As Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has intensified, nearly a million Ukrainian refugees have fled to neighboring Poland in the west. Thankfully, these families have been welcomed with plenty of free food, water, phones, shelter, and other resources necessary to survive in a new country. Although this is an admirable and humane way to greet traumatized refugees, the country’s treatment of Ukrainians stands in stark contrast to its treatment of other groups fleeing conflict in the Middle East and elsewhere.
The most prominent example that comes to mind is the unethical treatment of a group of 37 Afghan refugees that were trapped in a political standoff between the border of Belarus and Poland in November. Poland accused the Belarusian Government of using these refugees as pawns in a grand scheme to destabilize the European Union by manufacturing a new migration crisis. Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, did appear to be doing just that in response to EU sanctions against his autocratic regime. Nevertheless, it is evident that Poland and the EU at large have greatly failed at their duty to protect these refugees. Their insistence on tightening and securitizing borders left these innocent people stranded without adequate access to basic necessities. Criticizing the inhumane actions of Belarus didn’t change the fact that Poland did absolutely nothing to treat the migrants any better.
The change in Poland’s posture towards migrants over the past four months directly results from the cultural differences among the groups arriving. During the peak of the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015, the leader of the Law and Justice Party was quoted as saying that the influx of refugees would bring “dangerous parasites and protozoa.” This reflected the sentiment of a majority of the Polish public that viewed Middle Eastern refugees as a threat to their homogenous way of life. But when it came to opening its borders to Ukrainians over the past few weeks, the Polish public has been overwhelmingly supportive, with some even offering to help refugees personally.
Clearly, Poland and the EU’s shifting attitudes towards refugees are contingent on whether those fleeing for their lives look, speak, and believe in ways that align with conventional European culture. Even in the current crisis, there’s a major contrast in the treatment of different groups leaving Ukraine. In just the last week, there were reports of Ukrainian border officials blocking Africans from crossing into Poland, beating them back while simultaneously allowing Ukrainians to pass through.
Why is it that the West feels that it can determine who deserves to be saved and who does not? Why is it that those forced to leave behind everything that they know are made out to be a “dangerous other” if they don’t conform to the Western way of life? All humans deserve to live with dignity and to be treated with compassion. It’s great that Ukrainians have been given a warm welcome into Poland and the EU. They have lived through a nightmare that nobody should have to endure in their life, and they absolutely deserve to be treated with dignity. But this supportive treatment should not stop with Ukrainians. Afghans fleeing from Taliban repression deserved to be embraced just the same. Syrians escaping the brutality of the Assad regime deserved to be embraced just the same. Africans trying to leave Ukraine deserve to be embraced just the same.
We cannot accept a system that opens borders to those it deems worthy and able to integrate, only to shut them in the faces of those it sees as the “other.” We must begin to remove ourselves from the privileged positions that we hold and have compassion for those who have lost everything imaginable. These people aren’t coming to steal your jobs, nor are they coming to game the welfare system. Refugees are some of the most hardworking, tough, and inspiring people. It is our collective responsibility to give them the chance to survive and lead successful lives. Lives that allow their children to receive a well-rounded education. Lives that allow them to gain meaningful employment. Lives that allow them to rest easy at night and not question whether they will live to see tomorrow. It is time that the West lives up to the democratic values that it claims to embody and supports all refugees, no matter the cost.