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Europe's unified welcome of Ukrainian refugees exposes 'double standard' for nonwhite asylum seekers

ABC news | Prior to the Russian attacks on Ukraine, Europe was already dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis, which has polarized European Union members in recent years over what to do with the 1.1 million Syrians who sought sanctuary in Europe.

Meanwhile, since Russia's invasion on February 24, surrounding European countries have quickly responded with a united show of solidarity to the influx of more than 2 million Ukrainian refugees.

Although it is uncertain whether problems over burden-sharing would arise, experts who research migration in Europe think that because Ukrainian migrants are white, they will find a more friendly climate.

Many non-white refugees fleeing Ukraine are stuck at the border, fearful of discrimination.

According to Andrew Geddes, Director of the Migration Policy Centre, Europe's "extremely warm welcome" of Ukrainian refugees contrasts sharply with the mostly "hostile" response to Syrians and other asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East.

"It's like day and night," Geddes added.

"I think the most striking contrast is with a bunch of central European countries that were very hostile to Syrian refugees and are now quite a lot more favorable to Ukrainian refugees," Geddes added, referring to Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, which were "the most resistant" to welcoming Syrian refugees.

Meanwhile, numerous nonwhite refugees fleeing Ukraine, notably students from Asia and Africa, have claimed incidents of prejudice at the country's borders, with some telling ABC News that discrimination based on race has made passing into countries like Poland difficult. Others from Africa and the Middle East, on the other hand, claim to have entered Poland without incident.

During a news conference last Tuesday, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi confirmed that "there are incidents" of racial discrimination at the border, but claimed he had been persuaded that "these are not state policy."

Last Wednesday, Grandi met with Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau, who "reiterated Poland's commitment to continue welcoming all those fleeing, without difference," according to Grandi. Meanwhile, Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted on Tuesday in response to reports of prejudice, saying, "Ukraine's administration spares no effort to tackle the problem." He also stated that Ukraine has established an emergency hotline to assist African, Asian, and other international students looking to escape the country.

According to data from the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, Europe hosts almost 1 million of the 6.6 million Syrian asylum seekers and refugees, but the vast majority are sponsored by only two countries: 59 percent in Germany and 11 percent in Sweden.

However, this "didn't arrive immediately," according to Kelly Petillo, coordinator of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

"It came after a lot of internal back and forth and a lack of disagreement," Petillo said, noting that the majority of Syrian refugees were only allowed to enter Europe in 2016 — four years after the Syrian war began — after the European Union reached an agreement with Turkey, which was under enormous pressure at the time due to the influx of migrants and asylum seekers.

According to the Migration Policy Centre, the European Union provided financial assistance to Turkey in order to slow the flow of migrants and asylum seekers crossing into Europe by returning "irregular migrants" attempting to enter Europe through Greece to Turkey, as Turkey works "to prevent new migratory routes from opening."

According to MPC, "the European Union committed to resettle Syrian refugees from Turkey on a one-to-one basis" as part of the arrangement, which was designed to halt migration to Europe. The European Union also contributed 6 billion euros to aid Turkey's Syrian migrant communities.

"We've seen a significant level of reluctance among Europeans to share the cost amongst themselves since the Syria issue erupted more than ten years ago," Petillo added.

According to UNHCR, Austria, Greece, the Netherlands, and France host between 2 and 5% of Syrian refugees in Europe, while other countries host less than 2%.

Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, among other Eastern European countries that have mostly rejected Syrian refugees, have been at the vanguard of welcoming Ukrainians, according to Geddes.

"It's a very, very effective, discriminatory method for migrants from outside of Europe," Geddes added.

"The EU has been far more reluctant to grant shelter to people from Africa and the Middle East, and has been much more prepared to internalize a refugee crisis if the people being driven to flee are white Europeans," he continued.

And, according to Petillo, the "double standard" is shaped not only by race, religion, and culture, but also by politics.

According to UNHCR data, Poland received 1.2 million migrants leaving Ukraine, and Polish President Andrzej Duda visited a border crossing station in Korczowa on Friday, where he talked with Ukrainian refugees and promised media that Poland will welcome them with open arms.

Poland's approach of the Syrian refugee issue, according to Geddes, was "opposite."

In 2017, Jarosaw Kaczyski, the leader of Poland's rightwing party and current Deputy Prime Minister, argued that taking in asylum seekers from Syria would be "dangerous" and would "completely change our culture and radically lower the level of safety in our country," as Poland resisted pressure from the European Union to do so.

Witnesses claim that extremists harass minority refugees arriving in Poland from Ukraine.

In April 2020, the European Union's top court declared that Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic had broken EU law by refusing to accept refugees in order to relieve Turkey and Greece of some of the load.

Poland was also "engaged in a military confrontation" with Belarus in November 2021, according to Geddes, to prevent asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East from crossing the Polish border.

"When it comes down to it, Ukrainians are considered as European," Geddes said, noting that Poland and Ukraine have "extremely strong" historical and cultural ties. Many Ukrainian refugees have relatives and friends in Poland who have taken them in.

Asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East, on the other hand, "are basically perceived as being different, racially, socially, and culturally," he noted.

Families ripped apart by Ukraine's enormous diaspora confront an uncertain future.

Politics and Islamophobia

Those feelings, which Petillo defined as "othering," have been visible in the vocabulary of some important political leaders and Western media figures who have made contentious statements that have gone viral on social media in the last week.

In an attempt to distinguish Ukrainians from other refugees, one journalist called them as "civilized," while others argued that witnessing the tragedy of Ukrainians is more difficult since they "look like us."

According to The Associated Press, Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov stated of Ukrainians earlier this week, "These folks are brilliant, educated people." "...This is not the refugee influx we've seen before, with people whose identities we didn't know, people with murky pasts, and even terrorists."

And Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who said of Ukrainian refugees, "We're letting everyone in," has made anti-immigration a prominent feature of his reelection campaign, believing that an inflow of non-Christian migrants is a threat to the culture.

According to The Associated Press, Orban stated in January, "We do not want to be an immigrant country."

Following the 9/11 terror attacks, Petillo claimed that Islamophobic terminology that "connected terrorism to Islam" became popular in a "dangerous" political discourse about Middle Eastern refugees.

Anti-immigrant emotions, according to Geddes, have been weaponized by various leaders of Europe's "extreme right" and "played a part in this exclusionary approach to migration."

Milos Zeman, the Czech president at the time of the immigration crisis in 2015, described the influx of Syrian and Iraqi refugees seeking shelter in Europe as "an orchestrated invasion."

Meanwhile, according to the UNHCR, the Czech Republic has welcomed tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees.

According to The Associated Press, Slovakia, which has taken in more than 140,000 Ukrainian refugees, according to UNHCR figures, stated in 2015 that it would only admit Christians from Syria.

Other European countries, according to Geddes, did not favor Christians as "explicitly" as Slovakia, but did so "implicitly" through their policies.

The European Union agreed on Thursday in a historic vote to grant Ukrainians instant temporary protected status, allowing them to work and live in EU countries while also allowing them access to health care and other social services. According to Geddes, this is the first time the EU has used this safeguard since it was enacted into EU law two decades ago.

Despite attempts by Germany and Sweden to provide protection for Syrian refugees, many remain "locked in limbo" with no access to work, education, or other social services, according to Petillo.

"They're not coming out formally with policies stating we want Syrians to return," Petillo said, adding that continuous humanitarian issues have resulted in an ongoing influx of refugees to Europe.

According to UNHCR data, more than 20,000 asylum seekers from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa who arrived by land or sea in the Mediterranean in the hopes of crossing into Europe have died – some drowning – or gone missing since 2014, with 154 so far in 2022.

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