Racist rhetoric about which refugees deserve help needs to stop now

Syrian refugee children in Ukraine
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There are “two species” of refugee in Europe, philosopher Slavoj Žižek has warned. He was talking about a tweet – now deleted – from the government of his home country, Slovenia. The tweet attempted to draw a line between those fleeing the war in Ukraine from those who were fleeing wars in other parts of the world.

The tweet claimed:

The refugees from Ukraine are coming from an environment which is in its cultural, religious, and historical sense something totally different from the environment out of which refugees from Afghanistan are coming.

Describing this bizarre, racist position, Žižek wrote:

After an outcry, the tweet was quickly deleted, but the obscene truth was out: Europe must defend itself from non-Europe.

The evidence suggests this problem extends much wider, and goes much deeper, than just individual governments.

Blatant racism

Slovenia’s was just one – very open – example of a wider problem. Ukrainian refugees fleeing the criminal Russian invasion deserve our solidarity. So do Afghans, Iraqis, Yemenis, and Palestinians. The only fundamental difference between them is their place in a made-up racial hierarchy. And that is deplorable.

Read on...

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As one Twitter user pointed out on 3 March, it’s possible to have solidarity with more than one group of people at the same time:

Another was one of many sharing compilations of racist takes in the mainstream media:

In most cases these involved a level of surprise that war had come to “relatively civilised” country, not a place like Iraq or North Africa. Places we can only assume are ‘uncivilised’.

Little connection was made in these commentaries as to exactly why somewhere like Iraq, for example, has experienced years of war and violence. Did war magically appear in the Middle East? Or could it be connected to the US-led invasion in 2003? Or the centuries of colonialism beforehand?

There seems to be no space to look at this vital context in the mainstream commentary on Ukraine.

Shocking distinction

Žižek wasn’t the only scholar pointing out this contradiction. Professor of Middle East Studies Ziad Majed said the “magnificent solidarity and humanism” shown toward Ukrainians was vastly different to the “dehumanization of refugees from the Middle East”.

When you hear certain comments talking about ‘people like us’ it suggests that those who come from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or Africa are not.

“Orientalist and racist”

The Arab and Middle East Journalist’s Association (AMEJA) also condemned the double standard. It listed many examples, including those in the viral video above:

AMEJA condemns and categorically rejects orientalist [racist against Asian people] and racist implications that any population or country is ‘uncivilized’ or bears economic factors that make it worthy of conflict.

AMEJA said these kinds of comment spoke to a deeper problem in Western media:

This type of commentary reflects the pervasive mentality in Western journalism of normalizing tragedy in parts of the world such as the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, and Latin America.

“Two species”

The outpourings of concern for refugees from Ukraine are justified and welcome. Russia’s illegal invasion, as Noam Chomsky has pointed out, is a war crime akin to the US invasion of Iraq and Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939:

For those of us who’ve opposed wars and supported refugees for longer than a week, our job is to point out that putting a flag in your profile picture isn’t enough. Because every refugee is worthy of our support, and all wars of aggression should be opposed.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons/President of Ukraine, cropped to 770 x 403, licenced under CC BY-SA 4.0.

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  • Show Comments
    1. Not only should we show compassion and support for refugees and migrating people from anywhere, we should stop rendering their home countries and regions unliveable, thus making it unnecessary for anyone to flee. Perhaps a start would be for Britain to stop manufacturing weapons for Saudi Arabia to use to kill Yemenis by the tens of thousand. Putin’s crimes, egregious as they are, are minor in comparison, yet middle-class people enjoy pleasant lives off this obscenity.

      “PRESTON, UK – Jack sits down with his pint in the Fielden Arms in Mellor and contemplates his latest shift making Typhoon warplanes for the Saudi air force. Tucking into steak and chips, the 25-year-old talks of moving in with his girlfriend, his good pay at the nearby BAE factory – £40,000, almost twice the local average – and the security it brings. And then he thinks of the people those planes will be sent to kill. “You see the children in Yemen starving on the 10 o’clock news,” he tells Middle East Eye. “But you try to not pay attention and just get on with it.”

      His friend, Harry, interjects: “It’s really weird and there is no way to describe it, because you are in essence building a weapon of mass destruction.”

      So why don’t they quit? “Good pay and job security,” Jack responds, taking another sip of his beer. “If the military contracts go, 7,000 people go with them.”

      Jack is like thousands of others who work at the BAE Systems factory in nearby Samlesbury, outside Preston in Lancashire, making parts that will be assembled in nearby Warton to create Typhoons, the most advanced jet fighters operated by the Saudis over Yemen.”


      1. I have been making this point as often as possible! All refugees should be helped but according to British media some are more worthy than others. Yemen is an ongoing disaster area. This disaster is directly added to by British arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Even America no longer arms the Saudis. Britain condemns the refugee situation created by Russian armed conflict but Britain does not sell weapons to Russia. The British government, with monumental hypocrisy, mourns for Ukrainian refugees while at the same time doing little to alleviate their plight, nor have they much intention of doing so as long as Ukrainian refugees can be used as anti-Putin propaganda. The difference between Yemeni and Ukrainian refugees is that Ukraine is being invaded by Russia, who is not “our” ally but Yemen is being invaded by Saudi Arabia who is “our” ally to whom we sell arms!

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