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The Racism Embedded in Refugee Crises


The double-standard and treatment of Black and brown refugees is part of a long tradition—and it must end.



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Racism doesn’t take any days off, and, as we’ve seen from the recent scenes emerging from Ukraine, is often exacerbated and revealed in times of war and crisis. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and targeting of civilian areas has caused the sudden and mass migration of over 2 million refugees into neighboring European countries. This number could potentially more than double in the weeks ahead and has become the largest and fastest displacement of people in Europe since World War II.

Back in 2015, another big wave of migration also hit Europe, this time from mostly Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) countries. In 2022 though, as Russia’s war on Ukraine has entered its second month and intensifies, the response to refugees from both the media and politicians has been overwhelmingly different from how it was less than a decade ago. Many of the 1.4 million refugees were running from wars created and backed by the United States, Britain, and their allies.

Instead of being welcomed, they were and are viewed by many millions of people as an existential threat to European values and the so-called European way of life. The most extreme media platforms presented their migration as akin to some sort of a ‘clash of civilizations’. The arrival of thousands of Black and Brown refugees at the borders of EU member states was treated not as a humanitarian challenge to be met in good faith by countries with the means to assist, but as a security threat and diplomatic headache.

Rather than being embraced by the European family, their presence was treated as problematic, and with such hostility, that the relatively small migration wave (considering the collective size of Europe’s populations) triggered a political crisis in Europe. That crisis resulted in the Brexit vote in Britain and in a sharp rise in right-wing populist anti-migrant politics throughout Europe. So-called respectable people, bought into the unfounded fears, hysteria and paranoia about borders. The mainstream political middle ground meanwhile shifted ever more to the right, as a result.

Now compare migration in 2015 to the plight of a much larger group of desperate Ukrainians in 2022 and the opposite has happened. The arrival of white Ukrainians on the doorstep of their European neighbors has actually united European discourse, which was very recently divided over what to do with refugees. Everybody, it seems, is expressing solidarity with Ukrainians fleeing war.

Previously existing fears about a lack of jobs, resources, and housing seem to have evaporated. There are no such sensationalist headlines pandering to blatant falsehoods to be seen. There are, apparently, no concerns about assimilation despite cultural and linguistic differences between Ukrainians and other Europeans. News readers and pundits have been gushing and marveling over how much Ukrainians look just like them – educated middle class and respectable people from nice cities.

All of this, in reality, is thinly-veiled coded language that values whiteness above all else. Some news reporters opted to say it plainly, which is, that these are civilized white refugees from places not normally ravaged by conflicts associated with Black and Brown countries. For them, it was almost a duty to feel a natural sense of emotional empathy and familiarity with these white refugees. 

All of this is dangerous rhetoric—the legitimization of the “good refugee” versus “bad refugee” trap, and we should be outraged. 

But beyond the framing of narratives in the media and the negative representations of Black and Brown refugees and migrants in the news, in stark comparison, we clearly also see the importance of the identity of whiteness reflected through policy—and the response to it.

Within days of Russia’s assault on Ukraine, EU ministers in early March swiftly agreed to implement a never-before-used 2001 EU temporary protection directive to assist Ukrainians. The move offers Ukrainians immediate residency permits, plus access to education facilities and the labor market.

“We did reach an agreement,” explained French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin announcing the move as “a historic agreement that will allow the member states of the EU to grant individuals, fleeing from the Ukrainian conflict, temporary protection.”

France’s newfound enthusiasm for assisting refugees apparently marks a dramatic turn, considering that France has a reputation for being hostile toward refugees, particularly Muslims and darker-skinned Africans while razoring refugee camps to the ground.

Furthermore, recent scenes at the Ukraine-Poland border show us that especially in times of war, international law and the United Nations charter are little more than ideals and in fact support deeply entrenched, normalized discrimination. At the start of the war, Poland had received widespread global praise for the immediate and unconditional hospitality they had offered Ukrainians, particularly Poland’s suggestion that essential documentation be waived for anyone entering the country from Ukraine, and that all would receive a friendly welcome.

Hundreds of Black and non-white people, were literally forced to the back of the queue when it came to exiting Ukraine. It was blatant, and there was little pretense of it being anything else. Ukrainian officials tried to offer up nationality as an excuse for the shameful scenes. But Ukrainian pets were even said to have boarded trains and buses ahead of Black and non-white human beings. The border had clearly been segregated along racial lines. The UN and human rights organizations condemned and identified the discrimination as racism while both Ukraine and Poland denied any wrongdoing. Under international law and the UN convention, all those fleeing war should be guaranteed safe passage. This had simply not been the case, and the entire world could see why. 

At the time of writing, according to Black Women For Black Lives, a charity founded by student Korrine Sky, a British-Zimbabwean national who evacuated Ukraine and now works to help others escape, there are still African students trapped in places like Kherson, Ukraine. They are hungry and they’ve been pushed to their psychological limits. It’s thought that although a handful now remain, officially, no-one is coming for them. While the EU has been quick to provide protection for Ukrainian’s fleeing Ukraine, the waters are much murkier when it comes to third-party nationals, who were legally living in Ukraine, and who have since fled. Among this category of people are thousands of Black and non-white people, largely students.

Some of these Black people, according to a recent investigation from The Independent, have ended up imprisoned in immigration detention centers in Poland and elsewhere. They are said to have had no legal provisions afforded them and have very little access to the outside world. Black people are already vulnerable to human trafficking in Europe, in times without war. Add to that the conditions that Black people face in immigration detention centers, including in the U.K., which have been well documented. The added prospect of more people becoming trapped within the system, because of the system’s failure to recognize their humanity is unthinkable.

The hypocrisy of how we treat refugees is not limited to Ukraine—it’s a global problem. Countries like Britain, for example, are vocally offering to take in Ukrainian refugees, and British families are being financially incentivized to do so. But at the same time, Britain is on the cusp of seeing the government’s controversial borders bill become law. If it does, it will shore up an increasingly hostile environment in Britain overwhelmingly affecting Black and Brown migrant and refugee communities. If U.K. Home Secretary Priti Patel has her way, the U.K. coastguard and Navy will be turning migrant dinghies in the English Channel headed for Britain, back to France. Those boats are not boats full of white refugees. If they were, the government response would likely be to send the authorities at full speed to rescue them.

Britain is not alone in its double standards. Just days ago, President Joe Biden announced that the U.S. was ready to accommodate 100,000 Ukrainian refugees from across the other side of the world. A good thing, of course. But just months ago, around 30,000 Haitians amassing at Del Rio from the Southern border were afforded no such welcome, but were instead deported under the guise of Title 42, a pandemic-era policy allowing migrants to be turned away if they had recently been in a country where a communicable disease was present. 

The truth is, that just like the UK, the United States has a long history of favoring white migration over darker-skinned people. Between 1900 and 1960, the U.S. allowed millions of undocumented white migrants to enter the country but did not face the same repercussions that predominantly non-white immigrants now face, in addition to the fact that the numbers of migrants entering has also significantly grown in recent years. Those who entered the U.S. before 1940 were shielded from deportation by statutes of limitations. Countless were provided amnesty. Until 1976, generally, the government seldom deported the parents of U.S. citizens.

All of this has now changed, while the privatized border force industry has grown exponentially over the last few decades facing accusations of being a rogue agency treating the migrants they encounter as less than human. Migrant children being held in cages while separated from their parents surely has to mark one of the most shameful chapters in U.S. immigration history.

As white European migration to the U.S. has gradually lessened, immigration rules have become tighter as the complexion of the refugees and migrants making their way to the U.S. has become darker.

Put simply, this has to change, and decent people must demand more of their elected officials. This goes for both the United States and the United Kingdom. Both nations extracted their ‘greatness’ from the free labor of Black people. The original capital in the United States, underpinning the banks and insurance companies was amassed through slavery. The British industrial revolution was powered by the wealth Britain accumulated from slavery in its colonies

The U.S. economy today owes its power to this past. And, without the current contributions of Black and non-white people the country simply would not work.

Similarly, “great” Britain owes its greatness to this reality. The treatment and disregard of Black lives and Black refugees is a shameful legacy of a disgraceful chapter in history which must close.

The world is changing and fast. Long gone are the days when both Britain and the U.S. can speak on the world stage in grand terms about human rights while the policies of both countries reflect the cold truth that despite everything, in 2022 Black lives still do not matter. 

Anti-Black racism is practiced in every country, and Black refugees are among the most vulnerable in the world. Societies can be measured by how they treat the most vulnerable members of it. The U.K. and the U.S. therefore, have a great deal of work to do. The shameful treatment of Black and non-white people at the Ukraine border must never be repeated. It has to serve as a lesson. The fact that such discrimination is even practiced during war, in the most desperate of circumstances, is a scathing indictment of just how far we have to go before we can claim to live in an equal or even truly progressive society.

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