Netflix, Europeanness and Racism: exclusionary attitudes in the Ukraine crisis


Our solidarity towards refugees should extend beyond those who 'look like us'

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Image by Image Credit: Jasmine Mirza

By Juliette Barlow

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has undoubtedly become one of the most talked about topics of the moment, dominating news cycles and international conversations since the launching of a full-scale military operation by Russia on the 24 February.

A key aspect of this conversation has regarded the over one million Ukrainians who have become refugees, forced to flee their homes for neighbouring countries and beyond.

However, much of the media coverage has tended to emphasise the fact that those fleeing the conflict “look like any European family that you would live next door to” and that “this is not a developing, third world nation, this is Europe” as put by one Al-Jazeera news anchor and an ITV journalist. French journalist Phillipe Corbé emphasises that “we’re not talking here about Syrians… we’re talking about Europeans leaving in cars that look like ours” whilst Telegraph columnist Daniel Hannan expressed his shock that “they seem so like us… Ukraine is a European country. [Ukraine’s] people watch Netflix and have Instagram accounts.”

This emphasis on the ‘Europeanness’ of the refugees and the need to highlight the similarities between Ukrainian refugees and other Westerners is used to invoke sympathy by Western audiences and justify why we should care about their plight. However, it simultaneously implies that we could (and should) only have sympathy for those who have the same car as us, and more insidiously, look like us. This coded, racialised rhetoric, as well as the surprise about the ‘whiteness’ of the refugees demonstrates the synonymity for many between race and the label ‘refugee.’ Harmfully, it also implies that refugees from other places such as Africa or the Middle East are less worthy of our sympathy and solidarity.

Senior CBS news foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata also reported that Ukraine “isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilised, relatively European… city, one where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen.”  You would certainly hope that this does not mean to imply that he would hope that conflict would happen in other places, or that war is acceptable as long as it is not affecting white Europeans. His rhetoric also seems to suggest that conflict somehow inherently ‘belongs’ in Africa or the Middle East, and that war and seeking refuge is a natural state for non-white people. This not only normalises tragedy and conflict in the non-Western world, it also seems to suggest that European and white people are naturally peaceful - (which, if you pick up any GCSE history book, you will find is definitely not the case).

This rhetoric also has harmful policy implications. There have been stark differences in the treatment of Ukrainian refugees compared to those from the Middle East and Africa, particularly the more than 6.6 million Syrian refugees who have been forced to flee their country since 2011.

Previously, the EU has been criticised for essentially paying Turkey over $6 million to keep Syrian refugees and stop them entering Greece, as well as providing millions of Euros to the Libyan Coastguard to intercept migrants and refugees at sea and prevent them from crossing the Mediterranean and entering Europe, despite UN reports that acts committed against migrants in Libyan detention centres may constitute ‘crimes against humanity.’

However, in light of recent crises, the EU has decided to open its borders to Ukrainian refugees, with all 27 members of the European Council promising to guarantee Ukrainians the the right to live, work and receive in any EU nation of their choice, for at least a year.

The overwhelming support of the EU to the plight of the Ukrainian people is obviously something to be celebrated. However, it is hard to ignore the exceedingly racialised undertones to this policy shift and complete double standard compared to previous treatment of refugees from other parts of the world.

There have also been reports of segregation and racism against African students and other non-white residents, including Nigerians, Indians and Lebanese people, at the borders to neighbouring countries. This has been most prominently seen at the Ukraine/Poland border, where people of colour have been prevented from crossing the border by the police and army. Videos shared on social media under the hashtag #AfricansinUkraine have shown videos of Africans being prevented from boarding trains and buses leaving the country, as these have been earmarked for ‘Ukrainians only.’ This shockingly racist response demonstrates that widespread discrimination and unequal treatment of people of colour still permeates all aspects of our society, even for those trying to flee a warzone.

It is a damning indictment of humanity if we are only able to sympathise with and relate to those similar to us; providing refuge or extending sympathy shouldn't be based on skin colour, proximity, or similar culture. By only welcoming those with open arms based on a certain racialised criteria of those who look ‘like us’ we recreate violent patterns of racism and colonialism. Simply put, solidarity shouldn’t have borders.