European countries are welcoming Ukrainian refugees. It was a different story in 2015

Refugee children who fled the Russian war in Ukraine attend a school preparation course last week in Dusseldorf, Germany. (Thilo Schmuelgen/Reuters)
Refugee children who fled the Russian war in Ukraine attend a school preparation course last week in Dusseldorf, Germany. (Thilo Schmuelgen/Reuters)

More than 3 million people have fled Ukraine since Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24. European countries have welcomed them with open arms. Nations in the European Union upheld European Council activated the 2001 Temporary Protection Directive for the first time, permitting Ukrainians to access social services and the labor market.

It was a different story in 2015, when more than 1 million people from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere crossed into Europe. Countries responded by tightening their borders and quickly negotiating a deal with Turkey to stem arrivals.Since then, European governments have made efforts to deport Syrians, block Afghans and trap sub-Saharan Africans in perilous conditions in Libya. Even as Poland has embraced Ukrainians, it has cracked down on Iraqis and others attempting to cross from Belarus.

What explains these divergent responses? It’s not just the identity of those knocking on Europe’s doors. Foreign policy and the labels we use to describe people on the move also play a role.

Identity is part of the story

Reporters and pundits were quick to contrast the crisis in Ukraine with other conflicts. A CBS correspondent described Kyiv as unlike “Iraq or Afghanistan”, calling it “a relatively civilized, relatively European” city. European politicians joined in — Bulgaria’s prime minister, for instance, said Ukrainians are “intelligent, they are educated. … This is not the refugee wave we have been used to”.

Most Syrian asylum seekers who arrived in 2015 are also well educated, but the subtext of these statements is that Ukrainians are similar to the Europeans receiving them. “They seem so like us”, writes Daniel Hannan in the Telegraph. In the words of an Al Jazeera anchor, “They look like any European family that you’d live next door to”.

People generally sympathize with those who they think share their identity. And policymakers may be less concerned that admitting large numbers of “kin” will shift the country’s demographic balance. Instead, they may reap electoral advantages from using a refugee crisis to mobilize their compatriots along identity-based lines. As my research shows, shared racial, linguistic and religious ties increase the acceptance rate of asylum applications and result in more generous refugee policies worldwide.

Europeans see Ukrainians as White and Christian, similar to the way that many in European countries see themselves. There are also cultural similarities and a common history with neighboring countries like Poland. For some right-wing politicians like Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, welcoming Ukrainians and shutting out others may emphasize a Christian national identity. In contrast, people from the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere are seen as “others” escaping distant conflicts — and their plight does not evoke the same degree of shock and empathy.

Foreign policy matters, too

Shared identity is not the whole story. That Ukrainians are fleeing a Russian invasion is also shaping their reception. Following the invasion, European countries quickly condemned Russia and imposed sanctions. For E.U. countries bordering Russia, the invasion has reawakened historical animosities toward Moscow. Some countries have articulated a fear that they might be the next victims of Russian aggression.

My research shows that countries are more accepting of asylum applications and more likely to adopt a range of welcoming policies for those escaping rival or hostile governments, compared with those leaving friendly or allied governments. Admitting individuals and families fleeing generally implies condemnation of the government that caused their flight and can help further discredit that government in the eyes of the world, as well as its own people. Members of that diaspora can also eventually support the fight back home by sending money and supplies.

While European countries have provided military assistance to Ukraine, they have drawn the line at sending troops or imposing a no-fly zone over the country. Given these limitations, welcoming Ukrainians allows European countries to further signal which side of the conflict they are on. It also helps European countries continue to portray the conflict as one between good and evil, a fight for democracy and freedom against the forces of autocracy and tyranny.

How the media labels border-crossers matters

In 2015, media coverage of arrivals in Europe featured a lot of hand-wringing over whether to use the term “migrant” or “refugee”. Not so with Ukraine, where governments and the media used the label “refugee” immediately and continue to do so.

These labels are consequential. Surveys have shown that the perception of border-crossers as voluntary or involuntary influences public opinion. In general, people hold more positive attitudes toward those forced to flee for political reasons, compared with those choosing to move for economic opportunities — people see refugees as more deserving of support than migrants. Indeed, in an article with a co-author, we show that public receptivity in Europe varies toward those seen as refugees as opposed to migrants.

It is worth noting that most Ukrainians, like anyone fleeing indiscriminate violence, would not qualify for refugee status under the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention. That treaty defines “refugee” as an individual persecuted on grounds like race or religion. Regardless, news coverage that labels Ukrainians as refugees further encourages Europeans to view them positively, compared with Mediterranean arrivals and others who have been labeled migrants.

International law prohibits discrimination between refugees according to race, religion or country of origin. However, my book shows that this sort of discrimination happens worldwide, including in countries of the Global South. Identity is not static, though: The sense of shared “Europeanness” that is shaping responses to Ukrainians was constructed over time and can conceivably expand to include other groups.

U.N. figures in 2020 reported 82.4 million “forcibly displaced” people, including 20.7 million refugees. In 2022, Ukrainian displacement has been described as the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. Perhaps, like the refugee crisis in the wake of that war, this current crisis will force a reckoning with how European and other countries deal with all people on the move.

Lamis Abdelaaty is an assistant professor of political science at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. She is the author of “Discrimination and Delegation: Explaining State Responses to Refugees” (Oxford University Press, 2021).

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