Governments picking refugees based on skin colour or how “civilised” they find them sets a dangerous precedent

“The “but they look like us” attitude playing out in the west shouts that it’s ok for the Middle East to live the horror of war."


Safya Khan-Ruf is a Researcher at HOPE not hate

The Ukrainian invasion has highlighted stark differences in the treatment of refugees and the language being used by politicians, journalists and experts to describe this conflict.

Far-right online channels have been very active on Ukraine since Russian forces rolled into the country. Opinions are divided between those that admire Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism and those who are dismayed by the conflict between “white nations”. One Nazi channel on the messaging app Telegram claimed: “This war is so fucking stupid, whenever you see two White nations at war with each other, you’ll find a Jew sitting at the top.”

However, far-right groups are not the only ones who have noticed skin colour in this conflict. The first few days of the invasion have highlighted casual, albeit more coded, descriptions in the mainstream media.

In a segment on the BBC, David Sakvarelidze, former deputy prosecutor general of Ukraine, described his emotional response in seeing “European people with blue eyes and blond hair being killed, children being killed every day” in his country. The implication is that that seeing non-white people being killed in conflict isn’t shocking, it’s normal. 

Meanwhile, CBS News’ Senior foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata, reporting from Kyiv, described Ukraine as “a relatively civilized, relatively European — I have to choose those words carefully, too — city, where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen.”

D’Agata issued an apology for his poor choice of words, but the orientalist discourse is made evident, with this war striking a chord for many because the victims are white. Coded words such as ‘civilised’ imply other wars outside Europe have uncivilised people. The word civilised cannot be separated from its historical links to conquest and colonialism either. Stratifying people through the lens of civilised/uncivilised was key to European imperialism.

“The “but they look like us” attitude playing out in the west shouts that it’s ok for the Middle East to live the horror of war. The only lives that matter are white, blonde, blue-eyed humans; they make you a “relatively civilized” victim and grant you an expedited refugee status,” wrote a Lebanese commentator on Twitter.

Comparisons to Ukrainians also highlight the difference humanising a people can make and how non-white, non-European people suffering in conflict have been covered in mainstream media. Daniel Hannan, a former Conservative member of European Parliament, wrote in London’s Telegraph newspaper of the Ukrainian people being attacked: “Ukraine is a European country. Its people watch Netflix and have Instagram accounts, vote in free elections and read uncensored newspapers. War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations. It can happen to anyone.”

The fact that Netflix-watching, Instagram-scrolling and free elections are not solely found in Europe, or even the West, appears to be forgotten in the rush to sympathise with Ukrainians.


The war isn’t even a week old and yet it has already caused mass displacement, with hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians fleeing across Europe, looking for safety. Countries like Poland are rightfully being applauded for welcoming them. However, this is the same country that refused to take any refugees under the 2015 deal to allocate 160,000 people among EU member countries in order to take the load off Greece and Italy.

This conflict has led to the most virulent anti-migration leaders in Europe to change their positions – when it comes to Ukrainian refugees.  There are several studies carried out in Europe showing attitudes are more positive towards immigrant groups from closer and “whiter” regions. However, if governments pick refugees based on skin colour or how “civilised” they find them, it sets a dangerous precedent on the value of human life.

The Bulgarian President Rumen Radev said, “These people are intelligent, 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…” This racist discourse between ‘intellectual’ European refugees and ‘terrorist’ refugees from Africa, the Middle East and central Asia has been said openly or implied on several news channels.

Jean-Louis Bourlanges, a member of the French National Assembly, told a TV channel that the Ukrainian refugees will be “an immigration of great quality, intellectuals, one that we will be able to take advantage of”. To be clear, Ukrainians should absolutely be welcomed into European countries, but humanising them should not come at the expense of other refugees. Furthermore, refugees should not be picked based on what they would bring to the country

This rhetoric is also translating to racist actions on the ground. The BBC reported on 28 February that many non-Ukrainians stuck in the country and at the border “are frantically sending messages asking their government to evacuate them.” According to the Times of India, “hundreds” of Indian students are trapped at the borders with Poland and Hungary “without food, shelter and water as Ukrainian border guards were not allowing them through check points.”

There are also accusations of discrimination against non-Ukrainians at the hand of mostly Ukrainian authorities. Twitter is rife with pictures and videos allegedly showing harassment at train stations and border checkpoints. There have also been numerous reports of Ukrainian security officials preventing Africans from catching buses and trains going to the border. Nigeria’s government has condemned reports that its citizens, and those of other African countries, have been stopped from leaving Ukraine. “Skin is a passport … epidermal citizenship,” one social media user said.

Not all wars are treated equally and geopolitics naturally play a part in coverage, as does proximity. The response to the Ukrainian mass displacement has been heartening and sorely needed. But the Western response has also put into stark focus the lack of sympathy for victims outside of Europe and the role that skin colour plays in it.

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