You are standing at the border, and with one look, you are dismissed. You cannot enter ultimately, because of the color of your skin. It does not matter that you have assimilated into Ukrainian culture: You have contributed to their economy, have learned their languages, eaten their cuisines, worked side-by-side with them. You are Black—therefore, are not Ukrainian, and are not a priority for safety.
The crisis in Ukraine is a horrific reminder that even in 2022, we are not immune from the threats of war. Equally alarming is the fact that racism thrives in the face of it all. There is without a doubt a double standard present in the refugee crises today.
Reception at the Border
Strangers have flooded the train stations to receive immigrants fleeing the war in Ukraine. Others have booked out Airbnbs and hotel rooms for immigrants fleeing the war of Ukraine. Some have even opened their homes. The Ukrainian flag hangs proudly next to the Polish flag in many places in Poland. Reception centers were set up, complete with hot meals, medical care, cellphones, and donations. Ukrainian refugees are being greeted with love, warmth, and music—just as all refugees should.
“We will do everything to provide safe shelter in Poland for everyone who needs it.” Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski told NPR. To date, Poland has received over 2.6 million Ukrainian refugees. Similar sentiments are currently being heard in Denmark, a country that is suspending asylum laws for Ukrainian refugees, while simultaneously kicking out Syrian refugees. In fact, European countries had great difficulty hosting the 1 million Syrian refugees because countries did not want to open their borders to them. Hungary, a country known for its lack of compassion when it comes to accepting refugees, has accepted nearly 400,000 Ukrainian refugees so far. Once again, for Hungary, the differences between a Syrian refugee and a Ukrainian refugee can be found in appearance, religion, and culture—they have accepted refugees who feel familiar. The double standard is painfully evident.
Under the Trump administration there was a drastic decline, and during certain moments a complete stop, of immigrants from countries where Islam was the primary practice. Trump wanted refugees who were White, educated, and Christian, and he did not hide that. In 2019, the Trump administration settled more Ukrainians than almost any other nationality. There was a 75% increase in Ukrainian refugees into the United States during his presidency, despite there being little to no conflict at that time. However, numbers from Congo and Myanmar, two war-torn nations, declined. There is no coincidence in the fact that the majority of Ukrainians who settled in the United States at that time were Pentecostal, Baptist, and Evangelical Christians.
Today, Ukrainians are facing the same chaos as that of the Congolese, Burmese, Syrians, Yemenis, Somalis, Afghanis, Sudanese, etc. International refugee law does not differentiate between race, color, or religion; it clearly states that protection should be granted to those who are fleeing their country because human rights and humanitarian laws have been violated.
Media Coverage of Crisis
If Ukraine was on a different continent, the situation there would not receive the same kind of compassionate media coverage or humanitarian response. From European politicians to major media outlets to the president of Ukraine himself, racism has saturated the coverage of the crisis in Ukraine since it began over one month ago. One European politician received applause after exclaiming that these refugees are different because of their religion. The Prime Minister of Bulgaria stated: “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.”
This exemplifies similar rhetoric heard throughout the Trump campaign and administration. There is an “othering” of those who do not fit the “colonial image” (i.e. White). There is a lack of attention to the suffering of those in the Global South who are going through similar, and even worse, humanitarian crises.
In the ongoing civil war in Yemen, for example, fifty children have been “maimed” in the last two months. 80% of the people in Yemen are suffering from starvation. We do not hear this news anymore, because the world views it as “typical” to the region. We are socialized to receive the news of people escaping their home countries with different lenses. Black and brown refugees are “poor and uneducated” while refugees from Ukraine are “educated and prosperous”.
We have grown immune to seeing the mistreatment of Black and brown bodies at borders—from law enforcement on horseback whipping immigrants to the “warehousing” of refugees. The Southern Border of the United States, which has generally been an unwelcoming, hostile, and cold environment for incoming refugees, has quickly processed thousands of Ukrainian refugees through the system. Most refugees from the Global South spend months in immigration processing centers, awaiting the same type of care and attention. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Blaine Bookey, the legal director at the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the University of California drew similar conclusions:
President Biden’s decision to welcome Ukrainian refugees seeking safety in the United States is the right thing to do… There is no way to look at what’s happening at the southern border other than along racial lines.
The Compassionate Response to Crises
Ukrainians deserve the warm welcome they are receiving from host countries. They deserve to be treated with dignity, respect, and kindness. All people fleeing their homes due to war or unsafe circumstances deserve the level of response and care that Ukrainians have received. International immigration laws and policies need to be updated to meet the demands of today’s world. Policy should demand compassion and responsibility from the Global North. The U.S. immigration system has a long way to go in addressing the systemic racism it was built on. The European Union is equally as bad. Right now, compassionate and equitable immigration policy seems like an impossible task, particularly with the rise in nationalistic opinions and views.
Bruce Knotts, the Director of the UU@UN Office, encourages us to remain vigilant to these divides in attention towards crises:
We must dig deep and keep ourselves informed and engaged with those parts of the world where people of color live and where they suffer conflicts and hunger. Our attention must be broad and inclusive. Our compassion must reach out to all regardless of color or geography.