By Rohan Sinha (’23) | April 8, 2022
When Russian forces began their invasion of Ukraine in late February, the international community hastened to demonstrate solidarity with the Ukrainian people. The day after Russia began its invasion, Paris’s Eiffel Tower was lit with Ukraine’s national colors. Protesters around the world, from Buenos Aires to Istanbul, gathered to express solidarity with Ukraine and condemn Russia’s military actions. But unfortunately, these heartwarming examples of solidarity are marred with underlying issues.
While reporting in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, CBS News senior foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata stated on air, “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. You know, this is a relatively civilized, relatively European…city where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that [an invasion]’s going to happen.” D’Agata soon apologized for these remarks, but they still reflect a common pattern in media coverage: Western media often associates whiteness with peace and “civilization,” while dehumanizing nonwhite populations and minimizing their suffering.
These racist attitudes are dangerous because they have created a double standard in government policy. For example, as a result of the Syrian Civil War, Europe received an influx of refugees from Syria in 2015 and 2016. Many migrants traveled to Western Europe through Austria. However, many Austrians favored limitations on the arrival of Syrian refugees, leading to the election of conservative politicians who persisted in pushing back against refugee policy.
The past month has seen a similar situation unfold: with war in Ukraine, millions of refugees have left the country and relocated to other locations in Europe to seek asylum. In fact, many migration experts expect more movement to Western Europe now than in 2015. However, Ukrainian refugees have been received more warmly: the Austrian chancellor has indicated a willingness to “take in refugees.”
These differing responses coincide with the narratives spread by politicians about migrants. The influx of refugees in 2015 was dubbed a “migration crisis” in Europe, with an emphasis on the supposed dangers Syrian refugees may bring to the continent. However, the aid to Ukrainian refugees has been framed differently, as an attempt to show solidarity with Ukraine. These contrasting narratives highlight the importance of fair media coverage: unequal reporting has the power to shape government policies that value white lives more than the lives of people of color.
People of color have also accused some Ukrainian authorities of racism too. CBS News reports that African individuals alleged that Ukrainian authorities hindered their crossing of the Poland-Ukraine border, while allowing white Ukrainians to leave the war-torn country. According to these allegations, the treatment that Ukrainian refugees individually receive often depends on their skin color.
It is vital now more than ever that the international community express solidarity with the Ukrainian people and condemns the atrocities committed by the Russian military. At the same time, those in positions of power must ensure that this solidarity is inclusive of all Ukrainians. Similarly, the international community should extend its empathy to all refugees fleeing violence. Solidarity with Ukraine must originate from a place of compassion and humility.