Russia-Ukraine war quickly exposing mindset that is so deadly for Black and brown refugees


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Soon after Russia invaded Ukraine two weeks ago in an attempt to dismember it, two outcomes became apparent at once: One, that Ukrainian civilians are left to face the brunt of that mindless brutality, and two, that while they deserve our compassion and support, Western sympathy for them and their cause is guided by more than just humanitarian concerns.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 10/03/2022 (385 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Soon after Russia invaded Ukraine two weeks ago in an attempt to dismember it, two outcomes became apparent at once: One, that Ukrainian civilians are left to face the brunt of that mindless brutality, and two, that while they deserve our compassion and support, Western sympathy for them and their cause is guided by more than just humanitarian concerns.

It was never realistic to expect a measured mainstream discourse around the Russia-Ukraine war. Still, it was surprising to see just how thin the veneer of human rights for all was and disheartening to be reminded daily of the lack of value for Black and brown lives vis-a-vis the differential treatment for Ukrainian refugees.

It would have been refreshing to hear nuanced discussions around the imperial tensions that contextualize this war (why was NATO created, for example), rather than a knee-jerk lapse into comforting Cold War tropes. The good versus evil lens that leads us to the canonization of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as a foil to Russia’s villainous Vladimir Putin.

Instead, the overwrought discussions found public figures and journalists quickly beginning to say the quiet parts out loud. They openly made a case for Ukrainian refugees not only on the basis of their white identity but on the exceptionalism of their circumstance. They needed to underline it by contrast and in this, impoverished and plundered nations came in handy. (Western interests in resource extraction that often foments the violence was conveniently ignored.)

“They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking,” Daniel Hannan wrote in a column in the U.K.’s Telegraph. “War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations.”

Across the Atlantic, CBS reporter Charlie D’Agata said on TV while reporting from Kyiv, the Ukraine capital: “This isn’t Iraq or Afghanistan … This is a relatively civilized, relatively European city.”

And worse, on Al Jazeera, where so many tune in for a somewhat non-Western perspective, journalist Peter Dobbie said, “These are prosperous, middle-class people. These are not obviously refugees trying to get away from the Middle East … or North Africa. They look like any European family that you’d live next door to.”

The “European family next door” narrative even erases the approximately three million people with disabilities living in Ukraine, who are at risk of being abandoned and forgotten.

Images of Israeli airstrikes in Gaza or acts of courage by Palestinians were falsely labelled as depicting the conflict in Ukraine and went viral on social media where they elicited much sympathy.

If the news media creates a public narrative, politicians bear the responsibility of creating policy. In Spain, the far-right Vox party leader Santiago Abascal said in parliament that Ukrainian refugees should be welcomed, Muslim refugees should not. “Anyone can tell the difference between them (Ukranian refugees) and the invasion of young military-aged men of Muslim origin who have launched themselves against European borders in an attempt to destabilize and colonize it.”

Bulgaria’s centrist Prime Minister Kiril Petkov told journalists: “These are not the refugees we are used to … these people are Europeans. These people are intelligent, they are educated people.”

There you have it. Non-white migrants are likely to be criminals. Either terrorists, thieves or rapists. Guilty until proven possibly innocent. Ukrainian civilians, despite the Nazism (as evidenced by its now-infamous Azov movement) and racism being alive and well in their country, are simply innocent. No question of guilt. No hand-wringing over whether they are refugees or migrants. Whether they’ll be welfare cheats. No question of dismissing their war as an “ethnic conflict.”

Ukraine has been visited by tragedy and its civilians deserve a generous reception. So do Black and brown people in Europe and elsewhere. Instead, reports of discriminatory treatment by Ukrainian guards towards Nigerians, Indians, Lebanese and other people of colour including Afghan refugees, if at all mentioned, are treated as a sad side story. As if that very mainstream mindset of disdain has not created pernicious anti-refugee policies across many European borders. At least 22,000 people have died and disappeared in the treacherous Mediterranean Sea since 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration’s Missing Migrants project.

Canada, too, demonstrated this mindset in no uncertain terms. While it limited the number of Afghan refugees it would allow to 40,000, it imposed no limit on the number of Ukrainian refugees who can enter. Ottawa even created new immigration streams for emergency travel to smooth the refugees’ way, but only for Ukrainian citizens.

It has barred non-citizens of Ukraine from getting temporary refuge through these expedited visa processes. People without citizenship or long-term status in Ukraine are largely racialized minorities, The Canadian Press reported. Certainly, citizens of other countries may have safe third countries to go to, but what about asylum seekers and refugees? Equally vital, what about the Roma, many of whom are undocumented?

We’re good at keeping the quiet parts quiet.

When Canadian cable companies dropped Russian state-owned broadcaster RT from their channel lineup, there were no free speech warriors shouting in defence of keeping the programming. No “sunlight is the best disinfectant” arguments from those who otherwise claim to be defenders of diversity of ideas. No pundits righteously fighting to debate “all sides” of an issue. Turns out we do understand the concept of deplatforming harmful rhetoric, but apparently only when decision-makers identify with the recipients at risk.

This bias is not only about race; after all, Ukraine has been at war for eight years. The UN estimates 50,000 casualties of the war between 2014 and 2021. In addition, Canadian policies to support Russians who oppose Putin and genuinely risk their lives in doing so, are non-existent.

This bias is about race, and risk to empire.

Which is why when Israel invades Palestinian territories, Canada does not impose sanctions on its officials or individuals and businesses in occupied territories like it does against Russians. Nor does it ask the International Criminal Court to intervene.

It is why Canada continues to sell arms to the despotic Saudi Arabia to attack Yemen where it has indiscriminately killed thousands of civilians.

Or why Canada bolsters Ukrainian native resistance against Russia’s occupation with weapons (no questions asked about possible links to Nazism) but violently represses Indigenous peoples seeking to protect their sovereign lands.

In other words, the prejudice is not about race alone but about race and its relation to Western power.

Ukrainian refugees are welcome all right, but please, hold the pats on the back.

Shree Paradkar is a Toronto-based columnist covering issues around race and gender for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @ShreeParadkar

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