Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

European Compassion and its White Limitations

European Compassion
People stand with their luggage between the Ukrainian border and the Polish city of Przemysl, in Poland, on March 8, 2022. Louisa GOULIAMAKI / AFP

Justin Salhani

Seven years ago, around 1.3 million people sought refuge in Europe in what was described by pundits, journalists, and politicians as a ‘migration crisis.’ This purported crisis was credited with triggering a wave in support for the far-right or far-right policies in Europe.

Today, Ukrainian refugees are pouring into neighboring countries to escape Russia’s invasion. Europe has already absorbed more than two million refugees in just over a week, yet the word “crisis” is conspicuously absent from its language.

The double standards are crystal clear. Indeed, many people have asked why the reaction from Europe in 2015 was panic compared to 2022, but the question remains largely rhetorical for those from the global south or who simply aren’t white. Just in case there were any doubts, a number of western media outlets offered racist explanations for why Europe was now welcoming so many refugees. Many commentators on Twitter rightly pointed out that western reporters were “saying the quiet part out loud.”

“This isn’t Iraq or Afghanistan,” a CBS foreign correspondent said, claiming to have chosen his words carefully, before later apologizing. “This is a relatively civilized, relatively European city.”

This was just one of a myriad of similar comments seen on French, British and American television or in newspaper op-eds. “This time, war is wrong because the people look like us and have Instagram and Netflix accounts,” another commentator wrote in the Telegraph. “It’s not in a poor, remote country anymore.”

In response to these incidents, the Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association released a statement. “AMEJA condemns and categorically rejects orientalist and racist implications that any population or country is ‘uncivilized’ or bears economic factors that make it worthy of conflict.”

In a time where Syrians continue to suffer from a war of attrition inflicted primarily by their brutal dictator Bashar al-Assad, Palestinians fight daily for liberation against Israeli occupation and apartheid, and Yemen must brave another year of an indiscriminate bombing campaign, many in the Middle East can relate and will inevitably back Ukraine in their fight for liberation. Syrians in particular have suffered from Russian bombardment, which targeted civilian facilities such as hospitals for years. In fact, the Kremlin admitted that it tested out brutal tactics and weapons against Syrians opposed to Assad. Now, those very same tactics are being used to indiscriminately and discriminately kill Ukrainians.

However, the difference in the support for Ukraine’s battle for liberation – and the suffering of Ukrainian civilians – is stark. Simply take French President Emmanuel Macron’s comments in the days after Russia’s invasion. “France, like all other European countries, will do its part to assist the Ukrainian people, but also to welcome refugees from this country,” Macron said. These humane comments stand in sharp contrast to Macron’s reaction to the fall of Kabul in August 2021. France, Macron said, must “anticipate and protect itself from a wave of migrants.”

The Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov was even more explicit in his comments. “These people are Europeans,” he said, referring to Ukrainians fleeing the war. “These people are intelligent, they are educated people… This is not the refugee wave we have been used to, people we were not sure about their identity, people with unclear pasts, who could have been even terrorists.”

“Incredible solidarity and humanism”

According to the European Union and the internationally recognized definition adopted by the United Nations, a refugee is “a third-country national who, owing to a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group…[who] is unwilling to avail themselves of the protection of that country.” Going by this definition, the term “well-founded” seems to apply to Ukrainians but not to Afghans, Syrians or Iraqis. That or the EU’s de-facto definition of a refugee is not based on their own legal charter but based on race, religion and nationality.

The “incredible solidarity and humanism” shown to Ukraine points to a “shocking distinction” in the “dehumanization of Middle Eastern refugees,” Ziad Majed, a French-Lebanese writer and associate professor at the American University of Paris, told Lebanese daily L’Orient le Jour.

In recent days, the blatant bigotry has been on full show. Consider how African students have been turned back at Ukrainian border crossings by military officials, but white Ukrainians – other than combat-age men – have been prioritized.

“They drug all the Black guys from the train,” Clement Akenboro, an economics student from Nigeria told NPR about being pulled off a train in the Ukrainian city of Lviv.

Meanwhile, a massive economic boycott of Russia has commenced. The Biden administration has heavily sanctioned Russia with specific penalties targeting Russian oligarchs. Many have pointed out how boycott, divestment and sanctioning are deemed acceptable under the current circumstances but demonized when undertaken by advocates of Palestinian liberation. Observers who have supported or participated in freedom struggles in the global south have expressed frustration with the west’s newfound sympathy for Ukraine while ignoring misery elsewhere in the world.

“For Palestinians, our resistance has been criminalized,” Mariam Barghouti, a Palestinian-American writer and researcher, told AJ+.

Often in such pressing situations as that in Ukraine, some may feel that the timing of pointing out the disparity in coverage and incidents of racism is inappropriate. But there is no hierarchy to oppressions and never an inappropriate time to speak out against injustice. To limit humans to one and not the other is to police their compassion, and compassion must never be feared. What should be avoided, is a kind of moral paralysis – a debilitating feeling that not equally or adequately addressing every issue leads to inaction.

Solidarity for all

One of Putin’s stated objectives in the invasion of Ukraine is “deNazify” the country, a claim scholars, historians, and even Holocaust survivors have strongly disputed. The Azov Battalion is present in eastern Ukraine and they should rightly be condemned but they are not representative of Ukrainian society at large. While other nationalist and even pro-Zionist elements do make up the state, they should not be made as excuses to stop supporting the self-determination of a pluralist democracy – with parties from socialist to far-right – to liberate themselves from an invading dictatorship.

As the war carries on, new challenges will arise. Ukraine counts on the international community’s support, both morally and militarily. And, as a result of public opinion enthusiastically supporting Ukraine’s battle against Russia, Europeans have gladly welcomed Ukrainians as refugees. However, if public perception changes, popular compassion may vary as well – with consequences for Ukrainians and non-Ukrainians alike.

The far-right is always waiting in steed and an influx of Ukrainians could lead to public proclamations that European countries have done their part to take in refugees. In the post-2015 period, such rhetoric that “Europe is full” wasn’t limited to the far-right but was adopted by many politicians in the mainstream.

African, South Asian and Middle Eastern people fleeing Ukraine have already been subject to violent attacks by Polish nationalists. Far-right nationalists aren’t known for checking documents, so any visible minority could be targeted. In Germany, far-right crimes hit record levels in 2021, indicating that the far-right is always waiting in the wings.

European countries have and will continue to fall short of their ideals, especially when it comes to the EU’s refugee policy. But liberation movements in the Middle East – and more broadly across the global south – must stand in solidarity with Ukraine.

Syrian political commentator Yassin Swehat wrote in Al Jumhuriya that as members of the global south, we should “identify ourselves with Ukrainian civilian victims, who are suffering what we have suffered and continued to suffer; to salute the bravery of Ukrainian fighters in their defense of their country, but without giving up the necessary political and ethical distance from a large portion of them; and to tell the world ‘we had told you so.’”

Facing down the racism of Europe and fighting Russian imperial plans for Ukraine is part of the same internationalist fight for liberation. The ambition is not to distract or debilitate the fight in Ukraine, but to express the same solidarity to those fighting similar battles elsewhere.

While many in the West have long failed to live up to these ideals, it is time that the acknowledgment and humanity shown to Ukraine by Europe be applied to the rest of us.


The opinions expressed in this publication are those of our bloggers. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Fanack or its Board of Editors.

user placeholder
written by
All Dima articles