The media coverage on the conflict in Ukraine reflects the racism western countries have towards refugees.
“They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking.” The words of journalist Daniel Hannan are ones that have been echoed by many figures in the media during discussion of the crisis in Ukraine. From Ukraine’s Deputy Chief Prosecutor stating, “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed” to ITV declaring the Russian invasion “unthinkable” as “this is not a developing, third world nation; this is Europe!”. Those reporting the events in Ukraine have frequently highlighted the whiteness of the victims in order to differentiate them from non-European refugees in an attempt to garner more sympathy for those displaced by the Russian invasion. This racist framing of the conflict in Ukraine is harmful and dangerous, and substantially impacts those fleeing from violence.
Firstly, the media framing the crisis in Ukraine as “unthinkable” due to its location in Europe perpetuates the idea that conflicts in Middle Eastern and African countries are both acceptable and inevitable. For instance, CBS foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata stated, “This isn’t Iraq or Afghanistan, this is a relatively civilised, relatively European city.” The media is depicting non-Western countries as uncivilised and uncultured in order to negate responsibility for the role that Western powers have played in these conflicts. This depiction shrugs off our moral obligation to aid those displaced by war and violence. The blame is being shifted away from the higher powers that have facilitated and sparked the conflicts in non-Western countries and is instead falling on victims.
“The media is depicting non-Western countries as uncivilised and uncultured in order to negate responsibility for the role that Western powers have played in these conflicts.”
In blaming non-Western “uncivilised” cultures for the conflicts ravaging their countries the media has created a narrative that some refugees are more worthy than others. Refugees from the Middle East and Africa are dehumanised and depicted as somehow culpable for their own suffering. Rather than being treated as innocent victims of violence and warfare, they are treated as threats to those countries they want to claim refuge in, unworthy of support or safety. In contrast, the media describes those fleeing from Ukraine as innocent people caught in the crossfire of higher powers and therefore worthy of safety. Non-western refugees are treated with resentment and blame by the media, but Ukrainian refugees are treated with sympathy and support. The key difference between both groups is not culpability or civility, it is ethnicity. The stark contrast in the way the media reports on Western and non-Western conflicts is informed by racism and prejudice.
This rhetoric is not only harmful due to it fostering resentment and divisions, but it also has wide reaching effects on those seeking safety. Coverage implying that Ukrainian refugees are worthy of support and safety due to them being white and European relies upon the racist notion that whiteness being equal to worth, and is hugely dangerous for those of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds currently attempting to flee Ukraine.
“This rhetoric is not only harmful due to it fostering resentment and divisions, but it also has wide reaching effects on those seeking safety.”
For instance, the UN has issued a statement admitting that non-white refugees have been met with racism at the Ukrainian borders. Indeed, many African students located in Ukraine have reported being denied entry to Poland and pushed further back in queues in order to prioritise white refugees. For example, Moustapha Bagui Sylla, a student from Guinea told France 24 that, “They stopped us at the border and told us that Blacks were not allowed. But we could see White people going through.” As well as being denied entry to Poland, non-white refugees have also been subjected to mistreatment at the Ukrainian borders. African and Asian individuals attempting to flee Ukraine have been prevented by force from boarding buses and trains headed to the borders. Those that have been able to reach the borders have reported facing verbal and physical abuse and being ignored and left with inadequate provisions whilst the safety of white Ukrainians is prioritised. The racism at the borders is not representative of the attitudes of all Ukrainians. Rather it is an example of how the media can perpetuate prejudices that can be weaponised by groups with racist views to legitimise their actions. The media needs to recognise their part in this.
The media is reinforcing racial prejudices that prioritise the needs and safety of white people over that of others, perpetuating resentment and dehumanisation towards non-White refugees and promoting neutrality and acceptance towards the violence and warfare in Middle Eastern and African countries. Additionally, this rhetoric is utilised in order to justify the racist treatment of Black and brown people seeking safety outside of Ukraine. The conflict in Ukraine is not tragic and unacceptable because the people suffering are white, it is tragic and unacceptable because people are suffering. Full stop. The sympathy with which the plight of white Ukrainians has been met should be the sympathy that is afforded to all refugees.