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Ukraine: a refugee crisis that unveils a crisis of xenophobia

The outbreak of war in Ukraine has led to a migratory wave of refugees who are now seeking protection in the European Union as a result of the Russian invasion. Millions of people are continually trying to cross the border into neighboring countries like Poland, while the world watches bewildered as war descends upon a European country.

In a conflict where everyone suffers equally due to Russia’s violence, testimonies of racism and xenophobia at the Ukrainian borders multiply. The rules of passage are simple: women and children go first; white men after; black people, Arabs and Indians go to the end of the line. Ukrainian border authorities and soldiers seem to make fun of those seeking to leave the country: now Africans to the left, now Indians to the right, now sit down, now stand up (Henriques, 2022). Even those among these who make it to Poland are not guaranteed entry into the country by Polish authorities.

Moreover, acts of discrimination spread beyond the war hotspot, including hypocritical media coverage in the West. “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades (…). This is a relatively civilized, relatively European city where you wouldn’t expect that.” can be heard in the voice of a CBS News foreign correspondent (CBS News, 2022). Ukraine’s former deputy chief prosecutor David Sakvarelidze also said in an interview to BBC News that “it’s really emotional” for him seeing the war unfold in his country because “European people with blue eyes and blonde hair” are being killed every day (BBC News, 2022). It’s intriguing how dozens of journalists and commentators are shocked by the war, not because of the death and destruction it causes, but because it takes place in Europe, with white protagonists. The lives of people from the Global South are seen as less valuable than the lives of Westerners, and war ends up being trivialized.

This new “refugee crisis” triggered a response from the Council of the European Union which activated for the first time the Temporary Protection Directive to protect displaced people fleeing the war in Ukraine (Council of the European Union, 2022). While this is an important advance in European migration policy that can save many lives, it is unfortunate that the 2015 European migrant crisis was not considered urgent enough to trigger this very measure. Within a month, the European Union promptly absorbed more than 3.5 million Ukrainian refugees (European Commission, 2022), while the same effort was not possible in 2015 to the rescue of over 1 million refugees from Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia (Clayton & Holland, 2015). Instead, the European Commission created the European Agenda on Migration, rightly focused on creating a common asylum policy and a new legal migration policy, but also on reducing incentives for irregular migration, and on strengthening European border control (European Commission, 2015).

Added to this is the reluctance of the governments of Hungary and Poland to contribute to a possible (albeit precarious) joint response by closing their borders to refugees in 2015, while both countries are now on the frontline of helping with the Ukrainian migrant crisis.

This double standard hides what Europe and the Western world in general refuse to admit. Western empathy is exhausted in the face of the otherness of those who come from non-Western origins or those who are non-white. The refugee crisis generated by the war in Ukraine and the way it has been handled by the Ukrainian authorities, the media, and the European Union itself, as well as its member-states – in comparison to the 2015 migrant crisis – reveal a deeper and more invisible international crisis: a crisis of xenophobia.

Bibliographic References:

BBC News. (2022). Russian invasion of Ukraine. [Video]. Retrieved from

CBS News. (2022, February 25). Russia closes in on Kyiv with more explosions reported across Ukraine overnight. [Video]. Retrieved from

Clayton, J., & Holland, H. (2015, Dezember 30). Over one million sea arrivals reach Europe in 2015. UN Refugee Agency. Retrieved from

Council of the European Union. (2022, March 4). Ukraine: Council unanimously introduces temporary protection for persons fleeing the war. [Press release]. Retrieved from

European Commission. (2015, May 13). Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions: A European Agenda on Migration. COM(2015) 240. Retrieved from

European Commission. (2022, March 23). Ukraine: EU support to help Member States meet the needs of refugees. [Press release]. Retrieved from

Henriques, Joana Gorjão. (2022, March 2). “Africanos para o fim da fila”: portugueses alvo de racismo ao tentarem fugir da guerra na Ucrânia. Público. Retrieved from


About the author:

Ana Carolina Santos, 20 years old, natural from Coimbra.

Third year International Relations' student in the Faculty of Economics of the University of Coimbra. Volunteer at SPEAK Coimbra. Interested in international migrations and european and asian geopolitics.


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