There are clear disparities in the way certain refugees are treated by the UK Government and are portrayed in media outlets. Does this feed into our own biases, and are we feeding into the issue?
A year has gone by since the outbreak of war in Ukraine. During this year, the UK and Europe have been welcoming and supportive to displaced Ukrainians. The refugee crisis is, however, not new and African and Middle Eastern refugees have been faced with harsh hostility from the British government and its people, especially since the refugee crisis in Europe of 2015.
In response to the devastation and war in Ukraine, the EU and UK imposed measures to help forced migrants to escape war and reside in other countries. In the EU, a temporary directive was passed. This allows Ukrainian refugees to live, work and go to school in the EU without needing official asylum approval. The directive extends to countries which were vehemently anti-refugee during the ongoing 2015 refugee crisis. This double standard is continuously present, Ukrainian refugees are “welcomed” in Hungary, claims its president, Viktor Orbán. In 2016 the same leader called migration “poison”. Sentiment towards refugees has not changed, but a clear double standard is in place.
This rigid dichotomy in response to different waves of refugees is perhaps best observed in Calais. African and Middle Eastern refugees continue to live in camps outside the city since the Jungle was disbanded in 2016. Syrian, South Sudanese, and refugees from other parts of Africa and the Middle East live in smaller, dispersed camps outside the city. The camps are infamous for police harassment, with a humanitarian crisis ongoing due to police treatment of refugees. Migrants are commonly pepper sprayed by police, their belongings are frequently confiscated, including sleeping bags and tents – the only shelter the migrants have. While authorities turn a blind eye to the gross mistreatment of forced migrants in Calais, rules are stretched and bent to accommodate and fast-track Ukrainian refugees. While they are housed in hostels in Calais; African and Middle Eastern refugees continue to live in the camps. Evidently authorities have had the power to better accommodate forced migrants, but this power is only applied to certain refugees. Conditions for African and Middle Eastern refugees have not improved in the past eight years.
The positive attitude towards Ukrainian refugees in the UK promised hope that perspective towards all forced migrants would positively change. Over 100,000 Ukrainian refugees entered the UK under different British schemes, including the Homes for Ukraine Scheme, in which Britons generously accepted Ukrainian refugees into their homes. Such wide scale benevolence towards refugees has hardly been seen from the British government and people. Unfortunately, little has changed for non-Ukrainian refugees; instead anti-refugee protests are increasing in some areas of UK. In Knowsley, far right groups held a protest outside a hotel housing asylum seekers from Syria. Protestors threw stones and a police car was set on fire. The stark contradiction towards refugees from different areas is clear. If you flee war from a white, European country, you will be welcomed with hospitality, rules will be bent allowing you to seek work and education. If you flee war from an African or Middle Eastern country you are treated with harassment and violence. Asylum seekers from both areas are fleeing horrendous war and have nowhere else to go, their situations are similar, but our response is not. While a number of factors have been suggested as explanations to this disparity in treatment, it seems hard to deny that racism and islamophobia are root causes of this disparity. Although we may have some obligation to help our neighbours first, the stark contradiction in treatment of refugees cannot be accounted for.
There is clearly more nuance to the situation than simply racism. Media has heavily covered the war in Ukraine, and painted Ukrainian refugees out to be ‘just like us’. Chairman of foreign affairs committee of the French National Assembly said that Ukrainian refugees are “an immigration of great quality, intellectuals, one that we will take advantage of”. While many Syrian refugees are also educated, and working people, who bring diversity of culture to a country, this is not the picture painted by the media. Media has portrayed Ukraine to be a ‘civilised’ country, hitting close to home and therefore requiring our urgent response, this image is not extended to African and Middle Eastern refugees. In fact, similar words were said by a CVS Senior News correspondent. The News correspondent drew direct comparison of Ukraine to Iraq and Afghanistan, calling Ukraine “civilised [and] relatively European”. Ukraine being portrayed as civilised, and Iraq, Syria, South Sudan and other, non-white war-torn countries not being shown as such is simply shrouded with racism. The right-wing media in the UK has a hostile, aggressive attitude towards Syrian refugees. Such media disparity in the portrayal of different refugees feeds into our perception of the displaced peoples.
When people opt to accommodate Ukrainian refugees in their homes, and do not offer this same hospitality to non-White refugees this is unlikely to be down to blatant racism. The scheme was heavily pushed by the government and the media. But underlying factors as to why there is such a disparity in attitude towards Ukrainian refugees and refugees from Africa and the Middle East is due to racism. Our government has shown that legislation can be easily altered in response to crises, yet nothing is done to ease the asylum seeking process for non-Ukrainian refugees. Instead, they are threatened to be sent to Rwanda, and losing their ability to claim asylum seeking status when crossing by small boat. While media portrayal of refugees does paint certain images, and attempt to shroud judgement, it is important for us to critically engage in media, and understand our own biases. Why would we feel comfortable housing Ukrainian refugees in our homes but not displaced people from non-white war-torn countries?