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Race, culture and politics underpin how — or if — refugees are welcomed in Europe

A Polish border guard speaks with women and children fleeing Ukraine at a border crossing on Wednesday near Korczowa, Poland.
Sean Gallup
/
Getty Images
A Polish border guard speaks with women and children fleeing Ukraine at a border crossing on Wednesday near Korczowa, Poland.

More than a million Ukrainians have fled to neighboring countries to escape the Russian invasion — and that number could soar to more than 4 million in coming months, the United Nations refugee agency says.

More than half have entered Poland, with others going to Hungary, Moldova, Slovakia and Romania — and they have been receiving a warm welcome.

Ukrainians arriving in Hungary are coming to a "friendly place," Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said.

"We will do everything to provide safe shelter in Poland for everyone who needs it," said Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski.

At the Polish border, guards hand out sandwiches to Ukrainians in waiting rooms. Polish citizens donate piles of toys and meet migrants with hot tea and free rides to where they need to go.

The open-arm welcome for those fleeing Ukraine stands in sharp contrast to the treatment of previous waves of refugees from places like Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Just two months earlier, Orbán said Hungary was keeping its restrictive immigration policies: "[W]e aren't going to let anyone in."

But experts say the differences are not due to racism alone. One factor is cultural: For instance, the long, historic ties between the peoples of Ukraine and Poland. A second factor is political: Terrorism fears over the last two decades have shaped the reception of migrants from countries perceived as security threats.

Those fleeing Ukraine are seen as different from other refugees

Earlier this week, Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov drew a distinction between those fleeing Ukraine and others.

"These people are Europeans," Petkov said. "These people are intelligent, they are educated people. ... This is not the refugee wave we have been used to, people we were not sure about their identity, people with unclear pasts, who could have been even terrorists ..."

Most of the large numbers of people fleeing Ukraine are women and children. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has ordered men between the ages of 18 and 60 to stay and fight.

Ira Michalchenko (center) feeds hot soup to her daughter Zlata, 6, as Ira's mother Olha Dyaldun (right) looks on shortly after their arrival in Poland from war-torn Ukraine at the Medyka border crossing on Thursday.
Sean Gallup / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Ira Michalchenko (center) feeds hot soup to her daughter Zlata, 6, as Ira's mother Olha Dyaldun (right) looks on shortly after their arrival in Poland from war-torn Ukraine at the Medyka border crossing on Thursday.

Ukraine is not a member of the European Union. But even before this war started, Ukrainian citizens were permitted to travel to EU countries without a visa. The EU has now approved an emergency plan allowing Ukrainians to live and work in the bloc for up to three years.

By contrast, hundreds of migrants from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and other countries became stranded at the border between Belarus and Poland last year as thousands tried to get to Western Europe. Poland prevented the migrants from entering the country, posting riot police to supplement its border guards.

The United States and European governments accuse the regime of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of luring asylum-seekers and thrusting them over the border as a political move against the EU. About a dozen people died there.

In 2015 and 2016, large numbers of migrants, many of them from Syria and Iraq, arrived on Europe's shores seeking refuge. Germany took in 1 million migrants and urged the rest of the EU to accept some of the refugees. But not all member states were willing to take their share, Hungary among them.

Racism is seen in discrimination at the border and journalists' comments

There are also fresh incidents that have brought charges of racism.

Students in Ukraine from Africa and South Asia have reported being treated poorly and encountering discrimination at the border as they tried to flee. "I've been through a lot in Polish border," Nigerian medical student Freedom Chidera told NPR's Eleanor Beardsley. "I mean, that's the worst experience in my life. I called my mother. I was crying."

En route between the Ukrainian city of Lviv and Poland, security guards dragged "all the Black guys from the train," said Clement Akenboro, an economics student from Nigeria.

Then there have been the statements from some journalists.

"We're not talking here about Syrians fleeing the bombing of the Syrian regime backed by Vladimir Putin. We're talking about Europeans leaving in cars that look like ours," said journalist Philippe Corbé on France's BFM news channel. (The broadcaster said his remarks were "clumsy but taken out of context.")

And CBS News senior foreign correspondent Charlie D'Agata, describing fighting in Kyiv, said: "You know, this is a relatively civilized, relatively European — I have to choose those words carefully, too — city where you wouldn't expect that..." (He later apologized.)

The embrace of Ukrainians contrasts with some countries' hostile stance toward other migrants in recent years.

Referring to the Bulgarian prime minister's comments, human rights campaigner Nyasha Bhobo writes in The New Arab: "The subtle rhetoric here ... is that refugees of white-European, Christian orientation are preferable. Others who are Black, Arab, and especially of Muslim faith are to be violently kept out. This is the rhetoric that has built over the last 11 years since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war."

Ziad Majed, a political scientist at the American University of Paris, told Agence France-Presse that the solidarity for Ukraine had revealed "a shocking distinction" that demonstrated the "dehumanization of refugees from the Middle East."

"Countries that had been really negative on the refugee issue and have made it very difficult for the EU to develop coherent refugee policy over the last decade, suddenly come forward with a much more positive response," Jeff Crisp, a former head of policy, development and evaluation at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees agency, told The Associated Press.

Poland and Ukraine have a long and overlapping history

While race no doubt plays a role in attitudes, experts say it's not the only reason that Ukrainians are being welcomed warmly.

An estimated 1 million to 2 million Ukrainians already live in Poland. Many fled there after the 2014 Russian takeover of Crimea and the beginning of the war in eastern Ukraine. And now, many of those streaming out of Ukraine are finding shelter with friends and family already living there.

"For 1k years we lived in the same country, we fought, we mixed and we killed each other, we're a bit like Ireland and the U.K.," Maria Sobolewska, a political science professor at the University of Manchester, wrote in a Twitter thread.

Sobolewska notes there are Polish TV shows about Ukrainians in Poland, and "we all know someone who moved from there, most likely more than 1 person," she writes. "Contact breeds trust and acceptance."

She says "there is an element of racism OF COURSE" in the embrace of Ukrainians, but she notes that "cultural proximity is important for immigration support."

Immigration has been a hot-button issue in Poland since the crisis at the border with Belarus began last summer, says Marta Bivand Erdal, co-director of the Migration Centre at Peace Research Institute Oslo. She was born in Poland, and her mother is Polish.

The standoff saw Polish border guards using water cannons and tear gas to turn back asylum-seekers throwing stones. But Erdal says there were others at the border pushing for migrants' rights, including Poland's ombudsman for human rights and civil society activists.

Migrants are seated after crossing the border from Belarus into Poland in the village of Usnarz Gorny in September 2021.
Czarek Sokolowski / AP
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AP
Migrants are seated after crossing the border from Belarus into Poland in the village of Usnarz Gorny in September 2021.

The intense political debate at the height of that crisis is far different from what's happening now, Erdal tells NPR.

A major reason so many Ukrainians are fleeing to Poland is the long border the countries share; for many, it's the nearest way out of the country that isn't into Russia or Belarus. But there are also longstanding cultural ties.

Part of the intimacy between Poland and Ukraine results from the fact the region's borders have changed numerous times, between the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Prussia and the Russian Empire, and today.

"Poland, for instance, didn't even exist on the map for a century," Erdal says. "It came back in 1918. ... It's not that long ago."

As borders have changed, so have ethnicities, languages and nationalities.

Erdal says that part of the outpouring of support springs from a sense of "this could be us" among Poles, due to proximity and chance: The Ukrainian city of Lviv was once part of Poland. Now it's under threat.

"These cities are just so close," Erdal says. "There's been shelling quite close to the Polish border. ... There's been windows shaking in houses on the Polish side of the border. It's incredibly close. "

There's also a post-Cold War sense in Poland that the country must be kept safe from Russia. That safety comes in the form of EU and NATO membership, Erdal says.

"I think there is a sense that this is a real danger, and it's a danger that affects us as well, and it's very close to home. ... That struggle for freedom and democracy in Poland is not old. You don't have to be very old to remember '89 [when the Berlin Wall fell]," she says.

That, in turn, leads to urgency in supporting the Ukrainian people, "a sense that 'We can't leave the Ukrainians alone. We need to do everything we can to support them.' And then normal people's way of being able to do that is to provide blankets and to go to the train station and bring hot tea," Erdal says. "It's just a very human response."

Some refugees seen as a security risk have gotten a colder reception

Another question is why some groups of people must undergo intense scrutiny before they are granted asylum, while in this case, the door to the EU seems to be wide open.

Jennifer Sciubba is an associate professor of international studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., and a global fellow with the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. Her book 8 Billion and Counting: How Sex, Death, and Migration Shape Our World comes out this month.

She says that, after 9/11, migrants came to be seen as a potential threat as they fled areas of the world associated with security risks. That changed the nature of the discussion around refugees, so that they became perceived as a national security issue, rather than simply a humanitarian one. That's meant an emphasis on vetting migrants' backgrounds for criminal or terrorist activity.

Migrants receive food outside the transport and logistics center near the Bruzgi border point on the Belarusian-Polish border in November 2021.
Andrei Pokumeiko / BELTA/AFP via Getty Images
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BELTA/AFP via Getty Images
Migrants receive food outside the transport and logistics center near the Bruzgi border point on the Belarusian-Polish border in November 2021.

Attacks by Islamist militants in Europe have driven fear of migrants there. And that narrative of migrants as a security risk, Sciubba tells NPR, "has made a lot of Europeans and Americans wary of migrants fleeing places like Iraq and Afghanistan, Syria, other places across the Middle East and North Africa."

Sciubba says it's hard to separate race from other factors in the welcome of Ukrainians over other migrants and refugees.

"Is it racism couched in national security terms? Maybe. I think that's incredibly analytically hard to separate," she says. "But I think you could definitely tie those things together to say: There was an assumption, or a greater fear, of people fleeing from conflict areas where there have been terrorist incidents or the association of terrorism."

She says that during the Cold War, Western countries moved to take in refugees fleeing communist countries, at least in part to send an ideological message. The Soviet government was embarrassed as scientists and artists decamped for America.

But now refugee policies and rhetoric are driven by national security concerns. And the framing of the Ukraine situation makes it out to be different, Sciubba says: " 'Oh, we're not talking about a conflict in the Middle East and North Africa, so we've got different language we're using for this.' And it's almost like we're turning to this ideological message, 'Hey, come on in here. You're Europeans, too. We know you don't want to live under Putin.' "

People in Poland are talking about this contrast

The conversation about the contrast between Poland's reception of Ukrainians now compared with other groups isn't just a discussion among outsiders or on Twitter. It's happening in Poland, too.

"That racism was experienced by people of color fleeing Ukraine over the weekend is beyond any doubt," says Erdal, the migration researcher. "And that's of course completely condemnable. There are so many Polish activists working for migrants' rights who are so ashamed ... that this is what is now being told about Poland. And it's part of the truth that needs to be told."

As for why the response was different when bombs were falling in Syria or Afghanistan, Erdal says "it's incredibly hard to not see that in some sense as a question of race and religion and the other."

Exactly what the dynamics are, she says, is hard to pin down: "But I think that maybe it's important to know that that is a conversation which is being had in Poland — and it's an important conversation that needs to be had."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.