Standing with Ukrainian refugees must mean standing with all refugees
I’ve been moved by efforts to support my compatriots fleeing violence, but why is this solidarity reserved for white Europeans?
In the early hours of 24 February, the Russian Federation began its assault on Ukraine. Since then, the world has been watching as missiles rain down on Ukrainian cities, Russian troops advance towards major cities such as Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Mariupol, civilians shelter in metro stations and bunkers, and huge lines of traffic stretch towards Ukraine’s western borders.
Ukraine, the largest country in Europe, has western and southern borders with Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova. With the exception of Moldova, these are all European Union member states. Their response to the Russian invasion and mass movement of displaced Ukrainians westwards has been to prepare accommodation, hospitals, and transportation. It has been to waive visa restrictions and transport fees to allow for families to be reunited. Germany is allowing Ukrainians to travel by train from Poland free of charge. Hungary, Romania, and Poland have expressed their strong ties of brotherhood and solidarity with their neighbour. It has been a demonstration of what is possible when humanitarian efforts are prioritised over militarised borders – at least for some.
20% of international students in Ukraine are from African nations, with 4,000 from Nigeria alone. They are also living under the threat of bombs from Russian helicopters, sharing bunkers with other Ukrainians, and seeking safety from the invasion. Yet reports from the Polish border show that African students seeking to cross to safety are being turned away, pushed to the back of the queue, and are being told that Ukrainians must be allowed in first. This is not confined to the Polish border. The BBC has reported that when attempting to board a train in Lviv, a Nigerian student was told that the trains were for Ukrainians only.
The war in Ukraine is shocking, and many people in the West are expressing their disbelief at the outbreak of war in Europe. Yet for Ukrainians, the war began eight years ago in 2014 and has been ongoing ever since. The recent invasion, the dropping of bombs on Ukrainian cities, and the movement of hundreds of thousands of people across EU borders are all things that many Europeans are saying they could never imagine happening in their lifetime. But they already have been happening in their lifetime.
For many years, refugees have been coming to Europe seeking safety and security. Refugees from across Asia and Africa. Why have borders not been opened or visas waived for them? What is becoming explicitly clear is something many of us have known for a long time: it’s different when the faces of refugees are white.
Since the summer of 2021, Syrian, Afghan and Kurdish refugees have been left isolated and alone on the border with Belarus, living with barely any provisions and allowed to freeze when winter arrived. Poland did not open its borders to help these families, to help these people who had fled war and oppression. In fact, the EU and UK sent aid to help secure the border rather than welcoming suffering people with warmth and open arms. The Hungarian government, which is now opening borders to Ukrainians, created illegal camps made with fences topped with razor wire and denied refugees food. The same is happening in the Mediterranean. While condemning Russia’s violence, the Italian government is blocking lifesaving missions on the sea where thousands of refugees and migrants have lost their lives attempting dangerous crossings in search of safety.
In recent days, social media has been flooded with content from people in the West discussing “their first war”. But this is not the first war in any of our lifetimes. The violent crises in Yemen, Afghanistan and Ethiopia are ongoing, to name a few. In the days since Russia invaded Ukraine, America has bombed Somalia with the aim of targeting al-Shabaab. Timothy Snyder, an American historian who works primarily on the history of totalitarianism and war in Eastern Europe, once wrote that for Ukrainians, “war is something which happens here”. This is also the case for many countries outside Europe, several of which have experienced Western military operations in the name of democracy, freedom and regime change. These are countries that Europe, by and large, has closed its doors to.
The latest development in the UK is that Home Secretary Priti Patel has announced she will not be waiving visas for Ukrainians fleeing the violence as they may pose “a security threat”. We should be outraged but not surprised. This is the argument made time and time again to refuse access to refugees and migrants from Asia and Africa.
The images from Ukraine are difficult to watch. As a member of the Ukrainian diaspora whose family arrived in the UK as refugees from a previous war, the invasion is close and painful. In the face of this turmoil, I cannot express my appreciation at the outpourings of solidarity I’ve seen and my relief that the journeys of my loved ones who choose to flee may be slightly eased by neighbouring countries who recognise their plight and their humanity. The opening of European borders to refugees is a vital part of the response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. But this opening cannot and must not be reserved for white Europeans alone. The plight of African students on the Ukrainian border highlights the unequal and violent nature of border and visa regimes. It is the responsibility of governments across Europe to open their borders to all seeking safety and freedom from oppression and conflict, and we must campaign for that until they do.