The Russian invasion of Ukraine has, rightly, been met with almost universal condemnation. Countries across Europe and the world, including Ireland, welcomed Ukrainian refugees with open arms, correctly identifying it as an unassailable moral obligation. Ukrainian refugees in Ireland have been given PPS numbers to ensure they can access state services, and support hubs have opened in Dublin, Limerick and Cork. Irish state figures, including Michael Martin, have criticised the invasion, with Martin deeming the Russian government’s actions as “an outrageous and moral breach of the most fundamental and basic principles of international law.”
States have also sought ways to support Ukraine directly in withstanding Russian aggression, with the country receiving huge amounts of military and humanitarian aid, while the Russian Federation was quickly subjected to severe economic and diplomatic sanctions, boycotts and divestment.
This immediate, unflinching desire to help the victims of war and stop interstate aggression is heartening to see. But it has made clear the complete contempt and callous cruelty with which Western countries act in every other comparable situation and towards other refugees.
Ireland is a prime example: the very existence of the Direct Provision, and years that refugees are usually left languishing in this cruel system, is a testament to the Irish state’s complete indifference to the wellbeing of most asylum seekers. Furthermore, in 2019, four Fine Gael MEPs voted against an EU parliament motion on supporting rescue operations to prevent refugee deaths in the Mediterranean. Among these MEPs was Mairead McGuinness, who is now an EU commissioner. Ukrainian refugees get free transport from Bus Eireann as they arrive in Ireland, others don’t even get saved from drowning. They certainly don’t get treated like EU citizens when they arrive, the way Ukrainians have been; Direct Provision residents have had to fight tooth and nail to be allowed to gain limited rights to work, and have highly-restricted access to many services.
It is also commendable that the Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar, has said that he will personally house Ukrainian refugees. But Varadkar has previously suggested that non-Irish nationals be paid six months of unemployment benefit to get them to leave the country; something of a double standard.
Trinity has been quick to offer extensive support to Ukrainian (and Russian) students affected by the conflict, and has pledged to facilitate the transfer of students from Ukrainian universities here to complete their studies. If this kind of will to help always existed, why does College only offer a paltry four Asylum Seeker Access Programme scholarships? And why does Trinity’s endowment fund support armaments companies which sell weapons used to kill civilians en masse in Yemen?
The United States has implemented some of the most severe economic sanctions in world history in response to Russia’s invasion, and any citizens in Europe and North America are so eager to show solidarity that they’ve been not only boycotting major Russian companies, but anything vaguely associated with Russia (e.g. DCU’s cancellation of a performance of Swan Lake). The latter phenomenon is actually quite bad, and indeed the sanctions are also likely to have severe spillover effects on ordinary Russian people who are very much victims of their own government already; but what’s clear is that Western countries believe war crimes justify sanctions and boycotts. Why, then, are there laws in 35 US states limiting or banning participation in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement, which opposes Israeli oppression of Palestinians? Why is the US still supporting indiscriminate Saudi airstrikes in Yemen? Indeed the BDS movement is, if anything, much more justifiable than the clumsy, often-outright-bigoted cultural boycott of Russia; it’s highly targeted, and seeks only to punish companies, universities etc that directly participate in or profit from the oppression of Palestinians, rather than Israelis generally. What’s the difference?
In case it wasn’t already clear, this outpouring of support for Ukraine is a clear positive (incidents of ignorant Russophobia aside). The Ukrainian people are going through unimaginable difficulty, and they deserve our support, solidarity and assistance. No one should begrudge them the help they’ve received for a second.
But the double standard is colossal and unjustifiable, and the reason isn’t hard to understand: it’s racism. Western countries are sympathetic to Ukrainian people and deliberately cruel to refugees from Syria, Libya, Afghanistan and other places because Ukraine is in Europe. There are many people facing oppression, conflict and violence, but some are judged to be less deserving of help or sympathy because of their race, and because they come from cultures perceived to be more “different” to ours.
Many people are outright admitting this. Earlier this month, Ryan Tubridy garnered criticism for his comments on those fleeing Ukraine, saying that “whenever I see people fleeing with their bags trying to get on buses to wherever they can go, I kept thinking they all look like us, they look like our neighbours.” He continued to say that “it just feels so real”—implying he thought the images of people fleeing Kabul as the Taliban advanced last year just weren’t that serious. A panellist on CNN last week said that “it’s one thing for sarin gas to be used on people in far-away Syria who are Muslim, who are of a different culture, but what is Europe going to do when it’s on European soil done to Europeans?” [Chemical weapons have not been used in the war in Ukraine at time of writing]
The idea that we do, or indeed should sympathise more with refugees who bear an aesthetic similarity to us is abhorrent. It’s insult to any person of colour who has sought asylum, or been forced to flee from war and terror. Even if you find yourself instinctively feeling extra sympathy towards white Europeans, you should be capable of recognising and seeking to rise above that double standard. Tubridy chose to proudly announce it on national television, and the government has made it a policy priority.
We must extend our solidarity to victims of war, violence and oppression everywhere. We should be just as concerned about the people of Myanmar and Syria being murdered by their governments every day as they are about Ukrainian people murdered by the Russian state. We should be throwing our doors open to people fleeing Afghanistan and Yemen in the same way we’ve done for those from Ukraine of late.
The fact that at all this has been done so quickly proves that those in power have always had the capacity to provide refuge, assistance and compassion to those seeking it. They have simply chosen not to.