To Treat All Refugees Like Human Beings, Europe Must Confront Its Racism

The reactions to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine emphasize the exceptionality of this event, its disruptiveness and its potentially massive global implications. The frequent reference point is World War II. It seems that Europe has not seen anything like this since then. As the face and voice for the democratic powers resisting the brutal, totalitarian regime, the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zilenskyy is often compared to Winston Churchill in the West.

This article is not concerned about the accuracy of the comparisons to World War II. It is more about their affective context. And here, another WW II reference seems useful: Aimé Césaire’s 1950 dictum that what Europe’s “very humanistic, very Christian bourgeois” could not forgive Hitler for “is not The crimeIt is not, by itself, a crime against men. The humiliation of Man as Such, it is the crime against the white man, the humiliation of the white man, and the fact that he applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the ‘coolies’ of India, and the ‘n******’ of Africa.”

Media comments made during the initial days of the war suggested that similar sentiments are now in play. Ukrainian refugees were described as “people who look like us” and “prosperous, middle-class people” and “blond and blue-eyed.” One media commentator remarked, “They look like any European family that you would live next door to.” Others have described Ukrainians as “not from developing countries” or as “Europeans leaving in cars that look like ours to save their lives.” The focus often seemed to be not the crime itself, but “the crime against the white man.” (Of course, in each of these cases, refugees of color fleeing Ukraine are erased.)

White journalists could not seem to suppress their horror at people who looked like them, “civilized Europeans,” being subjected to a kind of suffering that they deem unremarkable when experienced by Black and Brown peoples for whom chaos and violence is apparently understood to be a quasi-natural form of being. These white journalists’ comments made two things very clear: Europeanness is still identified with whiteness and Christianity, and the “we” that the statements evoke is equally so.

Non-Europeans, whether they are white, Christian, or European, are expected to agree with this view, accepting the prioritization for white refugees and admiring Ukrainian armed resistance without comparing it to other struggles against imperial power. We are expected not to bring up Palestine, Somalia, or Afghanistan (or be accused of whataboutism). Even as Russian war crimes in Syria are regularly mentioned when Ukraine’s potential fate is debated, the German minister of the interior spoke for many when she declared: “This is a completely different situation than 2015. These are refugees from war and Europe is now speaking with one voice for the first time. That also means that the borders have to be open.”

It is difficult to ignore the starkness of the double-standard, and it has been well documented. There is however a marked hesitancy in drawing the obvious conclusions. Is this about racism or? It’s impossible to say. Further inquiry would be necessary, but it is not now. Let’s just leave it at asking for more tolerance toward everyone. This inability or at least unwillingness to name racism as what it is aligns with Europe’s longstanding claims to “colorblindness.” While the continent invented race and has ongoingly used it as a primary tool for the implementation of new political orders (within the continent itself and abroad), many Europeans continue to believe that race matters everywhere but there. The effects of this denial are evident in a persistent crisis narrative that frames Europe as an island of stability and prosperity, surrounded by chaotic regions: A Middle East claimed to be succumbing to radical Islam, a supposedly permanently underdeveloped and war-torn Africa and an eternally aggressive Russian empire threatening the continent’s east. The crises that arise in these regions are depicted as reaching an unsuspecting, unprepared Europe. This Europe needs to find immediate solutions for problems elsewhere and will offer help to those it is not at fault. The current war is viewed as an unexpected crisis that was impossible to predict. (Despite the fact it began in 2014, with the Russian annexation Crimea).

This story is convenient, but it ignores Europe’s culpability not only for allowing the situation to escalate to this point, but also for creating many of the conflict’s sources through the ongoing neocolonial structures of a racial capitalism favoring Europe’s economic interests. The narrative is convincing, not because it is truthful, but because it builds upon a larger hegemonic story about Europe as the natural home and source of human rights and democracy. The two most powerful nations within the European Union (EU) — Germany and France — over the last years each saw government plans to erase the word “race” from their constitutions’ protected categories. This was symbolic to affirm that biological races don’t exist and that Europe doesn’t have a problem with structural racism. However, many of the responses to the war in Ukraine have made plain the obvious reality that race — as a social construct or political concept — is clearly still relevant in continental Europe.

The quick and unified EU reaction to the Russian invasion proves that it is logistically and politically possible to accommodate a huge and fast-growing number of refugees without disruptions, without closing the borders, without mass anti-immigrant protests or hundreds of arson attacks on refugee centers — as long as the refugees do not challenge the existing racial order, which requires Europe to maintain its whiteness, if not in reality than at least in ideology. The continent’s current generosity is no sign of hope for those thousands stranded at its borders who have the wrong color, religion or place of birth.

The current developments show that Europe is ruthless in choosing who it will help. There seems widespread agreement that “we cannot take care of the whole world, but we need to take care of our own.” And people of color are not deemed part of that community of one’s own — notwithstanding colonial narratives that claimed more connections between French and Algerians than French and Ukrainians, and notwithstanding that it is no farther from Tunis to Rome than from Kyiv to Warsaw.

After 2015, there was consensus among mainstream media discourses, including large parts of the left, that anger and fear over the presence of refugees was justified and that the priority should be given to addressing these concerns, rather than the needs of refugees themselves. The widespread implementation of illegal immigration laws has made this a reality. pushbacks. Refugees are not allowed asylum applications once they arrive in Europe. pushedBack out, into BelarusOr onto the MediterraneanAnd back to Libya. This practice involves direct and indirect support by the EU, and can result in the death of dozens of (nonwhite, non-European). peopleEvery day. It doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Many Europeans raced to the Ukrainian border in an attempt to transport people to Poland or Germany. However, they would not be able to do so. committing a criminal offenseThey should not pick up someone fleeing Afghanistan. 2022 saw the establishment of an international convention that the accommodation of fleeing Ukrainians was essential to the defense of freedom, democracy, and democracy. EU lawIn 2001,After the wars in the former Yugoslavia which allows for unbureaucratic refugee support

This sends a clear message to those refugees for whose fate Europe does not feel responsible — even though it often bears much of the blame for their plight: You cannot get the same treatment.This sends a clear message that Europeans do not have the right to preferentially treat people who look like them when they are in crisis. This right belongs to true Europeans.

This distinction has life-and-death consequences at Europe’s borders: the evocation of shared values that allows for the accommodation of millions of Ukrainian refugees because they are assumed to be white, Christian and “civilized” also confirms the incompatibility of hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees — or even that of a few thousand African, South Asian and Middle Eastern students fleeing Ukraine. Without the tireless, immediate efforts of Black organizationsMany people of color fleeing Ukraine were not able to reach Europe or would have been deported if they had not found a support network.

It is now too late to wonder if Europe isn’t as colorblind than it claims. This has been proven. againAnd againMost recently, BlackRefugees were not allowed into the country busesTrains and RomaWhen fleeing Ukraine they were refused entry into the EU. Random checks are used to keep open borders. controls, which — as many reports confirm — systematically target people of color, who then are pressured into applying for asylum. This application in most cases has virtually no chance of succeeding and is not necessary to be granted a temporary right to stay (three months for those with student visa), but it allows for the applicants’ incarceration and speedy deportation. This is far from whataboutism. In times of crisis, it is a common demand to be focused on the essential and leave other questions behind. In times of crisis, inequality and racism have the greatest impact. sawIt during the pandemicWe are already seeing it.

Global crises cannot be kept out of Europe anymore — in 2008, the financial collapse of Greece challenged the continent’s stability, the refugee crisis of 2015 showed how quickly European nations could return to closing their internal borders, 2020 brought Brexit and the pandemic and now, in 2022, Europe faces what many see as its biggest challenge since the end of World War II. Global instability is rooted in a model of prosperity that favors non-Europeans. This model is no longer sustainable, even for Europe. However, the continent provides nothing but the same old answers. Much has been made of the Russian attack as a wake-up call, forcing Europe — and in particular its economic and political powerhouse, Germany — away from appeasement toward the will to defend democracy with force if necessary.

The current conflict is in part a result of this model. It may even be further enshrined: Europe increases its militarization. (Defense spendingEurope had seen a faster growth rate than any other continent, and Germany has the 7th largest global military budget. Stock pricesInvestments in renewable energy remain stagnant while defense companies are growing at an alarming rate. Ironically, their proximity and willingness to host millions of refugees in Ukraine has stabilised the position of authoritarian and anti-immigrant regimes in Hungary and Poland within EU.

NATO has left Afghanistan in chaos while the European Commission has taken control. blockedEven a temporary suspension COVID vaccine patents will result in the war on Ukraine and sanctions on Russia. devastating impactOn nations such as Egypt, Bangladesh, and Yemen. None of this sounds like we should be listening to a wakeup call. If rising numbers of desperate refugees from the Global South encounter a heavily fortified Europe unwilling to prioritize global stability and sustainability over endless wealth accumulation, it does not take much to imagine how our common future will play out — unless there is a drastic shift away from a shared imaginary whiteness as ticket for survival and toward Europe taking responsibility for shared histories.