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The empathy gap: After Ukraine, we must think again about the refugees we have ignored

It is time to question our biases and demand our governments are consistent in how they deal with everyone seeking a safe haven

Ukrainian refugees sit on board a bus before it departs from the Centre Europeen de Sejours youth hostel in Calais. Photo: Aaron Chown/PA Wire/PA Images

For a news junkie, I find it hard to watch the news these days. It’s heart-breaking to see terrified children holding their tiny hands up against misty windows, their palms flat against the glass as their fathers do the same on the other side; children running bent-double along shattered roads in Ukrainian cities as the dull thud of shells signals the end of someone’s days; children in pink hats and fur-lined boots being offered cuddly toys at a border post – dazed and confused, they hesitate before choosing carefully.

These images would splinter the hardest of hearts but my eyes also fill with tears because I have two girls who are nearly women now but who would have grabbed that cuddly Minion with the same confused delight. This personal reflection doesn’t mean anything – it’s not like only mothers can feel. It’s just my context. Everyone has their own. 

But I also feel uncomfortable as I watch these images – and my discomfort is, of course, unimportant and only interesting insofar as it illustrates something I would rather not normally explore: the face, or faces, of my empathy.

Why am I, why are we, here in Europe, so moved by the plight of Ukrainian refugees? Why do images of bombed homes in Kharkiv or Kherson affect us more than the images of destruction from Aleppo and Homs in Syria, or from Sana’a in Yemen, or Mekelle in northern Ethiopia? Is it simply about race, as many commentators have posited?

It seems the answer may encompass race, class, and physical proximity as well as the specific narrative of the war in Ukraine – and if that is the case, then the next question must surely be: what can we do to grow our empathy? What can we do to bulk up a muscle that is going to be stretched ever more in a fragile world where the climate emergency, among other crises, is likely to see more people uprooted from their lands and could even lead to more conflicts? 

Because while Europe’s collective response to Ukraine’s refugees has been inspiring, this only serves to shine a brighter light on the others we have ignored or mistreated at our borders for years. And the fact that Europe is managing to provide refuge to around 2 million people in two weeks does make one question the “we-are-full” argument so often used to justify a more callous approach to those fleeing war, poverty and destitution. 

Confronting our biases should not be an empty exercise in virtue-signalling but perhaps it could be the starting point for the creation of a more compassionate continent-wide approach to refugees from around the world. It must, surely, at least start a discussion.

Western reporters, newscasters and politicians have been rightly chastised over recent weeks for suggesting – sometimes with shocking lack of self-awareness – that Ukrainian refugees are different to “other” refugees because they are “like us”, they come from a country “like ours”. 

On a visit to the Ukrainian Cultural Centre in London, Prince William said this week that “Britons were more used to seeing conflict in Africa and Asia” and that “It’s very alien to see this in Europe”. Which suggests he may need to have another look at the history books because there was a terrible war in Europe as recently as 1995, not to mention the two World Wars that started on the continent and then sucked in the whole planet. 

While it may be easy to criticise such clumsy expressions of compassion, Europe’s response to this latest refugee crisis – because it is only the latest – suggests that the reporters and others are awkwardly expressing feelings that many Europeans experience, consciously or not.

Much has been written about the colour of those fleeing – or the fact that “they look like us”. But that is a very narrow definition of the ‘us’ that is Europe today and one that should be constantly challenged. This vital task requires us as individuals to question our biases but also requires our governments to follow policies that are consistent when dealing with refugees from all parts of the world. 

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Professor Serena Parekh, author of No Refuge: Ethics and the Global Refugee Crisis, refers to race and proximity in explaining attitudes to the Ukrainian refugees as compared to attitudes towards Syrian refugees, noting that many Syrian refugees were also highly skilled and educated but not perceived as such. 

She said that despite the fact that Europeans have historically committed many violent acts, it is people from elsewhere, from the Middle East, for example, who are stereotyped as being more radical, more potentially dangerous. Some politicians have been shamefully eager to propagate these views over the years. 

“My goal is not to criticise Poland, Hungary, Romania and others by pointing this out, but rather to bring it to the surface so that, hopefully, when another refugee crisis happens, we will be able to look at those refugees and say: ‘They do not look like us but nonetheless, they deserve our help.’ Hopefully, we can focus on the commonalities instead of the differences: These are families desperate to protect their children, these are people who fled and left behind all of their belongings,” she said.

It can happen. It happened in 2015 when the image of the limp body of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean, opened a vein of pure empathy that showed just what was possible in terms of a global expansion of compassion. It was short-lived but it should still give us hope as it shows us that the better angels of our nature can be galvanised into action.

Because much needs to be done. It is right that the Home Secretary Priti Patel has faced fierce criticism for failing to open a visa application service for Ukrainian refugees in the French port of Calais – after suggesting, in fact, that staff were already working on the ground there – but her decisions and the political reaction are illuminating. Some observers suggested that the UK subsequently decided to open a temporary visa office in Lille instead because they did not want the “others” already in Calais to start submitting legitimate claims for asylum. 

MPs’ increasingly furious calls for a Calais visa centre are understandable but perhaps might sound a little hollow to the thousands of people – people who maybe don’t “look just like us” – who for years have been risking their lives boarding flimsy dinghies or clinging to the underside of trucks as they strive to get into the UK in order to apply for asylum. Why now, they might ask. When them, not us?

Many analysts point to the issue of proximity as an explanation for the welcome provided to Ukrainian refugees. Somewhat understandably, Europeans care more about what is happening in Ukraine because it is but a short flight away from where they live similar lives in similar homes on similar streets. There is also the real fear that their own lives could be upended in the same way. It seems far-fetched but the refugees say they couldn’t have imagined it a few weeks ago either.  

For those eastern European countries now welcoming Ukrainian refugees there is also a historical proximity – many also suffered under the former Soviet Union during the Cold War. Fear of the Kremlin may be a memory but it is a dark one and it is there. 

In a recent opinion piece, Jessie Barton Hronešová, Marie Curie-Sklodowska Fellow at the Center for European Studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, noted that at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015, eastern European countries including Poland and Hungary were pushing away refugees and anti-immigration rhetoric was on the rise. 

“Fast-forward to February 2022. The very same borders are wide open for all those fleeing Ukraine, no questions asked … Countries where refugees became a key reason for populist mobilization are now advocates of open-border policies for Ukrainians, putting the restrictive asylum systems of the UK and the USA to shame,” she wrote.

To explain this, Barton Hronešová refers to geographical proximity and family links and personal ties between countries in the region. And the overall story is also easy to grasp – the narrative arc clear; it’s a case of good vs evil.

“The identity of the aggressor is well-known and menacing, and the refugee is the indisputable victim. It is easy to pick a side. Unlike the complex Syrian, Afghan, Iraqi or even Yugoslav conflicts, east Europeans feel they can ‘understand’ the dynamics of this conflict much better,” she writes. 

This rings true because Europe has largely been ignoring a more complex war in eastern Ukraine since 2014 – but that narrative did not lend itself so neatly to good guys vs bad guys. The war in Donbas has claimed more than 13,000 lives but it was ostensibly fought by local separatists (although Russian-backed) against government troops. Bombs still fell, people were shot but for most Europeans, it was over there; out of sight and out of mind.

If the reasons for our empathy towards Ukrainian refugees today are complex and discomfiting, perhaps the best we can do is channel the necessary self-examination – both personal and political – into action that will result in more humane policies across the board for the world’s most vulnerable, no matter where they come from or what they look like. 

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