Ukraine Good Model for Responding to Global Refugee Crises

On Tuesday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said that over 660,000 people have fled Ukraine in the days following Russia’s invasion last Thursday, Feb. 24. The UNHCR has estimated that a total of 1.8 million Ukrainian refugees will be displaced from their homes, uprooted from their lives, and forced to seek refuge in other countries. That number could greatly increase, however, with the European Union estimating that up to four million people might be forced to leave the country. 

Countries across the continent, but especially those in Eastern Europe, have rallied to open their borders to refugees. The EU had been preparing to “welcome and host” refugees from Ukraine for weeks leading up to the invasion and will increase funding for refugees past the $1.2 billion already available, according to EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s statement on Feb. 24. Poland is planning to accommodate 1 million Ukrainian refugees; as of Thursday, Hungary had welcomed over 139,000; Moldova, 97,000; Slovakia, 72,000; and Romania, 51,000. 

In Poland, there are eight reception points across the border where Ukrainian refugees can receive food, medical care, and transportation into other parts of Poland. But Poland’s open-border policy toward Ukrainian refugees is not reflective of its general stance toward refugees. In stark contrast to Poland’s current efforts, contractors began work on a $400 million wall at its border with Belarus just over a month ago, in an effort to bar the predominantly Muslim refugees seeking asylum from Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. In November, thousands of these refugees were trapped at the border without shelter or food; over a dozen died in the freezing temperatures.

This contrast is devastating. It demonstrates something deeply dystopian about Western civilization: that we only care about suffering and humanitarian crises when the people suffering look a particular, white-skinned, blonde-haired way. “We’re not talking here about Syrians fleeing the bombing of the Syrian regime backed by Putin,” said French journalist Phillipe Corbé. “We’re talking about Europeans leaving in cars that look like ours to save their lives.”

The outpouring of support for Ukraine proves that when it actually wants to, the EU is capable of providing resources to genuinely help refugees. It proves that the international community is capable of acting with kindness and empathy toward communities in need. To put it bluntly, it proves that it is racism and classism, not lack of resources, that bars us from creating a model to reduce suffering and provide aid to those in need. It is not a lack of ability or resources that have historically prevented white, Western nations from opening their arms to refugees.

It’s also important to note that racism is impacting the way that refugees fleeing Ukraine are treated. There are reports that the Ukrainian military is dividing the crowds of people trying to take trains to safety into a group for people of color and a group for white people. Others are reporting that Ukrainian border guards have been using physical violence against Africans and other Black people trying to flee.

After reflection and consultation, this Editorial Board would like to encourage its readers to donate and work to support refugees from Ukraine, while simultaneously thinking critically about how they can do the same for displaced people suffering all over the world. We call on our readers to educate themselves, not just about the situation in Ukraine today, but about other refugee crises and the systemic difference in our individual and global responses. 

It may be tempting to say that now is not the time to bring up issues of racial consciousness — now is the time to be supporting people experiencing immediate violence in Ukraine. You’d be right, but only in part. As challenging as it may be to have nuanced and open discussions that address multiple facets of this complex problem, now is the perfect time to do so. We have the opportunity to practice what we preach about anti-racist work, and we should take it.