If displaced people look like you and share a similar culture, is it fair to offer more help to ease their suffering than to those who are ‘different?’
This was a question asked by reporters at a recent forum on the Ukraine refugee crisis organized by Ethnic Media Services, which is an organization that works to enhance the capacity of ethnic media outlets to inform and engage diverse audiences on pivotal public issues.
When war broke out on 25th February in Ukraine, the stream of panicked refugees I saw on television evoked a sudden memory of stories I had heard from my parents and family about their flight from their homeland during the Partition of British India. They left their ancestral homes and fled overnight, in a manner identical to Ukrainian refuges today. The images from Ukraine showing floods of people, with their entire world collapsed into a rickety suitcase or two, terrified and exposed to the elements, walking for hours to get to safety while cradling distressed toddlers or helping elderly parents, are an eerie recreation of events on the Indian subcontinent, 70 years ago.
Even though the two catastrophes are separated by a chasm in time, Ukraine mirrors the Partition refugee crisis in heart rending ways. In both cases, no one could predict the extent of barbaric bloodshed and the avalanche of suffering that would be suddenly unleashed on ordinary, everyday people.
When Egos Decide the Fate of Countries
In Ukraine too, as in the aftermath of Partition, the deep camaraderie of communities which had shared a common language and culture for generations was swept away in the bloody debris of war, leaving a black mass of hatred and suspicion.
And then as now, the lives of millions of people depended on the whims and egos of just two or three men. The big male egos who decided the fate of the country during Partition were those of Mountbatten, Nehru and Jinnah. In Ukraine, we are down to a single, monstrous ego.
However, 70 years later, there is a big difference in the kind of support Ukrainian refugees are receiving in terms of aid and resettlement. While Partition refugees struggled in makeshift camps or depended on relatives, there has been a mobilization around the world in support of those displaced by the war in Ukraine. A major reason is the kind of instant communication we have today, which flashes images of traumatized refugees across our screens, almost constantly. There are also global organizations like UNHCR, which was set up in 1950 to deal with the millions displaced by the Second World War.
Refugees Are Increasing in Number
A sad fact is that refugees have only increased in number and, as of today, there are over 84 million displaced persons, worldwide, applying for asylum in almost every country on the globe. And the numbers of Ukrainian refugees are the largest seen in Europe since World War 2.
“The EU has thrown open its doors to this massive influx,” stated Natalia Bogdan, Associate Director of Migration Policy Institute’s International Program. “This flow of people is different because it consists mostly of women and children.”
“There is a temporary protection directive for all Ukrainians fleeing the war, which allows them to stay in any member nation of the EU for a period of one year, which can be extended to three. This order gives them a baseline of residential rights across the EU.”
What About Refugees of Color?
Bogdan’s description of the massive galvanization of Europe for Ukraine caused reporters at the forum to point out the elephant in the room— the speed of the response for Ukrainian refugees versus others across the world: those who fled the war in Syria, for example. The temporary protective order allowing Ukrainians to stay in any EU country for a year came almost immediately, compared to visas for Syrian refugees. Denmark has offered to take in large numbers of Ukrainians, while they are simultaneously stripping Syrian refugees of their residency permits, and the official reason being given is that parts of Syria are now deemed ‘safe.’
Reports of Indian and African students being pushed aside at the border were mentioned, as was the long wait that Afghan refugees have to obtain EU residency permits.
Bogdan acknowledged the differences, and stated that some of the policies are, unfortunately, politically motivated. “However, settling every refugee successfully is always the goal of all the professional organizations on the ground. Actually, the media backlash has been helpful, since its caused people to work harder to be fair and rectify matters,” she said, once again proving how important good journalism is.
Where do refugees go?
Manuel Ortiz, a journalist at the forum who was reporting from Lviv (which is the first stop for many refugees enroute to Poland), described the difficult conditions and lack of food and water on the journey.
“After the terrible conditions the refugees endured fleeing bombardment, it was heartening to see ordinary people in Poland and Moldova opening their doors and housing complete strangers,” he said.
He added, “Usually, most refugees want to stay in areas where they have family or where the culture is familiar. These are areas close to their country—we expect a chunk of Ukrainian refugees to end up in Poland or Moldova. These countries may well end up with “refugee fatigue” because they are going to be overwhelmed. There may also be a backlash against the refugees if the war drags on and the EU reaches capacity. That’s when the US may be required to step in and provide more support.”
Refugee profiling at the US border
Krish O’Mara, the CEO of Lutheran Refugee and Migration Services, addressed the controversial issue of refugee profiling at the US border.
“There is a much stronger resistance to refugees from the southern border and Mexico, and much more willingness to extend support to Ukrainian refugees, for example,” she said.
She described cases of Ukrainians traveling to Mexico in order to cross the border into the US and being turned back several times. “There is intense immigration politics involved here and the mid-terms are close, so it will affect how policies on refugees and immigrants are drafted and implemented.”
A final reflection on the fact
The only silver lining of the Ukrainian crisis has been the realization that anyone, anywhere can become a refugee, and the world is finally coming to grips with the extent of the global problem.
Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.