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August 16, 2022



Ukrainians are not the same as Syrians: On double standards for refugees, Czech aid, and breaking the rules while doing good

16.7.2022 11:28
Romani refugees from Ukraine who have been rendered homeless by the Czech system and are living at the main railway station in Prague - May 2022 (PHOTO: Lukáš Cirok)
Romani refugees from Ukraine who have been rendered homeless by the Czech system and are living at the main railway station in Prague - May 2022 (PHOTO: Lukáš Cirok)

European society has responded to the crisis of the refugees coming from Ukraine in a manner that is all but "impressive". When approximately 10 million Ukrainians fled their homes (the vast majority of whom found refuge elsewhere on Ukrainian state territory), they knew that if they crossed the border they would be cared for properly in the European Union (EU).  

Central European states especially expressed their support in places where, given their ongoing refusal to receive refugees from Syria, essentially nobody anticipated that they would do so. For the first time since 2001, the Temporary Protection Directive has been activated in practice, and in the countries of the EU such protection has been facilitated, which in the Czech case means residence permits for those waiting for the war to end.

Refugees from Ukraine, therefore, have not just been accepted by EU states, but also have been afforded the opportunity to settle temporarily thanks to their authorizations for residency, legal opportunities for work, and their health insurance and social security being covered by the Czech state. Generally speaking, an approach that is inclusive has been established for refugees from Ukraine and, as could have been anticipated, rules that otherwise are strictly adhered to are currently being broken.

For example, each asylum-seeker is supposed to register for asylum in the first EU country he or she enters after exiting their country and entering EU territory, but that rule has not been upheld. Refugees from Ukraine have been able to cross the border into Poland and then not register for asylum until they reached the Czech Republic or some other country, so they have had a free opportunity to select a destination according to their needs and wishes.

Ukrainians aren't Syrians

An approach that was inclusive toward refugees was recorded in European history both before and after the Second World War, when refugees from Czechoslovakia and other countries fled to Western Europe. A similarly inclusive approach was also apparent during the crisis in Yugoslavia in 1991 when people from the Balkans fled into Central and Western Europe.

Refugees from Syria, however, are in a different historical situation - European states have not managed to provide Syrians with such opportunities despite the fact that temporary protection naturally already existed and could have been awarded to them on this occasion. The states that currently are the most agile when it comes to calling for the reception of refugees from Ukraine, the Czech Republic and Poland, have both actively and purposefully avoided accepting refugees from Syria. 

Refugees from Syria deserve at least the same attention as is currently being paid to the Ukrainians, though. It is remarkable that both Czech and Polish society have diverged from their usual xenophobia and are accepting refugees from Ukraine (even despite how large the refugee waves are). 

However, it is necessary to add that refugees from Ukraine have a certain economic, political and social potential based on the perception of Ukrainians in general, which differentiates their position from that of the Syrians. Above all, the entry of Ukrainians onto the labor market is perceived as a benefit, and therefore they allegedly are not burdening European Union Member State welfare systems.

However, such a perception is just an attempt to legitimize existing attitudes toward Ukrainians, because refugees from Syria could also be perceived in a similar way. This idea of employing Ukrainians is also associated with the fact that Ukrainians have long been perceived as cheap labor.

Another benefit to the Ukrainians is that groups of smugglers are less apparently involved in the case of refugees from Ukraine, which means illegal or quasi-legal organizations offering opportunities to cross the borders of European states are not associated with refugees from Ukraine. This is important because the mobility of refugees from Ukraine is not being illegalized as it is in the case of other groups of refugees, nor is it associated with irregular migration, organized crime or terrorism. 

Refugees from Ukraine, at the same time, are able to use their knowledge of foreign languages, and in the countries into which they are immigrating they already have relatives, or there are diaspora organizations facilitating their involvement in social structures, which can make their integration less of a risky endeavor. Refugees from Ukraine are therefore generally perceived as better able to integrate.

Like fleeing Czechoslovakia

Both culturally and ethnically, Ukrainians are part of the family of European nations, they are Christians and, last but not least, they consume European products. They had their own experience with communism and, especially in western Ukraine, profile themselves as strongly anti-communist, and thus tangentially also as anti-Russian and anti-Soviet in their attitudes, which accords with the experiences of many EU nations.

The political reactions in this case are also coming from this perception of a common identity. This is not one that is in any way natural, of course, but that has been created by the developments of history.

This situation makes it possible to understand why it is exactly in Poland that so many refugees from Ukraine have taken shelter, but it also clarifies to us why the Government of Poland was reluctant to receive even a single refugee from Syria - no such commonly-crafted experience or identity exists in the case of the Syrians. This fact also makes it possible for us to understand why the citizens of Poland are providing accommodation to Ukrainians in their own households with such self-sacrifice, or why they are altruistically, voluntarily driving these refugees from Ukraine in their own cars from the border to the interior. 

These are exactly the foundations on which European societies have built their solidarity. Instead of an attempt to advocate for humanity in the universalized sense here, we find a solidarity based on a closeness that is maintained culturally, ethnically, historically and socially.

This aids the refugees from Ukraine, of course, but on the other hand it limits opportunities to assist others who could be given the same options but never do get our help. The Czechoslovaks who fled the communist regime for Germany were also perceived as individuals with democratic, liberal sensibilities, and that facilitated their acceptance in western countries (provided they were pro-western refugees who could not reconcile themselves to the communist orientation of their country and who allegedly were therefore inclined toward values that were western).   

On the basis of ethnicity

Currently, the refugees from Ukraine are also presenting themselves as Europeans with democratic, pro-EU mindsets, and that is facilitating their acceptance by the countries of the EU - it is doing so even to such an extent that those extremist, populist political parties who routinely espouse intolerance of refugees have absolutely gone silent, or have begun to express solidarity with the Ukrainians. In other words, an attitude that is inclusive, unambiguously so, toward the refugees from Ukraine is more than apparent, thanks to which "rule violations" can be ignored, such as neglecting the necessity to register for asylum in the first country into which one arrives after crossing the border. 

However, even more conventional rules are being broken than that. On the basis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from 1948, the necessity of assessing each application for refugee status individually was established, and the basic principle for acceding to such a request is supposed to be a fear of either persecution or repression by the authorities of the state (as the agreement was later adjusted to specify) that is justified (no matter how ambivalent that might seem to us). 

Assessing applications for refugee status, therefore, should purely happen on an individual basis, but currently refugee status is being awarded here based on ethnicity, as a group. This situation is especially evident when we compare how the African and Indian students who fled Ukraine are being dealt with, or how the Romani refugees from Ukraine are being handled. 

Those people are also fleeing the war on Ukraine, so they should have the same opportunities as ethnic Ukrainians. African and Indian students and Romani people, of course, experienced significant problems after the beginning of this current phase of the war, and not just with crossing the border - the attitude of inclusion is not being applied to them because they are different, and not just ethnically. 

Generally speaking, however, the awarding of group refugee status on the basis of a closeness that is cultural, ethnic, historical or social is not exceptional, because refugees elsewhere have been given an opportunity for protection as a group because of their ethnic (or other) identity, whether they be the Sudanese fleeing into Uganda or Rohingyas heading to Bangladesh. Such awarding of group protection differs in how it is legitimized, but what is always present is that component of a closeness with the receiving society, one that is culturally, ethnically, historically or socially constructed. 

Russia, the tombstone of the USSR 

I would highlight one aspect of that closeness here, and that is ideological proximity, which I consider quite significant. Refugees from Ukraine are fleeing from the actions of a regime that is rhetorically associated with the Soviet Union, and not just by European states, but by the regime itself. 

The President of the Russian Federation has himself unambiguously referred to the breakup of the Soviet Union as a great geopolitical mistake, even alleging that it was Lenin who made Ukraine. By doing so, he is confirming connections with the history of the Soviet Union, and it can be considered that the history of Russia has never firmly separated itself from the history of the Soviet Union and that again these areas currently are ones of a common contact that is being shaped.

However, the Russian regime is not just applying the mission of Sovietism rhetorically, but through its actions, because deporting Ukrainians to uninhabited parts of eastern Siberia, for example, was already the policy of Stalin after the Second World War, and the "integration" into the Russian nation that is intended now for the Ukrainians was already an aim of nationality policy in Soviet times. Russia has also been perceived as the Soviet Union's tombstone and has continued to have the stigma of an enemy, and the current espousal by Russia of the ideals of the Soviet regime just fulfills and underlines this dogma. 

For that reason, in the eyes of many Europeans, the enemy that is more natural to them is Russia, as opposed to Assad's regime or the Burmese military junta, and the attack on Ukraine is perceived as an attack on a pro-western state that is doing its best to be included into economically and militarily pro-western structures (with the exceptions of some of its past cabinets and presidents). In closing, we can say European societies are taking an inclusive stance toward refugees from Ukraine that is based on a perception of their identity that is specific to them.  

Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights speaks of an approach to refugees that should be universally applicable, irrespective of their ethnic origin or religious sensibility, in actuality such attributes are so strongly present as to determine the acceptance or the rejection of groups of refugees depending on their specific attributes. Actions toward refugees are not being replicated universally, as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights prescribes, but apparently are always particularly performed in relation to a concrete group of refugees. 

If the borderlines circumscribing a certain group are perceived as too distant from the receiving society, attitudes toward refugees there are ones of rejection, but when those defining lines are perceived as close to the receiving society, then an attitude to their acceptance can be arrived at that is inclusive. Towards all refugees, therefore, what actually exists is a double standard, as is also demonstrated by the fact that discrimination in general is a part of policy towards refugees today.

This article was first written in Czech for the Institute of Independent Journalism, an independent, non-profit organization and registered institute involved with information provision, news and journalism, offering articles, analyses and data to all equally for use under predetermined conditions

Luděk Jirka, Hlídací pes, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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