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Europe’s refugee double standard leaves it vulnerable

Bashar Deeb is an investigative journalist who works with Lighthouse Reports.  

If there’s one positive outcome of the war in Ukraine, it’s that the response to the more than 3 million refugees who have left the country is setting a benchmark for what a humanitarian response can and should look like. In countries like Poland, refugees are being greeted not with tear gas and batons but warm sausages, blankets, wi-fi passwords, free Uber rides and room in people’s homes.  

But even as we cheer this response, it’s important not to ignore its darker components. European politicians, like Greece’s Minister of Migration and Asylum Notis Mitarakis, have been quick to welcome what they describe as “real refugees” from Ukraine. But then, one must ask, who are the fakes? Are they the Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis and others from around the world who have been so often described as weapons or hybrid threats? 

Indeed, bad actors like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko have sought to blackmail the European Union with threats of allowing migrants to freely cross over from their countries. But what the response to Ukraine shows is that it’s not migrants who are being weaponized; it’s the EU’s own xenophobia. After all, no one can blackmail you with unarmed colored people unless you are scared of them. Only a Europe that is so fearful of its far right that it ends up adopting its racist agenda can be held hostage by people looking for a better life, a safe environment in which to raise their families. 

And it’s not just those fleeing violence who suffer when the EU raises its drawbridges. It’s the EU’s own interests as well. When Europe waves in Ukrainians while leaving others floating at sea on engineless life rafts, or executes brutal pushbacks that leave people robbed and stripped naked at its land borders, it is directly supplying the Kremlin and its other enemies with propaganda.  

News of double standards travels far, and it inevitably finds an audience. When Ukrainian students are relocated to other universities while their classmates from Africa are put in detention centers, this feeds the Russian propaganda machine with badly needed ammunition in a war that it is otherwise losing.  

Discriminating between refugees based on their ethnicity provides news agencies such as Sputnik and RT with grist for their disinformation mills. As any observer of Syria knows, Russia is a state with no sympathy for people of color, but such examples play into its hands in the information war. 

Some Western commentators have added fuel to that fire, with journalists describing Ukrainians as civilized Europeans with white skin and blue eyes, unaccustomed to the horrors of war. Commentary like that adds nothing to the story, but it does dehumanize the displacement experiences of black and brown people. 

When I heard these comments, as a Syrian, I could not help but feel insulted, but because of my work, I can see where the problem lies. 

Compared to other conflicts, one reason there has been so much more reporting around Ukraine is that there are so many reporters there, with full access to both sides of the country’s border. This stands in stark contrast not just with other, less-well-covered wars but also with reporters’ ability to tell the stories of people seeking refuge in Europe. It’s much easier to dehumanize people when you can’t bear witness to their experiences. 

In today’s EU, there are large swathes — especially around the bloc’s borders — where reporters cannot go and from which stories cannot be reported. These blind spots keep some of the darker aspects of the EU’s border management out of sight. 

One of these so-called exclusion zones was recently erected in Poland, the country rightfully being feted as a model of compassion today, after Belarus pushed migrants to cross into the country. Others have been put in place in Greece, along its border with Turkey and in Croatia, near Bosnia. 

In these locations, reporters had no freedom of movement, or ability to tell the stories of people risking their lives to enter the EU. Any investigative effort relied on digital evidence gathering and other remote reporting techniques to tell credible stories. 

This kind of reporting is my job, and I have sat with colleagues through countless hours of video livestreams, of footage of shootings and riots pieced together using digital techniques to reconstruct events. During the Poland-Belarus crisis, for example, the forbidden zone meant we could only find out who had died by looking for Facebook posts of mourning relatives. In Croatia, my colleagues had to disguise themselves as local hunters and lay in the bushes for days to provide video evidence of extreme violence against migrants. 

The stories of people on the move should not be so hard to tell. We make choices about whose stories we tell, and these choices reveal our prejudices. Europe should understand that it is this prejudice — not the migrants — that is the weapon it has handed its enemies. And the best defense against it is the type of humanizing, intimate storytelling that has provoked such a welcome wave of sympathy for Ukrainians. 

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