All Are Not Welcome: In the Russia-Ukraine War, Who Is an ‘Acceptable’ Refugee?

The war has put on full display Europe’s long history of racial discrimination.

5 min read
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(The Quint brings to you a new column, 'Khairiyat', by award-winning author Tabish Khair, where he talks about the politics of race, the experiences of diasporas, Europe-India dynamics and the interplay of culture, history and society, among other issues of global significance.)

No matter how sceptical one is about Western ‘double standards’ and strategic jockeying by NATO, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, a sovereign nation with a democratically elected government, was both indefensible and disturbing. Just as disturbing was the discrimination that some coloured students in Ukraine – Asians and Africans – experienced when they tried to get out of the country with other war refugees.

Was this discrimination due to racism? Most of the students who experienced it were convinced that it was.


The Difference Between Immigrants and Refugees

Officially, though, there were other explanations: it was initially attributed to the chaos of war, combined with the fact that the students were entering European Union (EU) territory from a non-EU-nation, something that is not legally permitted without a visa. The assumption was that some Ukrainian policemen applied this rule from normal times. If they did so, then they failed to understand the difference between an immigrant (permanent or temporary) and a refugee.

Moreover, both the EU and the United Nations had made it clear, right from the start, that any person fleeing the war in Ukraine, no matter what their nationality, had to be accepted as a refugee and allowed to cross the border into a safer country. Poland, which has taken most of the refugees, claimed to be doing this: it noted that refugees received into Poland consisted of people from over 100 different nationalities.

However, this was not always what non-Ukrainian refugees, and even Ukrainian gypsies, experienced at the Ukraine-Polish border. “It was just a blanket bias against foreigners to favour Ukrainians and allow them to cross the border and access help first,” Asya, a Kenyan national who had been studying medicine in Ukraine, told Vox News.

Interestingly, even the way in which the war was reported by sections of the media in the West showed implicit racism. Journalists wrote or tweeted about how this was the first conflict post-World War II between “civilised” nations, or how Ukraine was fighting for all of “civilised” and democratic Europe.

The implication was that African, Asian and South American nations may be bombed to bits because they are not “civilised”. But some of these nations, such as Iraq, Syria or Libya, had living and educational standards that were comparable to that of Ukraine before they were actually bombed to bits.

Racism Is a European Invention

The fact remains that Europe has a long history of racism. One can argue that racism, as against xenophobia and colour prejudices, which existed in non-European societies, too, is a European invention. It was born out of the need in the 18th-19th centuries to justify the economic advantages derived from the enslavement of Black Africans.

This new form of slavery, enmeshed with early and then classical structures of global capitalism, was very different in extent and impact from historical forms of slavery: it could not lead to a ruling ‘slave dynasty’, as happened in places like India or Egypt in the past. It needed an abstract ‘ideology’ (racism) that went beyond the older power relations between individuals, families and groups and could be used to justify the exploitation of a disparate people as a source of cheap, captive labour for Western industrial plantations.

From this source of economic exploitation, which created the wealth needed for the accelerating capitalisation and industrialisation of Western nations, flowed many of the benefits that still accrue to the people of these nations. From this enslaved source of global disparity – escaped partly by some Asian nations – also arose the degradation and continued exploitation of other parts of the world. From the Western perspective then, the rest of the world can appear to be a place of uncivilised, bickering, war-prone people, who cannot get their acts, and societies, together.

This entire historical complex of past and present economic advantages contributes to subterranean racism in European approaches to non-Europe. This is why, say, Denmark, a country that, unlike the US, never has dramatic episodes of racism, can decide to exceed its annual ‘refugee quota’ and take in far more (white) Ukrainian refugees.

This was supported by even rightist-nationalist Danish political parties, who would be out protesting in the streets if even one African refugee more than the established quota was allowed in.

Caste, Religion: Why India Should Also Look Within

Having said this, however, I need to add two things that will make me unpopular with many who have agreed with me until now. First, the EU, as an organisation, has introduced far more effective legislature to prevent all kinds of active discrimination, including racism, than there seem to exist in many Asian and African nations.

To their credit, a majority of West Europeans concede that racism exists in their countries, and want it to be exorcised. As a contrasting example, I doubt if a majority of upper-caste Indians will concede that casteism exists in their families, even as they try their best to marry their children largely within the same, or at least, the upper castes.

Institutionalised endogamy, by the way, is unheard of in Western Europe and rare even in the US. I won’t even talk about religion.

Second, I, like you, Reader, grew up in a house with many rooms, and with thousands of homeless people on the streets outside. Neither you nor I invited one of these homeless people to live in our house, unless we were hiring them as ‘servants’. Otherwise, being good people, we gave them some blankets or money. Maybe, we let them shelter under a ledge or in a shed, but never to the extent that they could lay claim to a room.

We found reasons to explain our decisions: our own needs, scarcities, prior responsibilities to those related to us, the ‘nature’ of the homeless, their difference from us, etc. Much of the implicit racism that exists in ordinary European homes is, alas, also a version of this.

Perhaps what we need is not just a bit of tinkering with racism, casteism, sexism or communalism. We need a drastic change in our universe of values, our world of human relations.

(Tabish Khair, is PhD, DPhil, Associate Professor, Aarhus University, Denmark. He tweets @tabish_khair. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Racism   Russia-Ukraine Crisis 

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