Preferential Treatment of Ukrainian Refugees Shows Limits of Europe’s Multiculturalism

Preferential Treatment of Ukrainian Refugees Shows Limits of Europe’s Multiculturalism
Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images

What you need to know

The broad welcome that many Ukrainians have received is a social good. But we should hope and work for a world in which all refugees receive the same treatment.

The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine has produced a refugee crisis unprecedented in recent European history. Nearly five million Ukrainians have fled their homeland, in addition to the 6.5 million who have become internally displaced within the country. Altogether, a quarter of the pre-war Ukrainian population of 44 million has fled their homes.

This mass displacement of millions is an unspeakable crime for which Russia is responsible. And in response to the crisis, European countries have shown remarkable generosity. Despite government officials warning that the country now faces the breaking point, Poland alone has taken in more than 2.2 million Ukrainians, and nearby Romania and Hungary also took in more than half a million and 300,000 people, respectively. These countries have welcomed Ukrainians fleeing the Russian onslaught despite their recent histories of anti-immigrant sentiments.

The anti-immigrant streak of eastern European countries is not contradicted by their embrace of Ukrainian citizens. Multiple media outlets have recently spoken against the perceived double standards Europe has applied to refugees, taking in white Christians from Ukraine while in other, similar circumstances shunning non-white, non-Christian counterparts from war-torn parts of the Middle East and Africa. The hypocrisy is particularly telling in the case of anti-Muslim right-wing European politicians now speaking of the importance of accepting Ukrainian refugees. 

Indeed, even within Ukraine itself, the non-local population has had to face discrimination while fleeing the same war as locals. Asian and African students leaving the country have stated that they were mistreated by both Ukrainians and other Europeans. Some watched as Ukrainian pets were allowed to cross borders. 

And it’s not just a moral issue, but a potential obstacle to winning international support. The racism suffered by non-locals fleeing Ukraine has become a source of wartime propaganda for Russian state-owned media as they seek to win the global battle on information about the war. 

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Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG Images
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appears on a screen as he addresses the United Nations Security Council via video link during a meeting amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, at the United Nations Headquarters in Manhattan, New York City, New York, U.S., April 5, 2022. 

The broad welcome that many Ukrainians have received is a social good. But we should hope and work for a world in which all refugees receive the same treatment. The reports of selective welcoming of Ukrainian refugees by Europeans and their simultaneous rejection of Asians and Africans shows the limits of Europe’s professed multiculturalism. Even relatively long-established non-white minority groups in Europe, such as North Africans in France and Turks in Germany, struggle with formulating their identities in the face of high-profile politicians publicly denouncing their cultural presence. It is difficult to imagine new non-white, non-Christian migrant communities, with no local history, contending with a toxic and hostile public sentiment that has been almost entirely lacking so far concerning the Ukrainians. 

The European “selectiveness” with immigration should also be seen as a warning in Asia. As Russia invaded Ukraine, many media outlets have speculated that the Chinese invasion of Taiwan may be next. In the event of a Chinese invasion, there is a distinct possibility of a mass exodus from Taiwan to neighboring states no less severe than the depopulation of Ukraine today. How Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian refugees are received in Europe may help to predict how refugees from a war in Asia, Taiwanese or otherwise, will be received by other Asian countries.

The refugee experience in Asia so far, unfortunately, is not a sanguine one. Japan and South Korea, possibly the first port call for refugees from Taiwan, together have less than 5,000 individuals defined as refugees and less than 40,000 individuals seeking asylum, a fraction of the 330,000 refugees and 1.2 million asylum-seekers in the United States. This is not to mention incidents of racism against residents of Chinese and Southeast Asian descent in the two countries. While political sympathies will certainly be with Taiwanese refugees in these countries, it is possible to foresee issues for ethnic minorities, especially migrant worker refugees, in receiving equal treatment in leaving, and issues for all Taiwanese in fully integrating into countries that have traditionally not accepted refugees.

Of course, given that the Russo-Ukrainian War has only been ongoing for almost two months, how the continued influx of Ukrainians into other European countries can still change. As the number of Ukrainians leaving home increases, the level of welcome they receive may diminish. Many have been reported to be returning. But whether Europeans cool toward Ukraine in the coming weeks and months, the initial enthusiasm they showed toward accepting this wave of refugees, especially compared to previous ones from lands farther away, shows that similarity in culture plays a pivotal role in the human aspect of war. One can only hope that refugees from Asia would be accompanied by a similar level of cultural solidarity.


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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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