To Treat All Refugees Like Human Beings, Europe Must Confront Its Racism

The reactions to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine emphasize the exceptionality of this event, its disruptiveness and its potentially massive global implications. World War II is a frequent reference point. Not since then, the understanding seems to be, has Europe seen anything like this. In the Western press in particular, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is frequently compared to Winston Churchill, as the face and voice of the democratic powers resisting the onslaught of a merciless, totalitarian machine

This article is not concerned with the accuracy of the comparisons to World War II but with their affective context. And here, another WW II reference seems useful: Aimé Césaire’s 1950 dictum that what Europe’s “very humanistic, very Christian bourgeois” could not forgive Hitler for “is not the crime in itself, the crime against man, it is not the humiliation of man as such, it is the crime against the white man, the humiliation of the white man, and the fact that he applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the ‘coolies’ of India, and the ‘n******’ of Africa.”

Media comments during the first days of the war disturbingly indicated that a similar sentiment is at play now. Ukrainian refugees were described as “people who look like us” and “prosperous, middle-class people” and “blond and blue-eyed.” One media commentator remarked, “They look like any European family that you would live next door to.” Others have described Ukrainians as “not from developing countries” or as “Europeans leaving in cars that look like ours to save their lives.” The focus often seemed to be not the crime itself, but “the crime against the white man.” (Of course, in each of these cases, refugees of color fleeing Ukraine are erased.)

White journalists could not seem to suppress their horror at people who looked like them, “civilized Europeans,” being subjected to a kind of suffering that they deem unremarkable when experienced by Black and Brown peoples for whom chaos and violence is apparently understood to be a quasi-natural form of being. These white journalists’ comments made two things very clear: Europeanness is still identified with whiteness and Christianity, and the “we” that the statements evoke is equally so.

Those who are not white, Christian or European are expected to share this perspective, accepting the prioritization of white refugees and admiring the armed resistance of Ukrainians without drawing parallels to other struggles against imperial powers. We are expected to take on the white gaze and not bring up Palestine, Somalia or Afghanistan (or else be accused of whataboutism). Even as Russian war crimes in Syria are regularly mentioned when Ukraine’s potential fate is debated, the German minister of the interior spoke for many when she declared: “This is a completely different situation than 2015. These are war refugees and Europe for the first time speaks with one voice. That also means that the borders have to be open.”

The starkness of the double standard is hard to overlook and has received some attention. Nonetheless, there is a marked hesitancy to draw the obvious conclusions: Is this about racism? Impossible to say, further inquiry would be necessary, but there is no time for that now. Let’s just leave it at asking for more tolerance toward everyone. This inability or at least unwillingness to name racism as what it is aligns with Europe’s longstanding claims to “colorblindness.” While the continent invented race and has ongoingly used it as a primary tool for the implementation of new political orders (within the continent itself and abroad), many Europeans continue to believe that race matters everywhere but there. The effects of this denial are evident in a persistent crisis narrative that frames Europe as an island of stability and prosperity, surrounded by chaotic regions: A Middle East claimed to be succumbing to radical Islam, a supposedly permanently underdeveloped and war-torn Africa and an eternally aggressive Russian empire threatening the continent’s east. Within this narrative, the crises originating in these regions are portrayed as reaching an unsuspecting and unprepared Europe, which needs to find imminent solutions for problems originating elsewhere, generously providing help in response to issues it is not to blame for. The current war is treated as another unexpected crisis, impossible to foresee. (Notwithstanding that it began in 2014 with the Russian annexation of Crimea).

This story is convenient, but it ignores Europe’s culpability not only for allowing the situation to escalate to this point, but also for creating many of the conflict’s sources through the ongoing neocolonial structures of a racial capitalism favoring Europe’s economic interests. The narrative is convincing not because it is true, but because it builds on a larger hegemonic story: that of Europe as the origin and natural home of human rights, democracy and equality. The two most powerful nations within the European Union (EU) — Germany and France — over the last years each saw government plans to erase the word “race” from their constitutions’ protected categories. This was meant as a symbolic gesture both affirming that biological races do not exist and that Europe does not have an issue with structural racism. However, many of the responses to the war in Ukraine have made plain the obvious reality that race — as a social construct or political concept — is clearly still relevant in continental Europe.

The quick and unified EU reaction to the Russian invasion proves that it is logistically and politically possible to accommodate a huge and fast-growing number of refugees without disruptions, without closing the borders, without mass anti-immigrant protests or hundreds of arson attacks on refugee centers — as long as the refugees do not challenge the existing racial order, which requires Europe to maintain its whiteness, if not in reality than at least in ideology. The continent’s current generosity is no sign of hope for those thousands stranded at its borders who have the wrong color, religion or place of birth.

On the contrary, the current development shows that Europe ruthlessly chooses who to help. There seems widespread agreement that “we cannot take care of the whole world, but we need to take care of our own.” And people of color are not deemed part of that community of one’s own — notwithstanding colonial narratives that claimed more connections between French and Algerians than French and Ukrainians, and notwithstanding that it is no farther from Tunis to Rome than from Kyiv to Warsaw.

The consensus following 2015 in mainstream political and media discourses, including a significant part of the left, was that fear and anger about the presence of refugees was understandable and justified, and that addressing these concerns should take precedence over the needs of the refugees themselves. This has since happened through the widespread implementation of illegal pushbacks. Rather than allowing them to apply for asylum once they entered Europe, refugees are pushed back out, into Belarus or onto the Mediterranean and back to Libya. This practice happens with direct and indirect support of the EU and costs the lives of dozens of (non-white, non-European) people every day. And it continues unabated. While many Europeans rushed to the Ukrainian border to help transport people to Poland and Germany, they would be committing a criminal offense should they pick up someone fleeing from Afghanistan instead. In 2022, the mainstream consensus that the accommodation of fleeing Ukrainians is central to the very defense of freedom and democracy led to the first-time application of an EU law established in 2001, after the wars in the former Yugoslavia, which allows for the unbureaucratic support of refugees.

This sends a clear message to those refugees for whose fate Europe does not feel responsible — even though it often bears much of the blame for their plight: There is nothing you can do to receive the same treatment. This also sends a clear message to Europeans of color: You will never really belong. You will always be less European. You are not “one of us,” no matter how long you and your ancestors have been here. Your presence is preliminary — and certainly does not give you the right to treat people who look like you preferentially when crisis strikes. That right belongs to real Europeans.

This distinction has life-and-death consequences at Europe’s borders: the evocation of shared values that allows for the accommodation of millions of Ukrainian refugees because they are assumed to be white, Christian and “civilized” also confirms the incompatibility of hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees — or even that of a few thousand African, South Asian and Middle Eastern students fleeing Ukraine. Without the immediate, tireless efforts of Black organizations, which built an extensive support network within days, many people of color fleeing Ukraine would not have made it safely to Europe (or would have been deported right away).

At this point, it is not enough to wonder if Europe might not be as colorblind as it claims. That this is the case has been proven again and again, most recently when Black refugees were kept off buses and trains and Roma were refused passage into the EU when fleeing Ukraine. Open borders are maintained by conducting so-called random controls, which — as many reports confirm — systematically target people of color, who then are pressured into applying for asylum. This application in most cases has virtually no chance of succeeding and is not necessary to be granted a temporary right to stay (three months for those with student visa), but it allows for the applicants’ incarceration and speedy deportation. Pointing this out is far from whataboutism. In times of crisis, there is a routine demand to focus on the essential and put other questions on hold. But in times of crisis, racism and inequality have the most impact, we saw it during the pandemic and we are seeing it now.

Global crises cannot be kept out of Europe anymore — in 2008, the financial collapse of Greece challenged the continent’s stability, the refugee crisis of 2015 showed how quickly European nations could return to closing their internal borders, 2020 brought Brexit and the pandemic and now, in 2022, Europe faces what many see as its biggest challenge since the end of World War II. The increasing global instability has its root in a model of prosperity at the expense of non-Europeans that is not sustainable anymore, even for Europe. Nonetheless, the continent offers nothing but the same old answers. Much has been made of the Russian attack as a wake-up call, forcing Europe — and in particular its economic and political powerhouse, Germany — away from appeasement toward the will to defend democracy with force if necessary.

In truth, the current conflict is, in part, a product of this model and may well further enshrine it: Europe escalates its militarization. (Defense spending had already been growing faster in Europe than anywhere else, and while Germany just doubled its military budget, it already had the 7th largest globally.) Stock prices of defense companies are soaring while investments in renewable energy continue to lag. And ironically, their proximity to Ukraine and willingness to accommodate millions of refugees has stabilized the position of the authoritarian and virulently anti-immigrant regimes of Hungary and Poland within the European Union.

Meanwhile, NATO has left Afghanistan in chaos, the European Commission has blocked even a temporary suspension of COVID vaccine patents, and the war on Ukraine and the sanctions on Russia will have a devastating impact on nations like Egypt, Bangladesh and Yemen. None of this sounds much like heeding a wakeup call. If rising numbers of desperate refugees from the Global South encounter a heavily fortified Europe unwilling to prioritize global stability and sustainability over endless wealth accumulation, it does not take much to imagine how our common future will play out — unless there is a drastic shift away from a shared imaginary whiteness as ticket for survival and toward Europe taking responsibility for shared histories.