• Eli Szydlo and Sarah Kane

The Biases Exposed by the Ukrainian Refugee Crisis

March 28, 2022

By Eli Szydlo and Sarah Kane


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has left the world shocked and much of Europe on high alert. Some have described this violence as the worst seen in Europe since WWII, though such comparisons ignore the devastating Yugoslav Wars and Bosnian Genocide of the 1990s. Regardless, the situation is dire for those in Ukraine, with reports as of March 27, 2022, indicating 1,119 civilians killed, 1,790 injured, 6.5 million internally displaced persons, and 3.8 million refugees. According to White House Intelligence, we could see between 1-5 million Ukrainian refugees displaced due to the fighting.


While some have claimed the invasion could result in the largest humanitarian crisis since the end of the Cold War, others have perhaps more accurately compared the situation to the refugee crisis of Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan in 2015. However, the response to this crisis has been quite different from that of 2015. Countries neighboring Ukraine have responded quickly, keeping their borders open and making preparations to host those fleeing the invasion. Poland, Hungary, Moldova, Slovakia, and Romania have immediately accepted Ukrainian refugees, despite their strict policies on refugee reception.


Further, other countries have committed to accepting larger numbers of Ukrainian refugees, which the United Nations has appealed for extended funding to facilitate. The UK government announced plans to take in an unlimited number of Ukrainian refugees under a new visa scheme. Ireland has lifted requirements for visas for Ukrainians entering the country. Canada has also announced plans to take in as many Ukrainian refugees as possible. The United States will admit 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, focusing on those with family members in the country.


While the willingness to host Ukrainian refugees has been extraordinary, the response raises significant questions about the hesitancy to advance refugee and asylum seekers-related policies to adapt to past and ongoing conflicts. The difference in rhetoric is clear. Greece’s immigration minister called Ukrainians “real refugees,” while labeling those from Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere as “irregular migrants.” A CBS news correspondent described the invasion by saying, “...this isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized European… city where you wouldn’t expect that…”. Such statements contribute to our understanding of the shifts in policy that have been made to accommodate Ukrainian refugees and even the disparity in what refugees from Ukraine are allowed across the borders.


Statements indicating the biases surrounding how refugees of different backgrounds are thought of in Europe and the world aren’t the only issue. An increasing number of reports have alleged discrimination at the borders of Ukraine. While priority is given to women and children, as Ukrainian men of fighting age are required to remain in Ukraine, reports indicate that men from Africa and Asia residing in Ukraine are not being permitted to evacuate. African students, some of them women, described being pushed away by border guards who gave priority to Ukrainians. Others have reportedly experienced discrimination at the Polish border. This ill-treatment, alongside the disturbing rhetoric and sudden changes in refugee policy, is a stark reminder of the discrimination refugees from outside of Europe face.


The difference between the treatment of European (predominantly white and Christian) refugees and black and brown (predominantly Muslim) refugees from the Middle East and North Africa is evident. At worst, this is indicative of racial and ethnocentric biases. At its best, this could be an example of prolonged war-weariness, as well as Western countries’ long-held perspective of wars being halted at their immediate borders.


Regardless of the cause, the rapid adjustments made to accept Ukrainian refugees are a reminder that European countries, including those who have refused to accept refugees from other regions, are entirely capable of responding to a sudden and severe refugee crisis. That they have largely failed to do so in recent decades when the refugees have largely come from the Middle East and Africa is disheartening and alarming. In an ideal world, these policies of openness would continue to apply to all refugees and asylum seekers. While that is unlikely, this is an opportunity for advocates of refugee rights to push governments to reconsider their past reluctance and make reforms that respect the human rights of all refugees and asylum seekers.