Europe's different approach to Ukrainian and Syrian refugees draws accusations of racism

While the warm welcome given by EU countries to refugees from Ukraine has been applauded, it has also highlighted stark differences in treatment given to migrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa, particularly Syrians who came in 2015.

Some of African, Middle Eastern and South Asian descent fleeing Ukraine are struggling to cross borders

People fleeing Ukraine wait to board a bus in Medyka, Poland, bound for a refugee centre in Przemysl on Monday. As more and more people scrambled to flee Ukraine, several reports emerged of Nigerians, Indians and Lebanese getting stuck at borders. (Bryan Woolston/Reuters)

They file into neighbouring countries by the hundreds of thousands — refugees from Ukraine clutching children in one arm, belongings in the other. And they're being heartily welcomed, by leaders of countries such as Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Moldova and Romania.

But while the hospitality has been applauded, it has also highlighted stark differences in treatment given to migrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa, particularly Syrians who came in 2015. Some among them say the language they are hearing from leaders now welcoming refugees has been disturbing and hurtful.

"These are not the refugees we are used to; these people are Europeans," Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov told journalists earlier this week. "These people are intelligent. They are educated people.... This is not the refugee wave we have been used to, people we were not sure about their identity, people with unclear pasts, who could have been even terrorists.

"In other words, there is not a single European country now which is afraid of the current wave of refugees."

'Racism and Islamophobia'

Syrian journalist Okba Mohammad says that statement "mixes racism and Islamophobia."

Mohammad fled his hometown of Daraa in 2018. He now lives in Spain and with other Syrian refugees founded a bilingual magazine in Arabic and Spanish. He described a sense of déjà vu as he followed events in Ukraine.

He also had sheltered underground to protect himself from Russian bombs. He also struggled to board an overcrowded bus to flee his town. He also was separated from his family at the border.

Indian women wait for transport at the Medyka pedestrian border in Poland. Many refugees in eastern Europe are from India, Nigeria and other African countries and were working or studying in Ukraine when the war broke out. (Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty Images)

"A refugee is a refugee, whether European, African or Asian," Mohammad said.

The change in tone of some of Europe's leaders who in the past have expressed among the most extreme anti-migration views in the bloc has been striking. They have shifted from "We aren't going to let anyone in" to "We're letting everyone in."

Those comments were made only three months apart by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. The first quote is from statements he made in December when he was addressing migrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa. The second from comments made this week addressing people from Ukraine.

Some journalists, too, are being criticized for descriptions of Ukrainian refugees.

A refugee fleeing from Ukraine stands with her dog at Nyugati station in Budapest, Hungary, on Monday. (Marton Monus/Reuters)

"These are prosperous, middle-class people," an Al Jazeera English television presenter said. "These are not obviously refugees trying to get away from areas in the Middle East ... in North Africa. They look like any European family that you would live next door to."

The channel issued an apology saying the comments were insensitive and irresponsible.

CBS news apologized after one of its correspondents said the conflict in Kyiv wasn't "like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European" city.

Reports of Nigerians, Indians and Lebanese stuck at borders

As more and more people scrambled to flee Ukraine, several reports emerged of residents, including Nigerians, Indians and Lebanese, getting stuck at borders. Unlike Ukrainians, many non-Europeans need visas to get into neighbouring countries. Embassies around the world were scrambling to assist their citizens in getting through.

Videos shared on social media under the hashtag #AfricansinUkraine allegedly showed African students being kept from boarding trains out of Ukraine to make space for Ukrainians.

The African Union said Monday that everyone has the right to cross international borders to flee conflict. The continental body said "reports that Africans are singled out for unacceptable dissimilar treatment would be shockingly racist and in breach of international law."

It urged all countries to "show the same empathy and support to all people fleeing war notwithstanding their racial identity."

PHOTOS | Ukrainians fleeing war face freezing conditions, days-long lineups at borders:

Polish UN Ambassador Krzysztof Szczerski said at the General Assembly on Monday that assertions of race- or religion-based discrimination at Poland's border are "a complete lie and a terrible insult to us."

"The nationals of all countries who suffered from Russian aggression or whose life is at risk can seek shelter in my country," he said.

Szczerski said people of some 125 nationalities had been admitted to Poland on Monday morning from Ukraine, including Ukrainian, Uzbek, Nigerian, Indian, Moroccan, Pakistani, Afghan, Belarusian, Algerian and more. Overall, he said, 300,000 people have arrived during the crisis.

Hostility toward Syrian refugees in Europe

When over a million people crossed into Europe in 2015, support for refugees fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan was relatively high at first. There were also moments of hostility — such as when a Hungarian camerawoman was filmed kicking and possibly tripping migrants along the country's border with Serbia.

Still, back then, Germany's then chancellor, Angela Merkel, famously said "Wir schaffen das" ("We can do it"), and the Swedish prime minister urged citizens to "open your hearts" to refugees.

Volunteers gathered on Greek beaches to rescue exhausted families crossing on boats from Turkey. In Germany, they were greeted with applause at train and bus stations.

But the warm welcome soon ended after EU nations disagreed over how to share responsibility, with the main pushback coming from Central European countries such as Hungary and Poland. One by one, governments across Europe toughened migration and asylum policies, earning the nickname "Fortress Europe."

Just last week, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees denounced the increasing "violence and serious human rights violations" across European borders, specifically pointing the finger at Greece.

Last year, hundreds of people, mainly from Iraq and Syria but also from Africa, were left stranded in a no man's land between Poland and Belarus as the EU accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of luring thousands of foreigners to his country's borders in retaliation for sanctions. At the time, Poland blocked access to aid groups and journalists. More than 15 people died in the cold.

Polish military police near Kuznica guarding the border against an influx of migrants from the Middle East and Africa who were trying to cross over from Belarus on Nov. 11, 2021. The reception for Ukrainians fleeing war in their home country has been starkly different, say observers. (Handout/Irek Dorozanski/DWOT/Reuters)

'Deeply embedded racism'

Meanwhile, in the Mediterranean, the European Union has been criticized for paying Libya to intercept migrants trying to reach its shores, helping to return them to abusive and often deadly detention centres.

"There is no way to avoid questions around the deeply embedded racism of European migration policies when we see how different the reactions of national governments and EU elites are to the people trying to reach Europe," Lena Karamanidou, an independent migration and asylum researcher in Greece, wrote on Twitter.

Jeff Crisp, a former head of policy, development and evaluation at UNHCR, agreed that race and religion influenced treatment of refugees.

"Countries that had been really negative on the refugee issue and have made it very difficult for the EU to develop coherent refugee policy over the last decade, suddenly come forward with a much more positive response," Crisp said.

WATCH | Yuliya Sotska describes how she and her family fled explosions in Vasylkiv: 

Ukrainian-Canadian family flees explosions near Kyiv

2 years ago
Duration 7:04
Featured VideoUkrainian-Canadian Yuliya Sotska describes how her family fled their home in Vasylkiv, outside Kyiv, to escape explosions and take shelter farther west. She says she's grateful to Canada and hopes for peace. 'Putin needs to be stopped,' she said.

Much of Orban's opposition to migration is based on his belief that to "preserve cultural homogeneity and ethnic homogeneity," Hungary should not accept refugees from different cultures and different religions.

Members of Poland's conservative nationalist ruling party have echoed Orban's thinking, saying they want to protect Poland's identity as a Christian nation and guarantee its security.

These arguments have not been applied to their Ukrainian neighbours, with whom they share historical and cultural ties. Parts of Ukraine today were once also parts of Poland and Hungary. Over one million Ukrainians live and work in Poland and hundreds of thousands more are scattered across Europe. Some 150,000 ethnic Hungarians also live in Western Ukraine, many of whom have Hungarian passports.

People clamour to board a bus bound for a refugee centre in Przemysl, Poland, on Monday. (Bryan Woolston/Reuters)

"It is not completely unnatural for people to feel more comfortable with people who come from nearby, who speak the [similar] language or have a [similar] culture," Crisp said.

In Poland, Ruchir Kataria, an Indian volunteer, told The Associated Press on Sunday that his compatriots got stuck on the Ukrainian side of the border crossing into Medyka, Poland. In Ukraine, they were initially told to go to Romania, hundreds of kilometres away, he said, after they had already made long journeys on foot to the border, not eating for three days. Finally, on Monday they got through.