At the end of the first week of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Russian forces violated cease-fire agreements by shelling civilians trying to flee Irpin, Volnovakha, and Mariupol through Red Cross-mediated humanitarian corridors. These were not the biggest or the worst atrocities committed during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but they were symbolic of a war waged without provocation and with deliberate disregard for civilian life. The Russian regime’s aggression is so brazen that it has stirred even the apathetic into extraordinary acts of generosity.
Through its indiscriminate use of force, Russia has displaced a large part of Ukraine’s population, 3 million of whom have fled west, where, with the partial exception of Britain, they have been welcomed and sheltered.
In Germany, people wait at train stations with offers to stay in their homes; in Romania, villagers are driving to the border to ferry refugees to safety; in Poland, mothers are leaving strollers at train stations for Ukrainian refugees who might need them for their children.
These scenes show humanity at their best. They have few precedents in recent memory, except perhaps in the fall of 2015, when Europe’s conscience was briefly stirred after photos went viral of the 3-year-old Alan Kurdi, whose lifeless body had washed up on a Turkish beach after his family’s failed attempt to reach European shores. In the subsequent days, several European leaders pledged to accept a significant number of refugees. Kurdi’s image also inspired volunteers from across Europe and the United States to rush to the Greek isles to assist refugees who were arriving in waves.
This outpouring of sympathy didn’t last long. After the Islamic State’s multiple attacks in Paris that November, European attitudes returned to their anti-immigrant default. While committed activists and aid workers persisted, and some journalists continued to provide sympathetic coverage, the attitudes of European states had hardened. Indeed, they soon criminalized sympathy itself, charging people who were assisting refugees in the Aegean and the Mediterranean seas with “human trafficking” and “aiding illegal immigration.”
On their long trek through the Balkans, many refugees were met with violent vigilantes instead of neighborhood committees. Denmark even started seizing refugees’ money and jewelry and put the children’s rights campaigner Lisbeth Zornig on trial for giving a ride to a refugee family. “They are criminalizing decency,” Zornig said after her sentencing.
As Ukrainians fleeing war are welcomed with outstretched arms even as Sudanese fleeing brutality freeze in nearby forests, many observers are understandably pointing to this double standard in Europe’s treatment of refugees. And it is hard to overlook the hypocrisy.
Two years before Denmark tried to expedite legislation to make it easy for Ukrainians to receive residency and resume life, its government was trying to deport refugees back to parts of Syria where they faced detention and death from Russian-backed forces. Before Hungary opened its border to Ukrainians fleeing war, it had built a long fence to prevent refugees from the Middle East and Afghanistan from entering.
“All those fleeing Putin’s bombs are welcome in Europe,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said one week into the invasion, announcing generous new legislation giving Ukrainians the right to live and work in the European Union for three years; but in early 2020, when Syrians fleeing Russian bombing arrived at the Greek border, von der Leyen pledged more than $750 million to the Greek police to crack down on refugees trying to enter the EU.
There is of course one obvious reason for the difference in treatment, which a few uncouth figures have put in crude terms. Unlike people from Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria, Ukrainians are “relatively civilized,” said CBS’s Charlie d’Agata; “they are not refugees from Syria,” NBC’s Kelly Cobiella said, “these are Christians, they’re white”; the situation was “unthinkable,” said ITV’s Lucy Watson, because “this is not a developing, Third World nation; this is Europe.” (Historical amnesia seemed to allow all three to overlook Yugoslavia in the 1990s or the Troubles in Ireland.)
Race and the relative familiarity of the culture are certainly a factor in the sympathy that Ukrainians have received. But identity is not a fixed thing, and Christianity and whiteness have not always been a guarantor of hospitality. In Britain, blue eyes and blond hair did little to protect Poles from racism in the 2000s; in the 2010s, the focus of xenophobia shifted to Romanians and Bulgarians.
Slavs have not always been treated as “white” in the West. Indeed, the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini promised to protect the white West from Slavs, even as in the United States Italians were being discriminated against as “wops” and “dagos.” Anti-Irish sentiment in Britain has persisted from Shakespeare’s days into the present, abating only since the Good Friday Agreement. Such identifications are contingent on myriad other factors.
One was referenced by Hungary’s Viktor Orban in explaining his government’s different attitude toward refugees from Ukraine and those from elsewhere. “Migrants are stopped,” he said, “Refugees can get all the help.” Ukrainians, he was implying, are refugees, while the rest are mere migrants.
The former are tolerated because they have no choice and are only seeking temporary shelter; the latter are undesirable because they are presumed to be after permanent opportunity. But the distinction between “migrant” and “refugee” in this context is false, even according to Orban’s own implied criteria. People rarely choose exile; they certainly don’t prefer it. It is forced upon them by circumstances, be they political, economic, or environmental, which often feed upon each other.
Time is a critical factor, too. The situation in Ukraine developed so fast, and the humanitarian crisis unfolded so quickly, that it seems many are acting on human impulse without the intrusion of prejudice or ideology. They have treated Ukrainian refugees as refugees. But if the crisis does not find a quick resolution and Ukrainians are unable to return home, one can also see how refugees may be demoted to the status of mere “migrants.” And should this come to pass, their skin tone is likely to offer them only limited protection.
For now, Western states are doing their best to ensure that such a situation doesn’t arise. Unlike Syrians, Ukrainians have been provided some of the means to defend themselves, though not enough to withstand the more ruthless actions of the Russian army. Their hope hasn’t been extinguished; they have a fighting chance. This is a matter of far greater import than the magnanimity shown toward refugees, which may or may not last.
In Syria, when the regime escalated its aerial attacks on civilian neighborhoods in the fall of 2012, the Obama administration rejected calls for a no-fly zone and deployed the CIA to the south of Turkey to prevent shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles from reaching Syrian rebels. Consequently, the regime’s ancient air force, which could have been neutralized with ease, continued to bomb civilian neighborhoods with impunity. Lumbering Soviet-era Mi-8 transport helicopters rained unguided barrel bombs on urban areas, making them far more dangerous than the front lines, which the regime was reluctant to bomb for fear of hitting its own soldiers.
As in Syria, the West opposes a no-fly zone in Ukraine and has shied away from providing the old Polish MiG-29 fighter jets requested by the Ukrainian government. But in stark contrast to Syria, it has been sending large shipments of shoulder-fired missiles and anti-tank missiles, which have been wreaking havoc on Russian armor and deterring Russian gunships and jets from providing close tactical air support. According to photographic evidence gathered by the open-source researcher Oryx, Russia has already lost at least 32 helicopters and 13 jets, including four Su-34 fighter bombers, which had been redeployed after seven years of bombing Syria.
In 2014, as the Syrian regime intensified its attacks on civilians following Obama’s retreat from his “red line,” triggering the first mass flight of refugees, he was interviewed on CBS to explain his reluctance to arm the opposition: “When you get farmers, dentists, and folks who have never fought before going up against a ruthless opposition in Assad, the notion that they were in a position to suddenly overturn not only Assad but also ruthless, highly trained jihadists if we just sent a few arms is a fantasy.”
Yet, farmers, dentists, and folks would hold the line against both the regime and the jihadis, until Russia entered the war and used air power to decisively turn the tide. And today it is farmers, dentists, and folks in Ukraine who are giving Russia a bloody nose.
In May 2014, after the Syrian regime captured the rebel enclave of Homs and forced its population to flee, graffiti was seen on a wall that read: “When I leave, remember I did everything I could to stay.”
In 2015, the Berlin Social Science Center carried out a survey of Syrian refugees and found that 92 percent wanted to return home if they could. The proportion of Ukrainians who would want to return to the comfort and familiarity of their homes is likely similar. No one willingly chooses the indignity and uncertainty of forced exile. “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark,” writes the Somali poet Warsan Shire. No one wants the normalcy of their lives to be subject to the uncertain whims of a host society.
For now, Europe is generous, because it assumes this conflict will be resolved at the same fast pace at which it developed. One hopes that this generosity endures. One also hopes that the admirable way Europe welcomed Ukrainian refugees becomes a model for how it treats refugees in general.
But the real lasting help the West can provide is to prevent people from becoming refugees in the first place. A critical first step in this regard is to restore hope, either by protecting people from military aggression or by giving them the means to resist it. Europe is finally doing so in Ukraine, because this time the war is on its doorstep. But had it given Syrians the means to defend themselves back in 2012, it is possible Russia’s Vladimir Putin would have been deterred and Ukraine spared the current invasion and the resulting grief.
Instead, Russia was allowed to intervene in Syria, because the U.S. government feared regime collapse. In 2016, as evidence accumulated of Russia’s systematic bombing of hospitals, the United States tried to engage it in a so-called counterterrorism partnership. The years of appeasement finally convinced Putin that he could invade Ukraine and meet no more resistance than he had in 2014, when he annexed Crimea. And having faced no consequences for the assault on health facilities in Syria, Putin’s forces are now repeating the pattern in Ukraine, having launched 43 attacks on hospitals and medical facilities so far.
The West tolerated Putin’s wars elsewhere, and Fortress Europe thought it could insulate itself from their effects—but the wars came closer, and the effects are now inescapable.
It is too late to ask for whom the bell tolls. Because the bell now tolls next door.