Mixed messages of Europe’s Ukrainian refugee response

Mixed messages of Europe’s Ukrainian refugee response

Mixed messages of Europe’s Ukrainian refugee response
A pianist plays What a Wonderful World outside Lviv train station against the backdrop of thousands of refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine. (Twitter Grab)
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Many people will have seen the video of a pianist playing “What a Wonderful World” outside Lviv train station against the backdrop of thousands of refugees, tired and freezing, fleeing the war in Ukraine. As ever, each one has their own powerful story. Few know what the future holds for them, their friends, their family or their country.

Across the Polish border was an extraordinary sight. People had driven hundreds, even thousands, of miles to offer a lift to refugees. Long lines of cars from many countries were there to assist and offer transport and shelter. It was the best of humanity on display.

UN figures indicate that, In the first 10 days of this conflict, more than 1.5 million people fled Ukraine, half a million of them children. The overwhelming majority headed to EU countries, but some in the east have sought refuge in Russia. The UN estimates that between 4 million and 5 million Ukrainians could become refugees. This could be a conservative estimate and, of course, millions more will be internally displaced and unable to find sanctuary inside Ukraine. They may be hoping for proper safe passage so that they can get out, as called for by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

This is a rapid exodus. The ability of so many Ukrainians and others to get out so fast is small relief in the otherwise grim theater of war. In many refugee situations, trains were never an option, such as in Afghanistan and Syria. Ukrainians have been able to flee with the support of their own authorities, as opposed to fleeing from them and having to avoid them, as in Syria.

Many in Europe refer to the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis as if it were a European refugee crisis. Most never realized that its center was in the Middle East — in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, which took the overwhelming share of those fleeing Syria. Globally, 85 percent of all refugees are hosted by developing countries.

The reaction of many countries back then was to create “fortress Europe” — borders of barricades, walls and fences. This was maintained even during last November’s crisis at the Belarus border, which led to Poland building a border wall. The EU even paid Turkey to keep hold of Syrian refugees and not let them travel to Europe.

Far-right nationalists prospered as a result of people’s fears about refugees — and, let us be honest, refugees from non-white, non-Christian-majority countries in particular. They stoked racism, Islamophobia and hatred, all of which are still on view today. Marine Le Pen opposed Syrian and Afghan refugees getting asylum in France but has supported helping Ukrainian refugees. One member of the Spanish parliament was clear in his bigotry: “These are real refugees: Women, children and elderly should be welcomed in Europe. Now everyone should understand the difference between these refugees and the invasion of Muslim youth of military age who have crossed our borders trying to destabilize and colonize Europe.” The narrative of Muslim refugees invading and colonizing have been circulating all too readily and with no sense of irony, amplified by the likes of President Viktor Orban of Hungary.

Such attitudes were sadly also visible on the borders of Ukraine. Many people of African and Middle Eastern origin were blocked or seriously delayed while attempting to leave Ukraine, even being taken off buses. Polish nationalists have also attacked groups of African, South Asian and Middle Eastern people who had crossed the border.

Many of the refugees denied entry over the last seven years are now watching the contrast in how white Ukrainians are being treated. Far from fortress Europe, what they are seeing is the drawbridge being lowered and the welcome mat rolled out. One Syrian refugee told me: “I am guilty of feeling angry about the double standards, but it is hard not to. I am happy that Ukrainian refugees are getting sanctuary, but why them and not us too.”

Most of the Ukrainian refugees — already in excess of 1 million — have headed to Poland. Ukraine has strong historical and cultural ties with Poland. Refugee camps are not yet needed there, as most are being housed in people’s homes, but soon they might be. Moldova has also taken in more than 120,000 — a huge number for a small country. It will likewise require assistance.

This refugee crisis is now very definitely European. The world will see just how it handles this and how the refugees are treated.

The EU has at least reacted swiftly. It will use a directive last deployed at the time of the wars in the former Yugoslavia to allow Ukrainians to live and work in the EU for three years.

The same cannot be said for the UK — a country that used to have a proud record of welcoming and hosting refugees. Despite many positive-sounding noises about standing with Ukrainian refugees, the reality is that the UK is way behind other European states, not least as the only major European nation still insisting on visa applications from those fleeing a warzone. The British government initially said only Ukrainian nationals already settled in the UK would be able to bring their “immediate family members” to join them. The UK hasissued visas for just 300 Ukrainians under this scheme, from 10,000 applications.

One British immigration minister did a stunning job of highlighting the government’s tone-deaf response by tweeting that Ukrainian refugees could apply to be seasonal fruit pickers. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the UK may take as many as 200,000 refugees from Ukraine, but at the moment there is simply no realistic mechanism to make this happen. A humanitarian sponsor scheme has yet to be announced. Refugees complain that they are still being asked ridiculous questions, such as how long they intend to stay.

Many of the refugees denied entry over the last seven years are now watching the contrast in how white Ukrainians are being treated.

Chris Doyle

The stingy, unwelcoming British government attitude has antagonized allies. The French government was furious that UK authorities had not set up a consular presence in Calais to process visas for Ukrainians. About 150 Ukrainians were turned away at Calais and told to go to Paris or Brussels. If proper schemes are established, Ukrainian refugees will be able to use Eurostar to travel to the UK for free. Non-Ukrainian refugees who have risked their lives attempting to cross the Channel will be amazed there is no such scheme for them.

This war will only get worse. Those left behind who cannot leave may face the harshest conditions. States and humanitarian agencies are going to have to respond with extraordinary speed and efficiency.

Let us hope that the generosity of spirit and human kindness of those hosting the refugees persists and does not ebb away, as it did with Syrians. Let us also hope that such generosity does not come at the expense of those fleeing other hotspots, such as Syria, Ethiopia and Afghanistan. Otherwise, I fear that not many Ukrainian and other refugees will be thinking to themselves that this is such a wonderful world.

  • Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point of view