to flee Putin’s bombs will be welcomed with open arms,” regardless of nationality. But reports to the contrary continue to mount. The double standard is not accidental. As Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov explained in a recent press conference, referring to Ukrainians, “These people are intelligent, they are educated people.” He added, “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,” before concluding, “In other words, there is not a single European country now which is afraid of the current wave of refugees.” Speaking anonymously to the Washington Post, another European official concurred, saying, “Honestly, the sentiment is different since [Ukrainians] are White and Christian.” That does not mean that Ukrainian refugees will not face significant discrimination and hardship. Europe has its own internal, deeply rooted social hierarchy; prior groups of European refugees, while initially welcomed, have seen their hosts’ generosity dry up. But the markedly disparate treatment now on display merits urgent attention. Coming, as it does, on top of the West’s vaccine inequity and failure to provide developing countries with sufficient financial assistance amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a two-tiered refugee policy may alleviate tensions within Europe, but it will not help increasingly fraying North-South relations. As Dr. Ayoade Alakija, a special envoy to the World Health Organization, decried on Twitter, the “West cannot ask African nations to stand in solidarity with them if they cannot display basic respect for us even in a time of war. Ignored in a pandemic and left to die in war?!!” Already, a growing number of African governments—including Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya—are expressing outrage over reports of discrimination at the Ukrainian border. As Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari stated Sunday, “All who flee a conflict situation have the same right to safe passage under UN convention and the colour of their passport or their skin should make no difference.” Meanwhile, the impact of the crisis on the overwhelming majority of the world’s refugees who reside outside of Europe is of equally pressing concern. The exodus from Ukraine will likely feed into narratives among European publics that the continent is “saturated,” making it even more difficult for vulnerable Afghans and others to secure resettlement. Moreover, financial aid for refugees beyond Europe will almost certainly decrease as attention and funding shifts to Ukrainians displaced by the Russian invasion. Given the pandemic-induced economic crisis, as well as the likely economic fallout from sanctions and supply disruptions due to the war in Ukraine, EU states will conceivably be even more eager to shift their foreign aid budgets toward the costs of accommodating refugees domestically, and away from aid for refugees in countries such as Lebanon or Uganda, than they were in 2015-2016, when roughly 20 percent of global humanitarian dollars was diverted to domestic use. This will occur just as global humanitarian needs are skyrocketing, most notably in Afghanistan. Europe should be commended for opening its arms to Ukrainian refugees, who deserve every ounce of solidarity that the continent, and the world, can muster. Rather than diminishing the West’s attention to current crises in Africa and the Middle East, though, the Ukrainian crisis should remind us of the horrific conditions faced by refugees everywhere, and the need, finally, for a humanitarianism without hierarchy built into it.

Leah Zamore directs the Humanitarian Crises program at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. She is the author, with T. Alexander Aleinikoff, of “The Arc of Protection: Reforming the International Refugee Regime” (Stanford University Press, 2019).

Keep reading for free!

Get instant access to the rest of this article by submitting your email address below. You'll also get access to three articles of your choice each month and our free newsletter:

Or, Subscribe now to get full access.

Already a subscriber? Log in here .

What you’ll get with an All-Access subscription to World Politics Review:

A WPR subscription is like no other resource — it’s like having a personal curator and expert analyst of global affairs news. Subscribe now, and you’ll get:

  • Immediate and instant access to the full searchable library of tens of thousands of articles.
  • Daily articles with original analysis, written by leading topic experts, delivered to you every weekday.
  • Regular in-depth articles with deep dives into important issues and countries.
  • The Daily Review email, with our take on the day’s most important news, the latest WPR analysis, what’s on our radar, and more.
  • The Weekly Review email, with quick summaries of the week’s most important coverage, and what’s to come.
  • Completely ad-free reading.

And all of this is available to you when you subscribe today.