It has been gutting to watch the humanitarian crisis unfold in Ukraine.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine nearly three weeks ago, the horrors of war have been on full display. Among the Russian targets have been a maternity hospital, shopping malls and residential areas, leaving the civilian population desperate to flee.
And flee they have. As of Friday, 2.5 million Ukrainians had fled the country, according to the UNHCR. The U.N. refugee agency estimated that, all told, 4 million may flee Ukraine, a country of about 44 million.
But against the naked aggression of the Russian military, the world pushed back. Not only have Ukrainians themselves resisted the invasion, so have Russians, with 14,000 Russians arrested for protesting the war, according to protest monitoring group OVD-Info. Countries across Europe and beyond opened their arms to accept the refugees, and in early March, the European Union announced it would offer temporary protected status to Ukrainian refugees, giving them access to a residence permit, education and jobs.
Yet almost as soon as the heartbreaking exodus of Ukrainians began, commentators and politicians began saying the quiet part out loud as they tried to convey the significance of the crisis.
CBS News senior correspondent in Kyiv Charlie D’Agata said on Feb. 25, “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 — city where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen.” He later apologized.
Al-Jazeera English apologized after anchor Peter Dobbie said in late February on air: “[Ukrainian refugees] are prosperous, middle-class people. These are obviously not refugees trying to get away from areas in the Middle East that are still in a big state of war. These are not people trying to get away from areas in North Africa. They look like any European family that you would live next door to.”
And Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov drove the point home further, saying in early March: “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.”
The not-veiled implication being, of course, that it’s normal or acceptable for some people to be refugees, but for others — wealthy, educated, white — it is unacceptable.
On top of the racist double standards toward non-European refugees, reports emerged that nonwhite people fleeing Ukraine were being blocked from leaving, in favor of white Ukrainians, according to The New York Times.
The events of the past few weeks in Ukraine have been a stark reminder that we do not believe everyone deserves the same amount of compassion or deserves safe harbor. Europe quickly shut its doors and turned away from refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, for example. Around 20,000 refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa died or have gone missing since 2014 trying to make the journey, the UNHCR said.
And while this is all playing out in Europe, the U.S. is no less guilty of immigration policies that treat some people as less human than others. In the past few years alone, U.S. policies at the southern border, for example, have left thousands of children locked in detention in what have been described as “heartbreaking” conditions. As I have written before, the immigration policies that historically allowed Europeans to make lives in the U.S. have been replaced by a criminalization of immigration, effectively closing the country to most who seek lives here.
Asylum policies put in place by Trump and continued by Biden have become so draconian that under Title 42, hundreds of thousands have been denied the right to seek asylum, according to the Guardian.
I am heartened and moved to see the outpouring of care and support for Ukrainians, who are facing the trauma of war and displacement.
But every human being on this planet deserves safety, care, food, shelter and the ability to seek a better life for themselves and their families.
Your skin color or eye color or economic status or access to education does not make that more or less true. I hope this conflict will be a turning point that will spark a greater recognition of all of our humanity, not just the people who most remind us of ourselves.