Why is Europe suddenly so interested in helping refugees?

The same Europeans who wanted to ‘burn their old blankets rather than give them to Middle Eastern refugees’ are now collecting donations for the Ukrainians.

Ukrainian refugees seen as they cross the Polish border
A Polish border guard assists refugees from Ukraine as they arrive in Poland at the Korczowa border crossing, Poland, February 26, 2022 [File: Czarek Sokolowski/AP Photo]

After Russia began its all-out invasion of Ukraine on February 24, news of the violence visited upon the people of Ukraine spread quickly across Europe, and triggered massive waves of solidarity.

European countries took swift action to offer support to Ukrainians escaping Russian aggression. The European Union agreed in record time to activate the Temporary Protection Directive (TPD) to help people fleeing the war. The TPD became applicable on March 4, offering immediate protection and a clear legal status for up to three years to millions of people. Even far-right, proudly anti-immigration and anti-refugee politicians from EU member states in Central and Eastern Europe started advocating for Ukrainian refugees. Citizens from across the EU, and from my native Czech Republic, started travelling to Ukraine’s borders to pick up refugees and offer them accommodation in their homes.

As a European and Czech citizen, I felt proud watching this outpouring of support for Ukrainians in need. Yet, as a scholar who has been researching migration and violence along the EU’s borders for many years, I could not help but ask: Why are Europeans feeling so much empathy for refugees now? Why did they not care when others, equally in need, were at the EU’s borders?

These questions may seem provocative, and even unnecessary, when millions of people are fleeing potential war crimes. Indeed, all efforts to support victims of Russia’s brutal invasion should be supported. However, there is also a need to reflect on the nature of acts of solidarity that seem to be specific to this moment in history, and to this set of refugees, if we are to prevent Europe’s humanitarian responses from being shaped by racism and ethnic discrimination.

Indeed, Europe’s response to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, made it clear that racism – along with other factors – has helped shape the refugee policies of the nations on the eastern border of the EU.

Hungary, Croatia and Poland, for example, have been militarising their borders to stop refugees from the Middle East and beyond from entering their territory (and the EU) since 2015. The European Commission gave these states millions of euros so that they can enhance their efforts to intercept so-called “irregular migrants”. This tough surveillance and interception regime all but closed Europe’s borders to vulnerable people on the move, and left many of them with no legal route to safety. Those affected by these tough border policies included asylum seekers from Syria escaping chemical attacks and bombings by the Syrian regime and Russian forces, people from Afghanistan fleeing the Taliban, and Yemenis running from the brutal civil war in their country, among many others.

As a researcher and activist, I met countless such refugees on the EU’s borders. They told me that every time they tried to enter the EU to seek asylum, they have been denied legal assistance and pushed over the border into Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina or another non-EU state. Many of them recounted how EU border patrol officers physically attacked them, tortured them, sexually abused them and destroyed their possessions or stole their money to hinder their future border crossing attempts.

One of the refugees who suffered abuse at the hands of EU border officers was Mahmoud from Syria. He told me how he was physically attacked in Croatia before being pushed back into Bosnia: “They [border patrols in Croatia] made us sit down and they asked me: ‘Where are you from?’ I said to him: ‘I am from Syria.’ He answered: ‘What is the matter with Syria?!’, and he started beating, beating, beating.”

Similar violence occurred at the border between Poland and Belarus more recently, in 2021. When Belarus pushed displaced people from the Middle East towards the Polish border, the EU swiftly closed the passage, leaving hundreds in grave danger.

On February 23, 2022, just a day before the first Ukrainian refugees started leaving the country, 26-year-old Ahmed al-Shawafi from Yemen died of hypothermia at the closed Polish-Belarusian border.

All this stands in stark contrast to the way these very same states responded to the crisis in Ukraine. When the Ukrainians found themselves under attack, they not only immediately abandoned their restrictive “security first” border policies but did everything they could to make it easier for civilians to reach safety.

Just like European states, European citizens also responded to Ukrainian refugees very differently than other refugees who tried to cross their countries’ borders in the past.

Indeed, many people who previously refused to engage with refugees, and condemned anyone advocating for their rights, personally travelled to the border areas to welcome Ukrainians in their countries.

When I spoke about violence against refugees from the Middle East, Asia and Africa at the EU’s borders, I was publicly slammed in the Czech media. Many Czech citizens accused me of “helping illegal migration” and told me that I “deserve to be beaten up”. Even my relatives told me: “Why are you helping them [non-European refugees] if none of us wants them here [in Europe]?”.

Yet, the very same people are now welcoming Ukrainian refugees with open arms and participating in refugee aid programmes to help them. Even my Czech neighbours, who once told me that they would “rather burn our old blankets than give them to non-European migrants”, are now doing everything they can to help Ukrainians feel at home in Czechia.

There are several interconnecting reasons behind this sudden change in the way European citizens and states are responding to refugees.

Many Central and Eastern Europeans are empathising with Ukrainian refugees because the images of Russian tanks in Ukrainian cities are reminding them of their countries’ own histories. My family members in Czechia told me that seeing civilians in Kyiv trying to stop Russian tanks reminded them of the 1968 Russian invasion of erstwhile Czechoslovakia.

People across Europe also feel personally affected by the war in Ukraine because of the country’s geographical proximity, fearing that the conflict there may any minute spill over to their countries. Therefore, they are celebrating the Ukrainians not only for protecting their own future, but the future of Europe. This is true, especially for those in Eastern European and Baltic states who have more reason than those in the West to fear Russian aggression.

Ukrainians have also been part of Central and Eastern European societies as workers for years. And there are strong social and economic links between Ukraine and the rest of Eastern Europe. Many in countries like Poland, Hungry and the Czech Republic personally know Ukrainians and, as a result, find it easier to sympathise with their country’s plight.

There is, however, one more disturbing factor that has undoubtedly played an important role in shaping Europe’s response to Ukrainian refugees: skin colour.

The same Europeans who want to burn their old blankets rather than give them to Middle Eastern refugees are collecting donations for the Ukrainians not only because the violence they are escaping is much more familiar and near, but also because they – as some journalists and politicians openly pointed out – have “white skin and blond hair”. They are willing to help and protect Ukrainians because they believe they too are “civilised” like them and come from a “European culture”. All this is, of course, in stark contrast with their treatment of other refugees.

The tragedy in Ukraine and the consequent refugee flows proved what we always suspected: In Europe, our desire to help other human beings is conditioned by our imaginations about “Us” and “Them”. This logic determines who is welcomed as a refugee, and who is pushed back and excluded as an “irregular migrant”.

And this is not exclusive to those fleeing Syria, Afghanistan or Yemen due to conflict. Black and brown migrants who come to Europe to work or study are also subjected to the same treatment. Indeed, we saw how Indian and African students and workers fleeing Ukraine have been treated at Europe’s borders.

It is impossible to deny that skin phenotype and culture have an effect on refugees’ journeys and fates – those who look “European” find solidarity and safety on this continent, but others often see exclusion and violence.

So as we show solidarity with Ukrainians – and we indeed should do everything and anything we can to help them – we should also reflect on how our societies and states treat refugees who happen to not be so white and so European.

We need to remember that the “Us vs Them” mentality that made Europe turn its back on so many in desperate need is also the root cause of so many conflicts that displace people. If we do not use this moment to reflect on what guides our humanitarian responses, we will only end up feeding the far right and allowing their not so humanitarian policies and politics to guide our response to future humanitarian crises.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.