Volunteers offer food to refugees from Ukraine in Medyka, Poland on March 10, 2022 | Photo: picture alliance/AP
Volunteers offer food to refugees from Ukraine in Medyka, Poland on March 10, 2022 | Photo: picture alliance/AP

The flight of millions of people from Ukraine since the Russian invasion has prompted a debate over the different treatment of refugees depending on where they come from. Although it's human nature to be more sympathetic to those similar to us, origin should never determine who gets protection, social scientists say.

Perhaps no European country -- with the exception of Hungary -- has changed its tone towards refugees more since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine than EU member Poland.

Of the close to three million people who have fled the fighting in the first two and half weeks of the war, the majority have sought refuge in neighboring Poland. The government and Polish people have welcomed them with open arms, setting up reception centers across the country and flocking to the border to offer support.

But six years earlier, the Polish reaction to the so-called migrant crisis of 2015/16 was nothing like the solidarity being seen now. While Germany and other countries took in hundreds of thousands of mainly Syrian refugees, Poland's reaction to the crisis was criticized by many as excessively harsh.

In the view of German communication scientist Carola Richter, the change in attitude can partly be attributed to the origin of the refugees, which she says "plays a major role in the political evaluation."

She also notes that while Polish civil society last year showed great solidarity and support toward refugees trying to enter their country from Belarus, the government in Warsaw pursued a course of radical rejection. "Now that the Ukrainian people are affected, however, this rejection is no longer feasible as they are considered a 'sister nation'," Richter told the news agency epd.

A common enemy

An opinion piece in the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) this week pointed to the fact that Poland and Ukraine share a common enemy in Vladimir Putin, and both fear an attack from Russia.

Poland also had a sizeable Ukrainian minority even before the current conflict: Two million of Poland's 38 million inhabitants, or more than one in 20 people, are Ukrainian.

Another major factor in the different treatment and reception of people fleeing to Europe in 2015/16 and those fleeing Ukraine is that Ukrainians are being perceived as European, says social scientist Zeynep Yanasmayan. "Many European countries share a history of being threatened by Russia. What Ukrainians are going through reminds many in eastern Europe of a known situation," Yanasmayan, who works for the Berlin-based Dezim Institute, told news agency KNA.

People from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, too, are able to relate to the situation in Ukraine. "For us, watching what's happening in Ukraine is terrible," Nino, a woman from Georgia, told InfoMigrants earlier this month. "To me, it's like it was happening to my home country," she said. "We are good friends with Ukraine, our countries almost have the same fate. So it's very, very painful. We empathize with Ukrainians. We are very concerned. Perhaps we're next."

Even though she migrated to Germany nearly 20 years ago, Nino was in her home country when Russia invaded its southern neighbor in the summer of 2008. The war ended after 12 days, but the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, where she was staying at the time, was also bombed.

Double standards

According to social scientist Yanasmayan, many projects now helping people who flee the war in Ukraine originated in 2015. A Danish volunteer Daniel Marslew, who spoke to InfoMigrants at Berlin's main train station, said there has been a "transfer of experience" from the last migrant influx. "A lot of networks from that time are now being reactivated," he said. "It seems like there's a lot of experience and qualification in that way."

But while Marslew and other volunteers have not lost their willingness to help, Yanasmayan says EU politics has turned into a "policy of fear-mongering and criminalizing migrants." This has also been evident in reports about foreigners fleeing Ukraine being treated differently from Ukrainians.

Hearing in the media that "people from the civilized world" or "people with blue eyes" would be taken in preferably is racist, Yanasmayan cautioned. "Whether someone receives asylum shouldn't depend on the color of their skin," Yanasmayan said, "but on whether they need protection or not."

Communication scientist Richter says it is the "discursive framing", not the willingness to help, that has changed. "Ukraine is portrayed in the media and in the political discourse as a modern, European country," she said. In contrast, people from majority Muslim countries have been depicted as "culturally distant and with often non-compatible values" for decades.

Cultural closeness

The author of the NZZ opinion piece, on the other hand, argues that the change in Poland's approach is due to geographic and cultural closeness between Polish people and Ukrainians. The difference in empathy is not unique to Poland, he says, but a natural human reflex reflecting differing levels of human compassion.

"As media consumers, we have become spectators of world affairs and determine that Kyiv is closer to us than Damascus," the author writes.

He also said that the demographic differences between the two groups of refugees partly explain the different reactions: While Middle Eastern men were over-represented in 2015/16, the majority of refugees arriving from Ukraine are women, children and old people.

Richter sees the comparison as inappropriate, however: "Both groups have valid reasons for fleeing, and both need our protection," she says.

Support here to stay?

The large public protests against the Russian attack on Ukraine suggest that few people in European countries are indifferent to the plight of people fleeing Ukraine.

In a survey by the Dezim Institute, 90% of respondents in Germany said they were in favor of the country taking in people from Ukraine. Half of those surveyed said they were willing to volunteer or make a donation, and a quarter said they could imagine letting refugees stay in their own home. Dezim researcher Yanasmayan describes the level of willingness to help "impressive."

But Richter warns that the readiness to receive further refugees from Ukraine could eventually subside: "If people fleeing Ukraine becomes a permanent condition, the willingness to help among people in Germany could suffer and xenophobia could become stronger."

with KNA, epd, dpa


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