Double standard as European nations embrace Ukrainian refugees?

Policy stands in stark contrast to actions of many of those nations in recent years when dealing with the displaced from other regions.

By Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli

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Published: Tue 15 Mar 2022, 11:05 PM

Without reservation European countries have thrown open their arms to welcome refugees from Ukraine. Admirable though it is, the policy stands in stark contrast to the actions of many of those same nations in recent years when dealing with the displaced from other regions.

The most striking volte-face has come from Matteo Salvini, head of the Lega party in Italy, a former interior minister and current senator who made an anti-immigration stance his signature issue during the great refugee influx from 2013-2017 when millions of displaced people from the Middle East and Africa crossed overland or arrived on the shores of Europe after a dangerous sea journey.

Six months ago Salvini was on trial for blocking the landing of migrant boats at Italy’s ports when he served as interior minister, but now he has arrived in Poland with a convoy of vans and minibusses to transport “as many children and families as possible” to Italy, he said. A Lega representative told the press the convoy was financed and organised by the political party.

Another example of the apparent change is Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, a leader in the anti-migrant movement in the EU, who now stresses the need to provide a safe haven for people crossing the border into his country.

And the European Union itself, deadlocked for years on common action over asylum, decided to use its existing temporary protection directive to grant refugees from Ukraine an immediate residence permit allowing access to education and the labor market. It is the first time the directive has been used since it was passed into law in 2001.

Pro-refugee coalitions have been calling for such a clear EU commitment for years. In 2019, human rights lawyers even urged prosecution of the EU and its member states over the death toll on the Mediterranean Sea. In a 240-page filing with the International Criminal Court, lawyers Juan Branco and Omer Shatz allege a deterrence-based stance was “intended to sacrifice the lives of migrants in distress at sea with the sole objective of dissuading others in a similar situation from seeking safe haven in Europe”. According to the International Organisation for Migration, the Mediterranean has been the deadliest migrant route in Europe with more than 23,500 people missing and presumed dead since 2014.

Yet today European citizens including those who vote for radical right-wing parties are supportive of the decision to welcome Ukrainian refugees. How can we understand the change of heart?

Explanations put forward include cultural affinity or even racism. The 2015 migration crisis was driven by refugees from non-European countries such as Afghanistan and Syria or by sea from North Africa. Europe is now experiencing a flow of refugees from another European state.

Another explanation is geographic proximity. Yet the ports that Salvini before blocked in Sicily are far closer to Tunisia and Libya than to Ukraine. Down through history Arabic nations actually controlled parts of the region, leaving a lasting imprint on the culture and DNA of southern Italy.

And the Ukraine crisis is not the first European refugee influx in recent memory. The collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in 9 million people being uprooted. The fall of the former Yugoslavia and the Bosnian conflict produced more than 2 million refugees.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the 2011 Arab uprisings in the Middle East also led to an increase in the numbers of refugees trying to enter Europe. Turkey is already hosting to more than 4 million refugees and asylum-seekers, 3.6 million of them from Syria.

Early polls and analysts indicate European citizens have the perception that Ukrainians are culturally and ethnically similar to them, even though before many had difficulty distinguishing Ukrainians from other groups in the region – even from Russians themselves.

A striking example of the difference in perception is Denmark. While it is trying to force Syrians back to their home country even as a civil war continues, it says it has fully opened its arms to Ukrainians.

“When there is war in Europe and a European neighbor is exposed to what we see in Ukraine, there is not the slightest doubt in my mind – we must help as best we can by welcoming Ukrainians on Danish soil,” said Mattias Tesfaye, the country’s minister for foreign affairs and integration.

Michala Clante Bendixen, the head of Refugees Welcome Denmark, says the 2015 migrant crisis shows that “if people arrive from Afghanistan or Syria, they will be met with suspicion, but now we immediately call Ukrainians (legal) refugees. What’s the difference?”

Some European politicians are openly saying that Ukrainian refugees are qualitatively better. “These people are Europeans,” Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov said. “They are educated people. This is not the refugee wave we have been used to, people we were not sure about their identity, people with unclear pasts, who could have been even terrorists.”

Just last year several hundred Afghan, Syrian, Iraqi and other asylum-seekers were stranded in forests and marshlands along the Poland-Belarus border in freezing temperatures. Yet today Poland is organizing free Air BnB housing and transit to other countries for Ukrainians if they so desire.

Whatever the labels, studies or explanations, it’s clear that there is a vast gulf between the way Europe has handled previous refugee waves and how it is embracing Ukrainians. As we live in historic times, no doubt the phenomenon will be studied by future scholars as we continue our journey to understand and adapt.

Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are veteran international journalists based in Italy

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