Written By Hannah Burfield
France made headlines recently following comments the French interior minister made regarding the UK’s response to the refugee crisis that has been provoked by the conflict currently raging across Ukraine. This war has seen more than 1.5 million Ukrainians fleeing their homes in search of security from the violence of the Russian army, commanded by Putin.
According to France, Britain has exposed a ‘lack of humanity’ in response to the critical refugee situation which has resulted from the persisting conflict in Ukraine. Macron himself has also shared his own criticism of the British government’s response, demonstrating his disapproval for Britain’s ‘grand statements’ which have frequently exaggerated the extent of support Britain is offering.
As Benedict Cumberbatch himself has noted, simply wearing the badge in solidarity with Ukrainians is not enough. Urgent improvement in our country’s response to the refugee crisis – something comparable to the measures put in place by other European countries – is vital in the face of the continuing persecution that occurs in Ukraine.
Previously, Britain abided by a policy which refused visa-free entry to Ukrainians fleeing the conflict. The only refugees who were allowed to enter the country were those with close family here, or if they received sponsorship by a third party.
However, Britain appears to have finally recognised the failings of this initial system.
Moving away from their initial response, the British government has decided to implement a second system which aims to streamline refugee requests to individuals, charities, businesses and community groups who have the capacity to provide sufficient care for these distressed refugees in dire need of support. There will also be a hotline and a webpage which will facilitate offers of accommodation for refugees.
Boris Johnson has since called this new system a ‘generous’ humanitarian route. Yet is this not just a normal, human, empathetic response to one of the greatest humanitarian crises Europe has ever faced? More recently, Johnson has come under criticism following his comments attempting to draw comparisons between the Russian-Ukrainian war and Brexit – a deeply shocking and insensitive comment that overlooks the genuine horror that Ukrainians are being subjected to.
With the prominence of media in our lives, it is impossible to escape the dreadful photos and videos which have emerged and which vividly depict what life is like for Ukrainian civilians who have unfortunately become prime targets during these hostilities.
These horrific attacks have attracted much-needed sympathy from countries on an international level. The solidarity that the international community has demonstrated in the previous weeks has been a testament to the cohesion that the world can achieve in times of crises. Nonetheless, why is this cohesion only achieved when the people being unjustly persecuted are Europeans?
It is worth remembering the way in which countries reacted to the refugee crisis that was triggered by the conflict in Syria in 2015. Just one example is the way the Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán described non-European refugees, branding them ‘Muslin invaders’ and affirming that migrants were ‘a poison’ that Hungary would not accept for fear of different cultures and religions hindering attempts to maintain ‘cultural and ethnic homogeneity’.
In light of these comments, it is impossible to ignore the disparity between the treatment of Muslim refugees escaping persecution, and that directed towards Ukrainian refuges in a similar situation. This juxtaposition was further underlined by comments made by the Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov. ‘These are not the refugees we are used to. ... These people are Europeans’, Petkov affirmed, ‘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.’ Implicitly, Petkov is therefore suggesting we should be fearful of Muslim refugees as they are more likely to harbour ‘terrorist’ tendencies, whereas European refugees are ‘educated’ and should consequently be welcomed.
This separation of European and Muslim refugees into two distinct categories, with the latter supposedly being less worthy of aid, is a very dangerous rhetoric. Such a message can only have the effect of augmenting racist attitudes and prevent constructive plans to help all refugees fleeing uninhabitable zones destroyed by war.
Potentially one of the most shocking outcomes of the Ukrainian conflict is the violence and discrimination that migrants from Africa, the Middle East and Asia have faced whilst attempting to flee the conflict. With priority given to Ukrainian nationals when boarding transport out of the country, those from minority backgrounds have been aggressively stopped in scenes that are reminiscent of the racism that characterised the time of Rosa Parks. These accounts are profoundly disturbing and cause me to question whether our society is regressing, disregarding lessons from the past and abandoning empathy.
Undeniably, everyone fleeing war and conflict should be welcomed by all countries, not shunned as ‘invaders’ and deemed unworthy. This respect should be extended to all individuals, not just those from European backgrounds.