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.