The armed forces of the Russian Federation crossed the Ukrainian border just over two weeks ago (Thursday 24 February 2022) in a full-scale military assault described by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, as a ‘special military operation’ directed towards the demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine. Faced with the prospect of being caught in the midst of the largest European land war since 1945, Ukrainian nationals and foreign residents quickly began fleeing westward to Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Moldova, and Romania. By the time Russian armour columns and troops began crossing into the north west of the country from Belarus, the main east-west artery between the capital Kyiv and Lublin in Poland (the E373) was entirely gridlocked.
In ten days of war the number of refugees who had fled the country reached 1.5 million, and yesterday (8 March) the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, confirmed that the 2 million mark had been breached, making this the fastest growing refugee crisis since the Second World War (Beaumont, 6 March). With the conflict now in its twelfth day and with Russian artillery shelling major cities like Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Mariupol, it is certain the humanitarian crisis will worsen rapidly in the coming days. The response from neighbouring countries has been as swift as it has been impressive — and touching, with states across the European Union opening their borders and easing visa requirements in order to get these people to safety.
Interestingly, as highlighted by Seth G. Jones, the director of the International Security Program at The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) — a Washington think tank, the Russian military has not gone out of its way to make the flight of refugees more difficult. The Russian invasion force, at the risk of leaving a communications route open for weapons and mercenaries to enter the country from the west, did not drive a spearhead south from Belarus to cleave Lviv from the rest of Ukraine. Consequently, in the main, civilians at least to the west of the Dnieper river have had a relatively unimpeded path to the western border and safety.
There have, however, been a number of serious issues concerning the protection of civilians within Ukraine. Zelenskyy’s government has effectively created a levée en masse by issuing weapons to civilians, taking from them their non-combatant status under international humanitarian law. The presence of armed civilians — or ‘combatants’ — complicates matters for both the attacking Russian forces and for civilian non-combatants attempting to flee who may now be mistaken for hostiles. In Mariupol, from within the Russian siege of the city, video footage has surfaced showing Ukrainian soldiers of the Nazi Azov battalion stopping civilians evacuating and threatening to shoot one young woman for asking to leave. Russia has come under severe criticism for offering to evacuate civilians in the north and east of the country to Russia and Belarus. Yet, given that Russia and Belarus — which are not war zones — are closer to Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Mariupol, it is far from clear that this is as cynical a proposal as it is being presented in the western media.
There were disturbing reports of racism from the Ukraine-Poland border, confirmed by the UN, with Africans being denied entry onto coaches bound for Poland. While Polish border officials stated they were allowing anyone to enter Poland regardless of race, on the Ukrainian side police and border guards were prioritising dogs and cats before non-white people fleeing the country. The Washington Post reported on scenes of angry Ukrainians demanding to know why ‘the blacks’ were being allowed to board — when, eventually, the Ukrainian police were ordered to treat people equally (Fernández Simon, 5 March). Overall, however, evacuation is happening, and the actions of EU states as far away as Ireland have been heartwarming. Ireland lifted all restrictions on Ukrainians entering the country, has set up a special unit to greet refugees arriving, and has asked the Irish people to open their homes to people who have nowhere to go. More than six thousand families have pledged to make room available and over two thousand Ukrainian refugees have already arrived.
Hungary too has thrown open its doors to the people of Ukraine. According to the Schengen visa information website, some 104 thousand Ukrainians have entered Hungary with the UN projecting it will receive nearly 250 thousand more. At the tiny village of Beregsurány, about a kilometre from the Ukrainian border, one resident, Andrea Lukacsine Posze, said to Al Jazeera’s Amanda Coakley:
We knew immediately people were going to come through here, so we ran down and turned the heating on in the town hall and started to carry pots of tea to the border. We were right, within a few hours there was demand.
People are amazing. At the worst of times, people can do the most extraordinary things. Even the Hungarian president, Viktor Orban, travelled to the border and defended his country’s decision to adopt this Europewide no-borders approach to the Ukrainian crisis, saying: ‘we are able to tell the difference between who is a migrant and who is a refugee.’ And there we have it, the elephant in the room; the big issue no one in the governments across Europe really wants to talk about — the racial difference between refugees. Or should we say ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants?’
The villagers of Beregsurány, like everyone over Europe welcoming Ukrainian refugees, are to be applauded. Even celebrated. People fleeing Ukraine — human beings — men, women, and children, young and old, able and disabled, are in a desperate situation. They are escaping violence and the threat of death, their lives are being demolished around them, they are cold, they are frightened, and — worst of all — they have no idea what the future holds for them or for their loved ones. These people are entering strange new worlds where they will be foreigners in foreign lands. God bless these people, and God bless the hearts of the people going to extraordinary lengths to give them shelter. God bless all of these people.
Last year alone, UN officials estimated that 1,600 refugees died or disappeared in the Mediterranean Sea. The International Organisation for Migration estimates that 23,000 people have perished since 2014 trying to cross the Mediterranean in boats and dinghies not fit for purpose. In the same period, 166 people — human beings — drowned attempting to cross the English Channel. Even the Wikipedia article describing this horror is titled, ‘2015 European migrant crisis’ [emphasis added]. The scenes of bodies washing ashore in Turkey and Greece — the harrowing image of baby Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body lying face down in the sand by the seashore — failed to jolt us from our stupor. We were witnesses to all of this, and in spite of the screaming of protesters, the news media and political establishments of Europe demonised them, weaponised language against them, and closed all their doors in their faces. The refugee crisis put the very worst of our humanity on show. With a far-right Islamophobic campaign against the ‘Islamisation of Europe’ and a ‘ban the burqa’ campaign in the backdrop, our political leaders were dehumanising Syrian and Afghan refugees as a ‘plague’ and a ‘swarm.’
The Contracting States shall apply the provisions of this Convention to refugees without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin.Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951), Article 3.
When the US-led Combined Joint Task Force (NATO by another name) pressed for regime change in Syria with bombs from the air and with a dirty war fought by US-trained paramilitaries on the ground — as is happening now in Ukraine, we — the West — created the largest refugee crisis since 1971. Dublin was less welcoming then. Only a few years earlier, thirty Afghan refugees facing deportation from Ireland sought sanctuary in St Patrick’s cathedral. The Protestant Archbishop of Dublin and Glendalough, John Neill, escorted the police into the church to have them arrested and returned to Afghanistan. These men were never heard from again. The terrible irony being, of course, that Patrick was a stranger in Ireland himself.
Syrian and Afghan refugees were no more wanted in Hungary. Not only were Hungarian police officers batoning terrified refugees trying to cross the Hungarian border, one journalist covering the story — Petra László — kicked and tripped a man who was struggling to run and carry his crying toddler and assaulted a small girl running with her father. From the very beginning of this crisis we have been aware of sex traffickers preying on vulnerable refugee women and children, kidnapping and selling them into lives of unimaginable suffering. Yet, what have we done? We have done nothing. When Europe opened its borders to refugees from Ukraine, the news swept over the massive sprawling ‘migrant’ encampments near Calais in France and people there knew why this great act of love and compassion did not include them — they were not white.
Let us not pretend this is not exactly what it is — racism. We, regardless of our denials and protestations, are a horribly racist society. White Europeans may not approve of the bold white supremacism on show in parts of the United States, the ugly chants of far-right activists may offend our polite sensibilities, and the in-your-face Nazism of the Ukrainian Azov battalion may cause us to shudder, but ours is still a racist society. Let us not pretend that our positive disposition towards Ukrainian refugees is not because they are white. It is. These are white Europeans like us, and so somewhere in our distorted understanding of reality they are different from Syrians, Afghans, and other refugees ‘of colour.’ We may have been disgusted to read reports of Ukrainian authorities and refugees treating ‘the blacks’ with contempt, but deep down we know — when it comes to welcoming refugees — Europe doesn’t want them either.
The welcome we have extended to the people of Ukraine in one stroke showcases our big-hearted goodness and the ugliest monsters of our nature. The Ukrainians are different because they are white and because their country is being attacked by Russia — and we don’t like Russians either. The United States and Britain have caused more death and suffering around the world than any despotic tyranny in the history of human civilisation, but apparently the Russians are distilled evil. We can only hope that this crisis — the whole crisis of refugees, war in Europe, and the threat of nuclear annihilation — gives us cause to think about the world we have created. We can make it better.
Jason Michael McCann, M.Phil. (TCD) Conflict Studies The author holds a postgraduate degree in Race, Ethnicity and Conflict from the University of Dublin, Trinity College, and an academic fellowship in the study of conflict from the University of West Flanders. He has published on the history of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp and the murder of the Hungarian Jews in 1944.
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