/ 11 March 2022

Ukraine refugees: West is empathic – if you are blonde

People Cross Ukrainian Polish Border After Fleeing Ukraine
Peril: People from Africa, Middle East and India use the Ukraine-Poland Medyka pedestrian border crossing. (Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto/AFP)

Much of the West’s reaction and media coverage about the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been racist

A CBS journalist said: “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilised, 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.”

A former BBC journalist now with Al Jazeera said: “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.”

The quotes are the starkest examples of racism, but it is also evident in the sheer volume of attention that international publications and broadcasters are giving to the Ukraine-Russia war. 

People have more value, apparently, if they are blue-eyed and blonde-haired. The corollary, unspoken, is that people have less value if they are dark-skinned. The pain, suffering and death caused by wars in places such as Yemen, Iraq and the Sahel are less deserving of the world’s attention and empathy. 

As the Foreign Press Association Africa, a network of African journalists, said in a tweet: “People who are not white are not more innately prone and habituated to violence and suffering. People who are not white are no less civil or incapable of solving conflict.” 

It’s not just the media. African students in Ukraine experienced similarly hostile attitudes at the border with Poland, when they tried to flee the fighting along with hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians. 

Many Africans were denied entry to Europe, because they do not hold the appropriate visa. But the borders opened for Ukrainians: they are being given a three-year visa to live and work in the European Union, without needing to apply for asylum.

In the EU, the treatment of refugees appears to be dictated not by the nature of the threat from which they flee, but by their identity and race. And even though this conflict has nothing to do with Africa, the Africans who are caught up in it are being treated as second-class citizens. 

The swift response of the EU — and the Western world in general — to the Ukrainian refugee crisis shows what is possible when leaders treat refugees like human beings, instead of leaving them to die on boats in the Mediterranean; or paying autocrats to keep them away, as the EU does with people from Sudan and Turkey. 

In recent days, Ukraine’s neighbour Poland has opened its borders to Ukrainians and even provided services such as accommodation, transport and food. This is, frankly, the minimum that is expected of any state, and is in line with Poland’s obligations under international law. 

So why have these same policies not been extended to the thousands of asylum seekers from countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Cameroon, who have, since June 2021, been trapped in inhumane conditions along the Poland-Belarus border without access to water, heating and healthcare? 

They, too, are fleeing violence. They, too, are human beings. In failing to recognise that, and in repeating tropes that value some lives above others, we don’t just dehumanise others — we also dehumanise ourselves.

This article first appeared in The Continent, the award-winning pan-African weekly newspaper shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy at here.