Does the Ukrainian refugee response expose a European double standard? Experts weigh in.

·National Reporter & Producer
·8 min read

More than 3 million Ukrainians have fled the only place they’ve ever called home since Russia invaded their country on Feb. 24, with most seeking refuge in neighboring European nations like Poland, Romania and Moldova. Almost all these countries have accepted fleeing Ukrainians with open arms.

It’s a welcome sight for Ukrainians and migration experts alike — but also a somewhat curious one.

The reception of Ukrainian refugees by European countries has been vastly different from previous refugee crises where European countries were largely resistant to being a safe haven for those escaping persecution, including the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis, where since 2015 more than 1 million Syrians have sought refuge in Europe with little to no support.

“It's a striking difference,” Lamis Abdelaaty, a professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, told Yahoo News.

Locals offer accommodation for people fleeing Ukraine at a train station in Berlin
Locals offer accommodation for people fleeing Ukraine at a train station in Berlin, March 2. (Hannibal Hanschke/Getty Images)

Some experts believe that proximity is the most obvious reason for the discrepancy, as Ukraine shares a border with seven other European countries, while others have suggested cultural factors — commonality in race and religion — play the biggest part.

In a Twitter thread earlier this month, Abdelaaty, author of “Discrimination and Delegation: Explaining State Responses to Refugees,” argues that the difference in treatment boils down to identity and foreign policy.

“Ukrainians are seen as white, Christian,” Abdelaaty explained. “Syrians, Afghans, and others are not perceived this way. People sympathize with refugees who they think share their race, religion, etc. But identity is not the whole story.”

“There is a foreign policy dimension to this too,” she added. “It matters that Ukrainians are fleeing a Russian invasion. Welcoming them is another way for European countries to condemn Putin and to powerfully signal which side of the conflict they are on.”

Helena and her brother Bodia, from Lviv, Ukraine
Helena and her brother Bodia, from Lviv, Ukraine, wait at a border crossing in eastern Poland following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images)

NATO member countries throughout Europe have been cautious about their involvement in the Russia-Ukraine conflict thus far, choosing to supply weapons to Ukraine and apply financial sanctions to Russia instead of any direct confrontation that they argue could ignite a third world war.

Even so, some critics see a double standard in how Ukrainian refugees are being treated compared with asylum seekers from other countries.

Poland, which has accepted more than 60% of the 3 million Ukrainian refugees, was a big detractor of Syrian refugees just a few years ago. The leader of Poland's conservative party and current deputy prime minister, Jarosław Kaczyński, has been one of the most outspoken critics against refugees. In 2017, he said that accepting Syrians would be dangerous and would "completely change our culture and radically lower the level of safety in our country."

Now European leaders are praising the continent’s largely unified response.

“The response by Europe has been remarkable,” the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, said in a statement.

Ukrainian refugees queue to file for residency permits in Prague
Ukrainian refugees line up to file for residency permits in Prague. (Michal Cizek/AFP via Getty Images)

While European countries currently host more than 1 million of the 6.6 million Syrians who have fled civil war in their country in the past decade, the overwhelming majority have been accepted by only two countries — 59% live in Germany and 11% relocated to Sweden, according to data from the U.N. refugee agency.

But accepting those refugees was a controversial decision, Kelly Petillo, coordinator of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told ABC News.

“It came after quite a bit of internal back and forth and lack of disagreement,” Petillo said, noting that it wasn’t until after the European Union came to an agreement with Turkey that Syrians were accepted into the region.

“Since the Syria crisis erupted more than 10 years ago, we’ve seen that there was a high level of reluctancy from Europeans to share the burden amongst themselves,” she said.

Abdelaaty also notes a striking difference in the framing of the Syrian refugee crisis and the Ukrainian refugee crisis.

“In 2016, [the Syrian refugee influx] was framed as a huge ‘crisis for Europe,’ and it was a crisis for how European countries were going to respond to this,” she said, adding that Syrians were labeled as migrants, not refugees, as a way to “delegitimize their request for protection.”

Greek anti-riot police patroling refugees from the Moria camp hoping to get a ferry to Athens
Greek anti-riot police patroling refugees from the Moria camp hoping to get a ferry to Athens in 2020. (Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP via Getty Images)

Abdelaaty believes that the Ukrainian crisis is being framed in such a way that leads others to have empathy for those fleeing the conflict — which she says is the right thing to do, but questions why this courtesy hasn’t been extended for everyone.

But not all experts agree that Europe’s warm reception to Ukrainian refugees is simply an issue of identity or foreign policy. Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen, a professor of migration and refugee law at the University of Copenhagen and author of “Access to Asylum: International Refugee Law and the Globalization of Migration Control,” says there is another major factor at play.

Long before Russia invaded Ukraine, Ukrainian leadership and the European Parliament had agreed on a visa liberation agreement in 2017, which granted Ukrainians visa-free access to all of Europe. Gammeltoft-Hansen says this makes it easier for European countries to accept Ukrainian refugees.

“The preexisting mobility rights of the Ukrainians means that they circumvent the entire kind of deterrence logic upon which migration policy has been based for the last 30 years,” he told Yahoo News. “The mobility element upends everything we thought we knew about how the EU handles refugee flows.”

 A Ukrainian mother and child
A Ukrainian mother and child arrive at a border crossing in eastern Poland, Feb. 27. (Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images)

According to Gammeltoft-Hansen, Europe’s response to the Balkan refugee crisis in 2015, the Southeast Asian refugee crisis in the 1970s and the Hungarian crisis in 1956 — which all resulted in European resettlement after substantial opposition — all suggest that both political context, not simply proximity, plays the primary role in the ongoing crisis.

“The Ukrainian response looks a lot like some of the big refugee crises during the Cold War,” he said. “There is sometimes a willingness to welcome refugees as a way of scoring ideology points, which can be a way of politically signaling a a degree of affiliation rather than engaging in direct conflict.”

Gammeltoft-Hansen describes the current refugee crisis in Europe as a “historically unique political and socioeconomic experiment” that will ultimately set a precedent on what allocation of resources looks like throughout the region and how countries can come together through “spontaneous responsibility sharing.”

However, not all refugees fleeing Ukraine have had the same experience. African and Indian men and women, many of whom went to Ukraine to further their education, have regularly reported being denied space on trains or buses or faced ridicule at the border. They have complained of a sometimes hostile reception from Ukrainian authorities and officials from other European countries that have by and large taken in scores of Ukrainians.

This disparity in treatment, for many, illustrates a hypocritical attitude they say has always been present across Europe.

“There was a gap in the access Black people and brown people were getting,” Patricia Daley, one of three women who founded Black Women for Black Lives as a way to help Black people escape Ukraine, told NBC News.

International refugees, including those from Africa, the Middle East and India, wait at a border crossing in eastern Poland
International refugees, including those from Africa, the Middle East and India, wait at a border crossing in eastern Poland. (Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images)

“There was no one offering their homes to Black people, no one offering to pick up the Black individuals. There was a tremendous amount of people offering help and support, but I feel like it was limited to Ukrainian nationals alone. And we know what that means. It’s excluding a group of people. There was a need to support Black people because they weren’t getting the support or access. There was a gap and we bridged it.”

Damilare Yusef, a British-Nigerian man, said he jumped into crisis management mode when he saw the plight of African refugees trying to escape Ukraine. He used social media apps like Telegram and Twitter to coordinate help for those in need.

“In the beginning it was important to have a clear message with Africans in Ukraine … so people understood the message of it’s not just Nigerians, it’s not just Ghanians,” Yusef told Yahoo News. “When you band together, it’s just easier.”

Refugees at a border crossing in eastern Poland
At a border crossing in eastern Poland. (Wojtek Radwanski/AFP via Getty Images)

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine enters its fourth week, there is no doubt that the number of refugees seeking safety in European countries will continue. For Abdelaaty, the acceptance of those in need is necessary, but it shouldn’t stop at Ukrainians.

“This is exactly what they should be doing,” she said. “But bring this empathy to other refugee groups, because the same scenes that we're seeing in Ukraine, we see in other refugee crises as well. ... All of these scenes are not unique to the Ukrainian refugee crisis.”

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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Spencer Platt/Getty Images, Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images