While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has left hundreds fleeing the country, it has also brought to the fore claims of racism in the way the conflict is being covered by international media and in the policies of countries where immigrants are seeking refuge.
Ukraine’s neighbours, including Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, have welcomed incoming refugees from the country and have provided them safe havens. That though in some instances that some countries can have different policies towards those refugees who arrive from conflict zones away from Europe.
“These are not the refugees we are used to. These people are Europeans,” Bulgaria’s president Rumen Radev said about Ukrainian refugees earlier this week.
“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.”
“In other words,” he added, “there is not a single European country now which is afraid of the current wave of refugees.”
Syrian journalist Okba Mohammad called these comments a mix of “racism and Islamophobia”. A refugee himself, Mohammad had to flee his hometown of Dara in 2018. Now the journalist, who lives in Spain, said he was notsurprised by the remarks.
“A refugee is a refugee, whether European, African or Asian,” he said, as he recounted living in an underground shelter to protect himself from Russian bombs, struggling to board an overcrowded bus and being separated from his family at the borders.
The change in the tone of some of anti-migration leaders after the Ukraine war has also been telling.
“We aren’t going to let anyone in,” the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban had said in December last year, as he disallowed Middle Eastern and African refugees from entering Europe via Hungary.
“We are letting everyone in,” Mr Orban now says in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion.
Commentators and journalists have not escaped criticism either.
NBC News correspondent Kelly Cobiella was criticised on social media for airing views carrying racist undertones.
“Just to put it bluntly, These are not refugees from Syria, these are refugees from neighbouring Ukraine… These are Christian, they’re white, they’re very similar,” the journalist can be heard saying in a clip from a broadcast from Poland in a clip.
On BBC News, Ukraine’s former deputy general prosecutor, David Sakvarelidze came in for widespread criticism on social media when he said: “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blonde hair and blue eyes being killed every day with Putin’s missiles and his helicopters and his rockets.”
Al Jazeera’s English presenter Peter Dobbie on Sunday also described Ukrainians fleeing the war as “prosperous, middle class people” who “are not obviously refugees trying to get away from areas in the Middle East that are still in a big state of war; these are not people trying to get away from areas in North Africa, they look like any European family that you would live next door to.”
The channel later issued an apology, calling the comments “inappropriate, insensitive and irresponsible”.