Global Xenophobia: How Racism Persists Despite War

By Haarika Reddy, J.D. Class of 2022

Why has the Ukrainian refugee crisis demanded an urgent policy response globally when other wars have not? What makes Ukrainian refugees different than refugees from Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, or Iraq? Is it the location? Does this mean that European refugees are more deserving of global intervention and support than Middle Eastern refugees simply because they are European?

CBS senior foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata exemplifies this racist double standard in his reporting of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Reporting from Kyiv, a day after Russia started its invasion, D’Agata states on national television, that “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European — I have to choose those words carefully, too — city, where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen.” Despite his “careful” choice of words, D’Agata illustrates the global normalization of scientific racism in which white Europeans are seen as civilized, and brown and Black people are seen uncivilized. This type of racist normative thinking is systematic because it allows countries and societies to place judgements and make internal assessments on which victims of war are more important than others, thus effectively normalizing war in what the West considers uncivilized, war torn, impoverished countries. Simultaneously, it completely disregards the context for other conflicts raging in the world in which the West has played a role in starting, a fact that is somehow either deliberately left out or forgotten when presenting coverage of war in non-European countries; thus, one again, normalizing, the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, and Latin America has inherently tragic and war torn without regard to the impact of colonization or the origins of the conflict in the first place.

At this point, the dehumanization of non-European refugees is explicit. British journalist Daniel Hannan wrote in the Telegraph, “They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking. War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations. It can happen to anyone.” In a BBC News interview, former Deputy Prosecutor General of Ukraine David Sakverelidze, stated, “[I]t’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed.”

Unfortunately, this intrinsic valuing of white lives over brown and Black lives does not end with racist news coverage. This racist ideology has a harmful impact when it comes to Ukrainian refugees and the disparate treatment at Ukrainian borders. While white Ukrainians have been allowed to leave Ukraine, African, Asian, and Middle Eastern nationals, many of which are international students, have reported experiencing racism and hostility at the borders. South Asian students are the biggest group of foreign students in Ukraine, many of which are pursing medical degrees. Currently, many South Asian students are sitting in bunkers, waiting out their fate, because they have no means to travel to the western borders and help is not arriving. Foreign nationals who have made it to border checkpoints have shared stories of waiting hours to enter or being turned away at the border and instructed to go to the back of the line despite waiting like everyone else to evacuate. Africans have reported being kicked off busses fleeing the country in order to make room for Ukrainian nationals. Many of these individuals were left stranded in border towns, waiting in the cold. 

Media coverage has depicted the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a crisis facing only white Ukrainians, effectively erasing the thousands of foreign nationals studying there. When a determination, explicitly or implicitly, is made that European or white lives matter more, it not only affects the global perception of war elsewhere, but also it has very real impact on the people of color trying to evacuate Ukraine in this very moment who have been dehumanized.