As Russia continues to invade Ukraine without provocation, other European countries have rapidly made it clear that they are ready and willing to welcome however many Ukrainian refugees as may be necessary. Their promise of refuge—matched only in part so far, and belatedly, by the United States—is an unqualifiedly good development. As numerous journalists and political figures have pointed out, these refugees are easy to identify with. They’re just regular families, scared for their lives in the face of escalating destruction, trying to escape oppression and violence. They’re civilized, intelligent and educated, not terrorists with unclear pasts; they’re so like us. Meaning, of course, that they’re white (the constant generic “us”). Open the gates!
Europe and America alike are notoriously hostile to Black and brown refugees. In Eastern Europe, this has meant razor-wire fences, tear gas, and water cannons to keep out millions of “Muslim invaders.” In Germany and Sweden, the two Western European countries that admirably welcomed Syrian refugees in 2015-16, the rise of right-wing parties has driven policy reversals that pander to them out of fear. In America, hostility has meant punitive and unforgiving immigration laws enacted in response to growing numbers of Black and brown migrants, and one party that has successfully pushed the migration narrative so far right as to make nationalism the starting point.
I emphasize skin color, as opposed to national origin, because even refugees coming from the “right” countries who don’t have the “right” skin color are being turned away. Polish border officials have refused entrance to Africans living in Ukraine, even kicking them off of trains in Kyiv. African and Indian students in Ukraine were ordered off buses at checkpoints in the freezing cold and some were beaten. Both Polish and Ukrainian officials have regularly selected only white refugees as worthy of safety. Fortunately, Black and brown refugees seem to have had more luck entering the also-neighboring Moldova and Slovakia.
The underlying premise here, revealed in Freudian slips by journalists from ABC, CBS, NBC, and BBC, among others, is that predominantly white countries don’t deserve war and so their predominantly white citizens are entitled to warmth and empathy and welcome. Citizens of predominantly Black and brown countries, on the other hand—Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, Venezuela, etc.—live in a natural state of war. They can’t be trusted (anyone could be a terrorist!), and if they don’t like it then they should just stop fighting (don’t ask about colonization and destabilization, that’s critical race theory and it’s illegal). Ukrainians didn’t want Putin to attack them, and they couldn’t stop it. Salvadorans? Well, maybe if they fixed up their country they wouldn’t have to flee.
The war in Ukraine is tragic, and every person trying to escape deserves a safe refuge. So, too, are conflicts in non-European countries—and so, too, do those refugees deserve welcome and support. The only identifiable principle for the disparate treatment given to these different groups of refugees is racism, plain and simple. A family fleeing bombs or starvation or authoritarianism is a family in need, whether from Odesa or Aleppo.
I think pretty much everyone agrees with what I’m saying here—essentially, racism is bad and no one should do it. The problem is that in the context of migration, racism is easily disguised (including from the person doing it), often as some form of security concern. It makes sense to heavily screen Afghan refugees if you’re convinced that they pose a heightened security risk. It makes sense to turn away Guatemalan asylum seekers without a hearing if you’re convinced they’re probably smuggling drugs. But the relevant questions are, in my opinion: what are the origins of those assumptions, and are they reasonable assumptions to hold? And even if they are, to what extent should they override the fundamental human right to refuge?
Last week there was a town hall in northern Virginia about a new center that will process thousands of Afghan refugees into the US. Most have already had their documents processed and will be temporarily staying there until they’re permanently resettled elsewhere in the country. But many of the local residents who showed up didn’t see refugees and allies starting a new life—they saw imminent danger and they lined up to say as much, shouting about their children being put at risk. For some reason I don’t think they’d have the same concerns about a center for Ukrainians.