Refugees

Theirs and Ours

March 21, 2022

On February 26, two days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, journalist Charlie D’Agata became visibly emotional as he described scenes of civilians running to bomb shelters, or else fleeing the city altogether, only to be caught in miles-long traffic jams. A senior correspondent for CBS,1CBS is one of the major national television networks in the US. D’Agata had just arrived in Kyiv. Uncomfortable with the level of emotion in his voice but unable to suppress it, he began to explain, if not justify, the intensity of his response. His explanations of what didn’t require explanation, as well as the feelings his audience certainly shared with him, began to turn in a direction he himself had not expected, causing him, as he was speaking, to interrupt himself, as if he had become alarmed at the import of his own words, or at least worried about the reaction they might – and eventually did ­– provoke.

He had just explained that what shocked him and brought him close to tears was not that fact that the world’s third most powerful army had launched a massive invasion of a much smaller and ill-prepared nation. Nor was it the fact that Russia’s massive air force, arsenal of missiles, and long-range artillery were sure to kill a great number of civilians. Only the specification of who was likely to be killed, tied, above all, to their geographical and cultural location, would bring home the magnitude of the tragedy unfolding before him and differentiate it from other apparently similar tragedies:

This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is 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.

He was not alone in his response. Other equally prominent commentators expressed similar sentiments and similar explanations of these sentiments. Daniel Hannan, in an opinion piece in the Telegraph (UK), told his readers that what was most disturbing about the onset of this particular war was that its Ukrainian victims “seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking. War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations. It can happen to anyone.” Finally, Peter Dobbie, a newscaster on Al Jazeera English, spoke of the growing tide of refugees from the Ukraine and what distinguished them from other recent refugee populations:

What’s compelling is, just looking at them, the way they are dressed, these are prosperous…I’m loath to use the expression… middle class people. These are not obviously refugees looking to get away from areas in the Middle East that are still in a big state of war. These are not people trying to get away from areas in North Africa. They look like any European family that you would live next door to.

What is striking about these statements is not that these three journalists have declared that, to their surprise, they cannot help but identify with the victims of Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, and that has made them uncomfortable. Nor is it that they are moved by the hundreds of thousands of refugees heading towards the borders with Poland, Hungary, Moldova, and Romania who will soon scatter throughout Europe. Why would the powerful emotions each of these journalists, felt at the commencement of a terrible war, come as a surprise to them? And why did they feel compelled to explain their reactions? Their responses contain the beginnings of an answer.

The vaguely defined “constant war” presented in the Western media as endemic to “the Muslim world,” prevents us from seeing the victims of these wars, as we see those fleeing the violence of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as innocent.

Throughout the last decade, other waves of refugees have preceded the Ukrainians and have equaled or surpassed them in numbers, just as the wars they fled were at least as destructive as the war in Ukraine. A large number of the earlier refugees were children, and they travelled far greater distances than the 50 miles between Lviv and the Polish border, often with little food or water. No matter how great their suffering, however, they failed to elicit anything like empathy from the vast majority of politicians and journalists. In fact, the greater the numbers of those seeking refuge from the expanding wars in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the greater the antipathy to them across the political spectrum. The governments of some of the wealthiest countries in Europe (and the world) declared that taking in several million refugees would prove ruinous to their economies and was simply not possible. Most journalists accepted this judgment as objective fact to be treated as such.

This in turn allowed Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and other Central and Eastern European countries to claim that if the wealthiest nations could not withstand the influx of hundreds of thousands of destitute families, they could not be expected to do so. The same countries that have together accepted over a million Ukrainian refugees in a ten-day period refused just a few years earlier to allow refugees simply to walk across their territory on the grounds that their passage would involve costs these nations could not bear. Their governments decided it would be more cost effective to divert money from refugee aid to razor wire, electrified fences, surveillance equipment, as well as weapons, tear gas, and up to date crowd control technologies for border guards. The fact that nations beyond Europe, whose per capita income is a third of that of Poland or Hungary, have opened their doors to fleeing Iraqis and Syrians was ignored or declared irrelevant. Lebanon and Jordan have together taken in 4.5 million refugees.

Why then do we not see the same anger or the same sense of being invaded by Ukrainian refugees, one million of whom crossed the borders into the European Union in a single week, many with little more than a change of clothes? Why is there no quibbling over money, no argument between member states about who will pay for the costs the Ukrainian refugees will incur, no warning that their arrival will ruin the European economy? The answer lies in what the journalists cited above were compelled by the power of their emotions to admit and what they would not otherwise have acknowledged: “they seem so like us;” “they look like any European family you would live next door to.” They are similar not just in physical features, but in gestures, dress, and cultural habits and preferences, it is clear that “they are civilized.”  They are not like the others, who are always “looking to get away from areas in the Middle East that are still in a big state of war,” the others who seem so unlike us, to whom we would never choose to live next door and thus who have no legitimate place in “our” Europe. The vaguely defined “constant war” presented in the Western media as endemic to “the Muslim world,” prevents us from seeing the victims of these wars, as we see those fleeing the violence of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as innocent.

The Ukrainian who throws a Molotov cocktail at a Russian tank is celebrated as a hero, while a Palestinian in Gaza throwing a Molotov cocktail at an Israeli tank or wielding a slingshot against heavily armed Israeli soldiers is denounced as a terrorist.

There is something extraordinary about D’Agata’s statement that unlike the formerly peaceful Ukraine – and note that he has forgotten that Ukraine was the site of a war in 2014 – Iraq and Afghanistan have “seen conflict raging for decades”; he, like the others, seems to have forgotten that the decades of war began with the US/NATO invasion of Afghanistan (itself preceded by the Soviet invasion), followed by an occupation which ended only in 2021. The Iraq War began in 2003 with an immensely destructive aerial bombardment of Baghdad by US forces.  Moreover, these invasions, whose victims remain uncounted as a matter of policy, were undertaken on pretexts just as false as Putin’s justifications for the invasion of the Ukraine. From the invasion of Iraq alone came a chain of consequences that led from one disaster to another, for which the US takes no responsibility, and resulted in millions of refugees fleeing the region. The governments and, to a great extent, residents of the NATO countries moved immediately to provide food and shelter for the Ukrainian refugees, and no one demanded a cost/benefit analysis of this aid. Just as immediately, these same countries moved to keep the refugees from US and NATO wars from entering Europe just a few years earlier.

It should be clear now that justifying the exclusion of refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria on economic grounds was little more than a rationalization for less palatable motives. These were initially expressed only in whispers, but soon emerged as state policies, echoed by a legion of media experts: was it not “obvious” that refugees so foreign to the culture of West would be better off among “their own,” that is, in nations like Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iran. The West had offered them the opportunity to embrace the secular universalism of which it was so proud, under the assumption that refugees from “the Muslim world” desired nothing more than to be relieved of the burden of their culture and religion. When it became obvious that these refugees had no intention of divesting themselves of their diverse customs and traditions, they were declared inassimilable. As the German right-wing political party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) put it in their program, “Islam does not belong to (or in) Germany [Der Islam gehört nicht zu Deutschland].” In France, secular universalism, a universalism that demands the exclusion of any visible expression of religion, amounts to a respectable form of racism, a particularism whose defining feature is its commitment to universal values.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has thus rendered visible what was hidden in plain sight: the  previously invisible dividing line separating refugees into those from Europe and the others, those from the “non-European” states – refugees who are like “us,” with whom “we” Europeans can identify, to whom “we” could imagine living next door. On the other side of the divide are refugees who remain other: Muslims from Syria, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Maghreb. This dividing line is not merely conceptual; it has a material existence. It is the division between those in Ukraine for whom trains are sent to ensure their safe arrival in Poland, and those in Afghanistan whose only hope is to cling to departing helicopters, or those fleeing Syria who attempt to cross the Mediterranean in crowded rafts and are often never seen again.

It is also the division between legitimate and illegitimate resistance to the invasions that create refugees in the first place. The Ukrainian who throws a Molotov cocktail at a Russian tank is celebrated as a hero, while a Palestinian in Gaza throwing a Molotov cocktail at an Israeli tank or wielding a slingshot against heavily armed Israeli soldiers is denounced as a terrorist. The Left internationally must expose the racism and Islamophobia that underlie these discrepancies and organize to secure the rights of all those fleeing war and destitution to safe haven. This is the moment to begin building or rebuilding the international solidarity that is at the heart of revolutionary socialism in order to eliminate the institutionalized hatred of the other that increasingly divides the international working class.

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