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ukraine, russia, refugee, refugee crisis

Welcome Refugees from Ukraine — and Everywhere 

The reception of Ukrainian refugees reveals the limits and hierarchies of Western empathy. 

Words: Tazreena Sajjad
Pictures: Daniil Onischenko

There is laser focus on the unfolding crisis in Ukraine following Putin’s aggressive invasion of the country. Heart-wrenching images of Ukrainian civilians in makeshift bomb shelters and of thousands fleeing the country have gripped the world’s attention.

Prior to the current Russian invasion of Ukraine, there were between approximately 1.5 million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in the country, largely as a result of the 2014 annexation of Crimea. This made it the largest IDP situation in Europe, in a country of 44 million people. As the situation in Ukraine becomes increasingly violent, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that up to 4 million civilians could end up fleeing the country, with the EU Commissioner placing the number to be higher, at 7 million. As civilians flee — largely women and children, as men between 18 and 64 have been banned from fleeing — several countries in Europe and in the EU are taking emergency measures to receive the large number of new arrivals.

This is not the first displacement crisis in Europe since World War II. For instance, the Hungarian crisis in 1956 resulted in approximately 200,000 refugees; the 19891992 collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in 9 million people being uprooted; the collapse of former Yugoslavia and the 19921995 Bosnian genocide produced over 2 million refugees; and the 19981999 Kosovo war produced over 650,000 refugees.


There is a long history of refugees and more broadly forcibly displaced populations crossing borders to seek sanctuary in contexts of war and violent conflict. Several factors contribute to the spill-over to neighboring countries, including geographical proximity and access particularly when passports, visas, and transport are significant and at times impossible impediments to crossing borders. Linguistic, religious and cultural affinities also play substantive roles particularly since refugees may already have families living in neighboring countries, or are familiar with their sociopolitical contexts. The reality that sanctuary is not largely possible to attain in countries far away contexts given the complexities of the global refugee regime and structural barriers to entry particularly in wealthier countries, also plays a role in the direction and destination of refugee flows.

Europe’s response to Ukrainian refugees clearly demonstrates that there is “room for refugees in Europe,” and that violent deterrence and border policies can be rolled back if there is political will to adhere to regional and international agreements and laws on refugee protection.

Countries in the Global South are deeply familiar with each of these realities. Contrary to popular discourse and fear-mongering that exists in the Global North (largely in countries in Europe, the US, and Australia), where refugee and asylum-seekers’ arrivals are defined as “waves” or “influx” to generate a perception of  a “migrant crisis,” countries of the Global South have historically been the recipients of most of the world’s forcibly displaced population. Of the world’s 84 million forcibly displaced people in 2021 of which 26.6 million are refugees, 4.4 million are asylum-seekers, and 3.9 million are Venezuelans displaced abroad, a staggering 85% of them are hosted in countries of the Global South. With the exception of Germany, which entered the list following the large number of arrivals in Europe in 2015 — the first European country to have done so in contemporary times — the largest refugee hosts in the world remain Turkey (3.7 million); Jordan (2.9 million); Lebanon (1.4 million); Pakistan (1.4 million); Uganda (1.1 million); Iran (979,400); Ethiopia (921,000); Sudan (908, 700); and Bangladesh (906, 600). In short, 73% of the forcibly displaced populations are hosted in neighboring countries — sometimes reluctantly, in many instances imperfectly, as each context struggles with their own internal social, political, economic, and environmental challenges.


The movement of the newly produced refugees from Ukraine to neighboring countries in Europe — particularly given the questions of proximity and familiarity, is therefore not unusual. What is striking, however, is the sharp contrast that has emerged between the refugee reception strategies being put in place for Ukrainians in a continent that birthed the 1951 Refugee Convention and has set the contemporary universal standards for human rights — and its response to refugees and asylum-seekers from outside of the continent. This was clearly evidenced by the arrivals in 2015 and the developments since then in both EU and non-EU countries. Today, wall-building in its broadest definition through militarized fortifications, use of violence by border patrol, armed civilian vigilantes in certain contexts, drones, violent sea interceptions in the Mediterranean, criminalization of search and rescue operations, deportations, border externalization arrangements, and other forms of extreme anti-refugee deterrent mechanisms on land have ensured that many Afghans, Syrians, Yemenis, Eritreans, and others have very limited venues to seek sanctuary in Europe.

Europe’s response to Ukrainian refugees clearly demonstrates that there is “room for refugees in Europe,” and that violent deterrence and border policies can be rolled back if there is political will to adhere to regional and international agreements and laws on refugee protection. The borders for Ukrainian refugees should remain open as many more flee, and resources should be marshaled to support their immediate and long-term needs.

At the same time, Europe broadly, and the EU should take a long hard look at the cruel, inhumane, and violent measures it has taken for years against refugees and asylum-seekers from the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa in the name of “border management,” “anti-human trafficking and smuggling” and “anti-terrorism.” The institutionalized disparities in treatment, reception, and the legitimization of violence in the name of “protecting Europeans,” need to be seriously addressed such that sanctuary is a fair and equitable process no matter from where refugees have been displaced. Otherwise, the sharp contrast between response and reception between Ukrainian refugees and those from the Global South, which positions the former as being qualitatively superior by virtue of being “white” Europeans, continues to raise critical questions about the limits of protection in the current global refugee regime, and the limits and hierarchies of Western empathy.

Tazreena Sajjad is a Senior Professorial Lecturer at the School of International Service (SIS) at American University. Her areas of specialization include refugees and forcible displacement, post-conflict reconstruction, transitional justice and gender in conflict and peacebuilding.

Tazreena Sajjad

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