Analyzing Selective Refugee Protection: Lessons from the Russia-Ukraine Conflict
Author: Raghav Ranawat
October 31, 2023
Do you recall the tragic story of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian child who washed ashore on the Turkish coast in 2015 while seeking refuge in Western Europe due to Europe's strict refugee policies? Now, compare that with the open-border policy Europe has imposed to welcome millions of white Ukrainian refugees in 2022, as noted by Esposito. This stark contrast highlights the disparities in how refugees are treated today, depending on their geographic origins and migration routes. In this past year, the treatment of refugees appears to be influenced by factors such as geographical location (Middle East and North Africa), skin color, and race. This article aims to highlight that this assumption is supported by Western and European actions.
Western nations are increasingly impeding refugees from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA henceforth) from seeking asylum in their territories. This is attributed to biased media representation and systemic racism within legislation, which undermine the concept of a global identity. The restrictive measures encompass not only segregation but also border policies of the United States (US) and the European Union (EU), Islamophobia, as well as racial dominance and uniformity. These factors collectively contribute to a negative shift in the perception of MENA refugees, thus altering the global identity as envisioned by the United Nations. Conversely, some argue that limited philanthropic actions by the West towards refugees can be attributed to resource scarcity, debates surrounding free speech, rights of Western Media, and financial considerations, all of which impact the global identity.
The ongoing crisis between Ukraine and Russia has resulted in a significant surge of Ukrainian refugees seeking shelter in Western Europe and North America. The conflict, which began on February 24, 2022, has led to widespread human rights abuses in eastern Ukraine, prompting millions of people to flee the region as war refugees. This refugee crisis has been unfolding since February 2014, with previous instances of refugee migrations, but none on the scale and magnitude witnessed currently, as argued by Levy and Leaning.
The United States' current approach to refugees of color
There exists a clear discrepancy in the treatment of refugee status between people of color from MENA and white Ukrainian refugees. The United States, in particular, is making it more difficult for refugees from MENA to seek asylum compared to their Ukrainian counterparts. These policies are not only seen as systemically racist and oppressive but also highlight a glaring double standard in humanitarian actions and the perception of a global identity.
In alignment with Adams, there is ample data supporting this claim, which demonstrates that the US has implemented unfair and biased policies against Black refugees from Africa while imposing restrictions on those in similar situations to Ukraine. White Ukrainian refugees not only receive preferential treatment and support over Black refugees from Africa but also benefit from increased media coverage and the development and enforcement of favorable legislation due to media influence. This convergence of scholarly evidence and core argument regarding the differential treatment of refugees refutes prior claims of biased treatment as unfounded and inherently racist.
Western media has framed refugees and migrants from MENA as 'invaders' while characterizing those from Ukraine as ‘neighbors.’ For instance, they have made statements such as “We are in a European city, and we have cruise missiles firing as though we are in Iraq or Afghanistan,” as reported by Asylum Access in 2022. These media narratives not only reveal the media's tendency to stereotype and 'otherize' refugees from MENA but also highlight how their biased reporting fosters ideas that may lead to discriminatory policies against refugees of color. Biased, prejudiced, and hateful language in the media contributes to a negative public perception of MENA refugees, potentially influencing public opinion and shaping the development of biased legislation. It underscores the significant impact of language on global refugee policy.
As argued by Ellison and Andrews, the media is resurrecting historical tropes and stereotypes that have long harmed refugees of color. Media bias further compounds the preexisting challenge of addressing legislative biases. The peril faced by deported refugees is a concern that has frequently been disregarded in the case of refugees from MENA. The increasing apathy towards these refugees and the failure to extend anti-deportation policies by Western nations places them in imminent danger of losing their lives.
All of these factors underscore the argument that there is indeed a noticeable disparity in the treatment of refugees from MENA compared to Ukrainian refugees, primarily stemming from biased media representations that foster negative perceptions and biased legislative measures. In contrast to the criticism, the Western stance maintains that the media enjoys the right to free speech, considering these opinions as mere reflections of individuals in the news industry. The assertion is that as newsrooms become more diverse in the future, these opinions will naturally diversify as well. Consequently, the responsibility for shaping public perception does not solely rest with the media but lies with individuals who constitute the public. They are considered autonomous, thinking individuals whose views are less influenced by the media and more by underlying covert biases.
Nonetheless, the initial counterargument brings us back to the assertion that Western media plays a significant role in shaping perceptions of individuals from MENA, ultimately leading to the formulation of discriminatory legislation. While the West argues that media has no bearing on public perception or its impact on global identity, it is maintained that the individuals who are influenced by biased media content often reflect prejudice and bias against refugees from MENA, thereby contributing to a negative public perception. It's worth noting that the government is composed of individuals from the public who may consume media content from such outlets. Even if they don't directly consume such media, public perception still exerts considerable influence over governmental actions. Therefore, this supports the introductory claim.
Legal Provisions in this discussion
Temporary Protected Status (TPS henceforth) is a specialized legal provision designed to shield refugees from deportation and provide them with a safe haven and state protection. Ukrainian refugees in the United States have been granted TPS as a safeguard against deportation. However, it is worth noting that, as highlighted by Adams, many North African refugees have been denied TPS for numerous years, revealing TPS as a tool of systemic discrimination. This is exemplified by the case of Sudanese refugees, where only 535 were granted TPS in 2013, and a total of 2,555 Sudanese refugees have received TPS status as of 2022. In stark contrast, a staggering 59,600 Ukrainian refugees were granted TPS in 2022 alone, as reported by Moslimani in his study. A significant factor contributing to these discriminatory legislations for refugees is the bias exhibited by Western media in their coverage.
The United States contends that TPS was extended to those most urgently in need, given the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Additionally, the Department of Homeland Security plans to evaluate the situation in Africa, taking into consideration the existing crisis, as pointed out by Marcello. The primary focus is on addressing immediate and pressing concerns, and it is worth noting that the crisis in Ukraine has constrained the United States' ability to admit refugees to the extent it did at the onset of the crisis back in March, as reported by Hesson and Cooke.
The second claim fails to adequately justify why, historically, the United States did not extend a similar level of legislative protections to refugees facing similar or even more dire circumstances. To date, the United States has not implemented equitable protections for refugees from MENA, and there are no concrete plans for such protections in the future. This further underscores my assessment that Ukrainian refugees have been given priority without clear justification for why the same level of support cannot be extended to refugees from MENA in the future. This argument highlights how the US systemically marginalizes refugees of color from MENA while affording precedence to refugees from Ukraine. It emphasizes the significant influence of the media in shaping public perceptions of refugees and how this influence translates into biased legislative decisions.
In the realm of biased and bigoted media, we witness a striking influence on narrative formation, particularly evident in the arena of systemic legislative oppression. This phenomenon is vividly illustrated in both the cases of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) in the United States and the Temporary Protection Directive in Europe. The consequence of such preferential treatment is the establishment of a disturbing precedent wherein white Ukrainian refugees are given priority, perpetuating notions of racial and geographical bias. It's essential to recognize that these practices significantly impede the fulfillment of global identity, accountability, and progress when assessing the tangible repercussions of American actions and the disparities in treatment. These observations lead us across the Atlantic to the European Union, where similar dynamics may be at play.
The European Union as a stakeholder
The European Union (EU henceforth), as a host to refugee crises, bears a unique responsibility toward refugees from both Ukraine and the MENA region. The EU has exhibited bias against refugees from MENA, resulting in negative perceptions that directly and indirectly impact the lives of these refugees. Factors such as segregation, the EU's border policies, Islamophobia, and racial dominance and uniformity all contribute significantly to the endorsement of these negative perceptions.
As highlighted by Chebil in his article on discrimination at the Ukraine-Poland border, Black Africans and Brown South Asians found themselves stranded while attempting to cross, in stark contrast to White Ukrainians who faced no such obstacles. The underlying premise is that these policies and actions are steeped in discrimination and unfair favoritism. Whenever we encounter instances of segregation in the context of 21st-century conflicts, they reinforce the troubling notion that the lives of White individuals are deemed more valuable than those of other races. This often stems from a conscious bias in actions and indifference toward “outsiders.” Such policies not only endanger refugees of color, making them vulnerable to discrimination, prejudice, and hatred but also revive archaic ideas of segregation, which are inherently regressive.
In this context, the European Union implemented what is known as the Temporary Protection Directive (TPD henceforth). This directive serves as a protective measure and a border policy that provides safeguards against deportation, offers greater employment and educational opportunities, and more. Notably, this protective measure was swiftly extended to Ukrainian refugees. However, it was not extended to refugees from the MENA region, resulting in significant harm to those deported from the EU to MENA, as detailed by Esposito. The EU's support is biased, primarily benefiting Ukrainian refugees and thereby establishing an unequal playing field for seeking refuge. This inequity poses challenges to the concept of a global identity concerning issues of accountability, reparations, and collective progress.
The European Union argues that, owing to the increasing terrorism in MENA and the uncertain backgrounds of refugees seeking entry into Europe, it is imperative for the EU, its member states, neighboring countries, and its internal security to regulate the influx of refugees from MENA. However, this viewpoint that these concerns are rooted in bias and prejudice.
The EU's preference for admitting White Christian refugees over refugees of color from MENA can be attributed to Islamophobia and xenophobia, as discussed by Esposito. These biases are used as tools that perpetuate negative perceptions, often driven by media representations and legislation, as exemplified by the accountability of the United States in the crisis. Islamophobia plays a central role in shaping negative perceptions of refugees from MENA. It reinforces an existing narrative that portrays Muslims as “aggressive terrorists” to be feared, as noted by Asylum Access. Advocating for selective entry to Europe for Muslims further nurtures prejudice and bias. The idea of treating Muslims and Ukrainians with the same entry restrictions does not find favor among the masses.
The European Union counters this assertion by citing a history of violent terrorism perpetrated by individuals who masqueraded as refugees and sought asylum in Europe. It further argues that peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims is untenable, citing past conflicts between these two religions as indicative of an increased risk of future clashes. The EU has long categorized acts of violence by individuals as hate crimes and isolated incidents involving White Christians, as detailed by Esposito. However, it tends to generalize and stereotype when it comes to Islam. We can differ from the EU's administration, supported by examples from countries like the UAE and Lebanon, which have demonstrated that these two religions can coexist peacefully. EU's stance can be attributed to religious prejudice and intolerance toward Islam.
These counterarguments shed light on the escalation of intolerance towards Islam, which in turn drives the enforcement of stricter border policies and cultivates a culture of racial and cultural homogeneity and dominance. This cultural shift subsequently impacts interpersonal interactions, where individuals are treated differently based on their racial and religious backgrounds. As illuminated throughout this article, Islamophobia and xenophobia have emerged as powerful tools used by Western perspectives to exploit the vulnerabilities of refugees from the MENA and further African regions, ultimately leading to their restricted entry into Europe.
Simultaneously, the propagation of falsehoods and propaganda accompanies these actions. By reinforcing ideas of racial and religious uniformity and dominance, these elements erode the concept of a shared global identity and cast a shadow over the vision of a sustainable future. Consequently, the explicit and implicit influences of media, legislation, border policies, segregation, culturally homogenous and hegemonic societies, as well as Islamophobia and xenophobia, compel me to scrutinize their role in exacerbating racial divisions and diluting the notion of a unified global identity.