The Limitations of Humanity: Differential Refugee Treatment in the EU

The Limitations of Humanity: Differential Refugee Treatment in the EU

. 8 min read
“Why don’t we see this caring and this love? Why?...Are Ukrainians better than us?”
“All of Europe says that there are rights for every human being and we did not see that.”

Albagir, a male refugee from Sudan, and one of his co-travelers struggle to cross into Poland. Meanwhile, the Maslovas, a family from Ukraine, enjoy warm welcomes.

“It was not the bad parts that broke us down, but the good parts…You’re not preparing yourself emotionally for the fact that the entire world is going to support you.”

Albagir is given beatings, and the Maslovas are given bread.

This stark contrast epitomizes Europe’s unequitable treatment of different refugee populations, with Ukrainians topping the refugee hierarchy. Extensive efforts to support Ukrainian refugees are effectively progressive, yet they send a painfully clear message to non-Ukrainian refugees excluded from benefits: that they are less deserving of aid and acceptance.

How are Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian refugees treated in the EU?

Currently, Ukrainians benefit from the unprecedented implementation of the Temporary Protection Directive, which allows Ukrainian refugees to reside, seek employment, and attend school in the EU for three years, no official asylum approval necessary. Ukrainians enjoy more lenient entry requirements, refugee reception centers offering essentials, easier travel within the EU, and free public transportation and phone services. They can even enter Slovakia and Poland without papers, countries displaying potent anti-refugee sentiments during the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis. In 2016, Hungarian leader Viktor Orbán described migration as a “poison,” yet he recently exclaimed that Ukrainians are “welcomed by friends in Hungary.” EU nations—even those with notorious anti-migrant sentiments—have opened their arms and borders to Ukrainian refugees with unprecedented generosity.

In contrast, non-Ukrainian refugees have been physically assaulted by Polish and Belarussian patrolmen; left to freeze in the winter; detained in unhygienic camps in Greece; “trapped in limbo” between Poland and Belarus; assaulted with tear gas and water cannons near the Greece-Turkey border; and bombarded with xenophobic and anti-migrant rhetoric, especially in Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia. The EU refused to activate the Temporary Protection Directive in 2015, incentivized other nations to thwart the flow of refugees, and neglected to discipline border patrol agents who violated the rights of asylum seekers. Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel—widely hailed as a champion of refugee rights—funded Turkey’s refugee camps so that President Erdoğan would hinder the passage of refugees into Greece, an EU member. Meanwhile, Poland erected a border fence, started to build a wall, passed legislation to make entry more difficult, and only accepted about 5.7 percent of asylum applications in 2020. As more refugees entered Europe, detention increased, and former European Council President Donald Tusk even called for 18-month detention periods.

If they are able to overcome these barriers and enter the EU, non-Ukrainians face prolonged unemployment. Unlike Ukrainians, they must apply for asylum and wait for approval before seeking jobs. Since “being forced to wait one additional year for the asylum decisions lowers the probability of being employed by about 4.9 percentage points'' due to “skills atrophy” and demoralization, it is more difficult for non-Ukrainian refugees to integrate into the workforce. Furthermore, according to Hanne Beirens, Migration Policy Institute think tank director, the prioritization of Ukrainian refugees restricts the resources available to other refugees, such as housing and language courses; this inequality creates a “two-tiered system” of refugee integration. With fewer resources invested in non-Ukrainian refugees, it may take longer for their asylum cases to be processed, prolonging unemployment, living precarity, and limited access to resources.

What explains this differential treatment?

Arriving from the Middle East and Africa, non-Ukranian refugees are often otherized. Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov recently drew a distinct line between the two groups, justifying differential treatment and fostering a sense of Ukrainian exceptionalism:

"These are not the refugees we are used to…These people are Europeans…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."


Underscoring this justification is Islamophobia; Ukrainian refugees are primarily Christian, while refugees from Syria and North Africa are mostly Muslim. Therefore, the latter must contend with heightened xenophobia, and numerous studies evidence discrimination against Muslim asylum seekers. One 2022 study examining over 4,000 asylum applications in France between 1976 and 2016 found that Muslims were less likely than Christians to receive asylum. While this study indicates anti-Muslim bias among government officials, a similar 2016 study suggests that regular citizens exhibit similar tendencies. Approximately 18,000 Europeans from 15 countries were given profiles and asked whom they would grant asylum; the study found a “consistent bias against Muslim asylum-seekers, who were 11 percentage points less likely to be accepted than otherwise similar Christians.” Corroborating this anti-Muslim bias among Europeans, another experiment in France concluded that increasing numbers of Muslims in France resulted in increased xenophobia. Barbed political rhetoric both reflects and exacerbates these trends among Europeans. For example, Orbán seeks to establish a “Christian democracy” in Hungary, and he has stated that “Christian and Muslim society will never unite.” This potent anti-Muslim, Christian supremacy rhetoric explains why Hungary welcomes Christian Ukrainians and rejects Muslim refugees from Africa and the Middle East.

Islamophobia also underlies the assumption that Middle Eastern refugees are violent terrorists—a sentiment echoed in Petkov’s speech and Orbán’s comments that Muslim asylum seekers are “Muslim invaders,” accepting Middle Eastern migrants is “importing terrorism,” and “all the terrorists are basically migrants.” This assumption is a blatant fallacy of composition not applied to whites. In the words of Al Jazeera journalist Saif Khalid, “when white people commit ‘terrorism’ this is seen as an individual act that does not represent the entire race.” In Srebrenica in July 1995, towards the end of the 1992-1995 civil war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbs massacred 8,000 Bosnian Muslims, a blatant act of genocide. Since 9/11, far-right terrorists have killed more people in the United States than Islamic jihadists. Yet, as Khalid notes, “we do not have a stereotype of white people being inherently violent and prone to domestic ‘terrorism.’" Branding Muslims as terrorists and using such accusations to reject Muslim asylum seekers are thinly veiled attempts for religious, racial, and ethnic prejudice to masquerade as national security concerns.

Othering and Racial Prejudice

Religious and other prejudices are often intertwined; the disparity between how the EU treats Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian refugees stems from Europeans’ empathy for Ukrainians and the othering of African and Middle Eastern refugees. As political scientist Lamis Abdelaaty describes, “Europeans see Ukrainians as White and Christian, similar to the way that many in European countries see themselves.” Eastern Europeans are especially welcoming of Ukrainians, with whom they share a sense of fraternity; many people move around within Eastern Europe, so nationalities expand beyond each nation’s borders. Contrarily, due to racial, religious, cultural, and ethnic differences, Europeans feel less sympathy for other refugees. Furthermore, to many white and Christian Europeans, an influx of Middle Eastern and African Muslim refugees threatens power dynamics rooted in racial and religious hegemony, while incoming Ukrainians primarily strengthen them. In both the United States and Europe, the inevitability of multiculturalism and diversity―and the resulting decay of white dominance―prompts nativism, racism, and xenophobia from the right.

The impact of racism on refugee treatment is evident in how African, Middle Eastern, and Asian refugees fleeing Ukraine are treated. Ukrainian nationals are oftentimes allowed to board evacuation transportation ahead of foreign nationals, who also face more difficulties entering countries like Poland and acquiring suitable accommodations. For example, Ukrainians and Poles are fast-tracked across the border near Medyka, Poland, while everyone else must wait 14 to 50 hours to cross. Guinean student Moustapha Bagui Sylla recalled, “They stopped us at the border and told us that Blacks were not allowed. But we could see White people going through.” A Nigerian student added, “They’re pushing us back just because we’re Black!...We’re all human…They should not discriminate against us because of the colour of our skin.” Racism against POC fleeing Ukraine exposes differential treatment even among refugees fleeing the same conflict, suggesting that European solidarity is skin-deep.

Impact of Racism on Media Coverage

Racism also impacts refugee treatment by influencing media coverage. Al Jazeera journalist Virginia Pietromarchi notes, “Bloody conflicts in Syria, Somalia, and other places have not received the wide-reaching international media coverage—or urgent international government action—that the invasion of Ukraine has inspired." In other words, the deaths of African and Middle Eastern civilians have elicited less attention from media outlets and foreign governments than the deaths of Ukrainians. Since the media expose Europeans more to the conflict in Ukraine, they are more aware of the atrocities and trauma necessitating Ukrainians’ flight to nearby countries; therefore, refugees’ need for asylum seems more legitimate. Furthermore, semantics matter. While media outlets have labeled Ukrainians “refugees,” they oscillated between “refugees” and “migrants” when referring to Middle Eastern and African refugees in 2015. “Refugee” implies involuntary exodus, while “migrant” refers more to voluntary movement; therefore, the use of the latter undermines non-Ukrainian refugees’ requests for asylum. Saif Khalid of Al Jazeera attributes this disparate language to primarily white media outlets that “[lack] diversity and perspective” and enforce racial stereotypes. Media outlets therefore play a decisive role in how Europeans view asylum seekers.

Geopolitics: Russian Aggression and the EU’s International Reputation

Extensive international coverage of the crisis in Ukraine also has geopolitical consequences. Governments and civilians around the world have vocalized their support for Ukraine and opposition to Russia; therefore, the EU risks international backlash if it fails to absorb and aid millions of Ukrainian refugees. The EU’s response to the refugee crisis also shapes its posture towards Russia and reignites Cold War concerns about Russian aggression, for Eastern Europeans acknowledge the potential for Putin to invade their nations as well. By welcoming Ukrainian refugees and imposing economic sanctions on Russia, the EU has demonstrated its support for Ukrainian sovereignty and opposition to Russian aggression without direct military intervention. As Abdelaaty describes, welcoming refugees “[condemns] 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.” Therefore, welcoming Ukrainians is politically expedient for the EU.

The conflict is also highly symbolic, for it reflects a “[return] to bipolarity and a new Cold War,” a standoff between democracy and autocracy, morality and hostility. This clear binary extends to Zelensky and Putin. Famously declaring “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride” from the war-torn streets of Kyiv, Zelensky has become a vocal, defiant defender of democracy and civil liberties, while Putin has trampled Russians’ freedoms, invaded a sovereign nation, and authorized countless war crimes in Ukraine. For the West, the line between right and wrong is simply the border between Ukraine and Russia.

Even though refugees are always victims of conflict, the civil war in Syria is more difficult to fit into this binary of right versus wrong, which may affect the EU’s perceived political expediency of aiding Syrian refugees. Unlike Ukraine, the Assad regime in Syria was authoritarian, corrupt, and violent. Shooting, detaining, torturing, and executing protestors, Assad forcefully crushed pro-democracy protests during the Arab Spring. During the civil war, civilians were often purposefully caught in the crossfire between Assad and opposition forces; for example, in 2013, Assad’s forces waged chemical war against civilians, killing 1,400. As the opposition fragmented into various factions, terrorist groups exploited the chaos, targeting both Assad’s forces and civilians. Assad sought to offer “a stark choice between his secular rule and a jihadi alternative,” creating a binary with no clean, moral winner. The EU had to support Ukraine—which included a commitment to aiding Ukrainian refugees—or risk international condemnation; in contrast, it is more politically risky for the EU to commit to one side of the Syrian civil war (a perceived choice between a tyrannical government or jihadists). This absence of a commitment to a particular side may have reduced the reputational incentives to help affected refugees.

A myriad of factors overlap and contribute to the exceptionalism of Ukrainian refugees in the EU—Islamophobia; Europeans’ perceived similarities and fraternity with Ukrainians; racism, which also perpetuates inequality among refugees leaving Ukraine; media coverage; and geopolitics, especially the post-Cold War fear of Russian aggression and the EU’s concern for its international reputation. Although Article 3 of the 1951 Refugee Convention states that nations “shall apply the provisions of this Convention to refugees without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin,” white, Christian, Ukrainian refugees receive preferential treatment in the EU. Until the EU extends these benefits to nonwhite, Muslim, Middle Eastern and African refugees, the bloc will not only be violating Article 3, but also the unwritten laws of basic human decency.