Independent and cutting-edge analysis on global affairs
DOI: 10.58867/ABSO5473

One of the very few bright spots in the last year has been the European humanitarian response to the invasion of Ukraine. According to published figures, at least 8 million Ukrainians have crossed international borders to escape the fighting in their country, while at least 6 million are internally displaced.[1] One-third of the country's population, in other words, has been forced to leave their homes due to the Russian invasion. However, unlike so many other refugee crises, the humanitarian response has been heartwarming. Recent figures show Germany and Poland have taken in two million Ukrainian refugees; their combined total is roughly the same number of refugees that have found refuge in Russia. Germany has offered displaced Ukrainians food, shelter, medical assistance, permission to work, and financial unemployment benefits. This scale of humanitarian action far exceeds the cosmopolitan spirit of hospitality that the philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote about centuries ago, namely, the right of a stranger not to be greeted with hostility when he arrives on someone else’s territory. The warmth which Ukrainian refugees were greeted with across central Europe also reminds us of the exceptional 2015 decision by former German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, to welcome a million refugees to her country despite heated resistance from her own party and colleagues: “We can do it,” as she memorably said at the time. 

The most apparent reason why this humanitarian behavior is so striking is because it stands in such marked contrast with how European countries typically handle inflows of asylum seekers, displaced persons, and irregular migrants. In 2022, the budget of the European border protection agency Frontex was 754 million euros, 125 times more than it was in 2006.[2] During this period and faced with regular flows of irregular migration from the Middle East and Africa, European states refused to meet their legal obligations under the UN Refugee Convention. Countries denied access to ships carrying displaced persons, physically blocked entry to asylum seekers, pushed refugees into neighboring states, and much worse. The UK went so far as to try and “export” asylum seekers to Rwanda, paying the country 140 million pounds for taking them in.[3] In recent years, new algorithmic technologies, including artificial intelligence tools, were joined to the arsenal of physical barriers designed to control movement into EU territories, creating what some have called virtual borders. With the objective of making it as hard as possible for asylum seekers to reach Europe, the EU adopted a de-facto policy of offshoring migrant interdiction in locations far from European shores. In support of this policy, the EU signed agreements with Türkiye and Libya, to prevent refugees from beginning perilous sea journeys across the eastern and western Mediterranean. In the name of preventing human trafficking and smuggling, the EU has transferred over 300 million euros to Libyan militias and other faux-governmental organizations to detain refugees and migrants indefinitely in terrible physical conditions and in complete violation of their human rights. UN agencies are complicit in these arrangements, notwithstanding Security Council sanctions against some Libyan militia leaders. Millions of euros more have gone to private security companies to assist in this process.[4]

The most obvious conclusion to draw from the striking contrast between the European reaction to Ukrainians crossing borders versus asylum seekers from other parts of the world comes down to perceived race and origin. Ukrainians are white and of European origin; the others are not. But why should this divided response come as a surprise? Throughout the world, the majority of irregular migrants and asylum seekers find refuge in neighboring countries. Syrians fleeing their devastated country move to Türkiye and Jordan; Venezuelans escaping economic collapse in their homeland flock to Colombia and Brazil; Afghans cross into Pakistan; Burmese gather on the Thai border, and so on. Physical proximity and limited means aside, refugees find it easier to recover from forced displacement in relatively familiar settings. Even more importantly, host communities find it much easier to be hospitable to refugees who look and sound like themselves or have the same religion. This reaction holds true despite a lack of resources within most host communities: UNHCR reports that three-fourths of displaced populations worldwide find refuge in places that can least afford it -- low- and middle-income countries -- not in the well-to-do Global North.[5]

The most obvious conclusion to draw from the striking contrast between the European reaction to Ukrainians crossing borders versus asylum seekers from other parts of the world comes down to perceived race and origin.

Notwithstanding these inarguable facts, dominant media coverage makes it appear that the global refugee crisis is an existential issue for host societies. Second, it is a problem faced primarily by economically advanced countries, notably, Europe, the U.S., and Australia. Taking a step back to reflect on these contradictions, we can see that media hysteria over the so-called “refugee crisis” is a moral panic, a highly localized expression of xenophobia that begins from the condition that refugees and irregular migrants seeking entry into richer countries appear to be visually, physically, and culturally alien to the Global North. They are “not white, not quite” to borrow Homi K. Bhabha’s memorable phrase.[6] White-skinned Christian-identified Ukrainians pass the test; Syrians, Somalis, and Afghans do not. 

Before this article appears to be nothing more than a familiar rant about Western hypocrisy, let me make clear that exposing double standards is not my purpose here. I wish to address the vast gap between the soaring and universalist language of the UN Refugee Convention and the fears of right-wing politicians, on the one hand, and actual practices of hospitality, sanctuary, refuge, and asylum on the ground, on the other. It is a sad truth that the political history of the nation-state, since at least the beginning of the 20th century, is inseparable from multiple forced displacements of populations around the world. In other words, the “production” of refugees is a deeply distressing and regular byproduct of the architecture of the modern territorial nation-state. However, the real story of contemporary humanitarianism is not about refugees per se, but rather about host communities and their willingness to accept, assist, and absorb others in need of assistance. It shows all too clearly that the alleged primacy of narrow self-interest belongs only in the fantasies of neoliberal economics textbooks. 

What I want to address here is my lack of surprise that German and Polish citizens and civil society have bent over backward to help displaced Ukrainians. From a global standpoint, the European response to Ukrainian refugees is following a script familiar to host communities worldwide. European publics behave more like their counterparts in Latin America, Africa, and Asia than not, with one main difference: the extent of material resources available in Europe to pay for refugee assimilation and resettlement. 


Systemic Exclusions in the International Refugee System

Calls to reform the “international refugee regime,” as it has been aptly termed, go back decades, with few signs of success. For years, it was warned that the Refugee Convention was so fragile that any effort to modify the treaty would collapse the regime. Notwithstanding, valiant efforts to make necessary changes continued and have led to the recently adopted Global Compact on Refugees. This compact is an ambitious effort to mitigate and address some of the great inequities of the current system, including burden-sharing, third country resettlement, and conditions for safe and dignified return. As is typically the case with international efforts at systemic reform, the carefully crafted and well-meaning compact builds on past standards and existing international law. While this cautious approach would generally be a sensible and practical approach to reform, it may not be so in the case of the international refugee regime. By building on the past, the compact fails to come to terms with the most glaring weaknesses of the original refugee regime, namely, that it was founded on exclusion, not inclusion, that wittingly or otherwise, it was drafted as an instrument in the Cold War battle of ideologies, and that it offered legal protection to some while offering material assistance to others. As a result, the distance between official efforts to manage refugee flows, and how and where the majority of the world refugees and asylum seekers live and survive, is likely to remain in place. 

It is worth recalling that efforts to create an international system for managing refugee flows date back to the turmoil of the Russian Revolution and the First World War. At first, only Russians escaping the Soviet Communist regime were eligible for refugee status, even though it was estimated that as many as 9.5 million Europeans were displaced after the war.[7] A few years later, this highly selective category would be expanded to include Christian Armenians fleeing the violent collapse of the Ottoman empire. During the upheavals of the inter-war period, further efforts were made to create a system for managing refugee flows in Europe, leading to the creation of a new office under the League of Nations, the High Commissioner for Refugees. The League would give way to the UN even as refugee flows continued unabated, due to national policies of exclusion, the collapse of colonial empires and the Second World War. In 1951, a handful of non-Communist states would sign a new international treaty, the Refugee Convention. 

It is worth recalling that efforts to create an international system for managing refugee flows date back to the turmoil of the Russian Revolution and the First World War. At first, only Russians escaping the Soviet Communist regime were eligible for refugee status, even though it was estimated that as many as 9.5 million Europeans were displaced after the war.

Although Article 14 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights acknowledged a universal right to seek asylum, the drafters of this treaty would not consider enshrining this right. The UN Refugee Convention was explicitly designed to apply only to persons displaced in Europe and whose displacement could be traced to before 1951. Other countries facing enormous crises of forced displacement during this period, not least newly independent India, Pakistan, and China, were excluded from the remit of the treaty. Only in 1967, with the passage of the Additional Protocol to the Refugee Convention, these legal restrictions were lifted, enabling the expansion of the international refugee regime to include the whole world. Even this welcome move was adopted primarily due to the emerging threat of regional refugee treaties in Africa and Asia that could become effective substitutes for the international regime. The net takeaway is that exclusion and selectivity is embedded in the DNA of the international refugee system. 

As many scholars have shown, during the Cold War it was taken for granted that the normative refugee was an individual fleeing political persecution, typically translated as Communist rule in their homeland. This effectively meant that refugee law was drafted to be employed as a weapon of the Cold War, as the Soviet bloc was all too aware. This definition was far removed from actual conditions in much of the world. It was more common to find groups and collectives fleeing the turmoil of new state formation, collective violence, political unrest, social exclusion, and more. Even ignoring this overtly ideological bias, what was even more insidious was the selective application of legal protections in practice, depending on where crises took place. The most stunning example is the contrasting treatment of Hungarians and Chinese, fleeing Communist regimes. Hungarians fleeing their country after the Soviet crackdown in 1956 would immediately be granted refugee status in spite of not meeting eligibility criteria, while mainland Chinese fleeing to British-ruled Hong Kong would not be eligible for such entitlements. Ideology would join with race in the application of refugee protection. 

Decolonization in Africa was a major trigger for new waves of forced displacement. The UNHCR was hard-pressed to cope with these flows, with less than 10 permanent staff based in the continent as late as 1964. The resulting burden on newly independent and relatively impoverished African states was immense. The UNHCR response was clear. Unlike the situation in Europe, displaced Africans were considered effectively ineligible for resettlement in a third country and were encouraged to assimilate into countries of first refuge. This response can be expressed in terms of the tension between legal protection and material assistance. Although international lawyers had long argued that legal protections are the pre-eminent need for displaced and stateless persons, this rule was not applied in decolonizing Africa. Displaced Africans were given material assistance and told to wait for conditions in their home countries to settle down. Legal protections were restricted to refugees in the West while material assistance (if they were lucky) was the rule for the Global South. Universality in dealing with refugees was in name only. 


The Way Forward

If the international refugee regime is built on historical exclusion and selective application of protections, where does that leave us? The lesson to draw is not surprise that international politics operates in uneven ways, dividing the world along familiar fault lines of race, class, gender, and GDP. The most valuable insight is the considerable distance between official positions and everyday behavior. The Ukraine crisis reminds us that host populations do not necessarily exhibit the same fears as their political leaders, that generosity to others in need is far more common than exclusion and xenophobia, and that refugees may also be sources of entrepreneurship, innovation, and economic growth. From a policy standpoint, a major takeaway is that a universal approach to refugee crises may not be the most effective way to move forward. A one-size-fits-all approach has been so undermined by structural exclusions and inconsistencies that it lacks credibility and legitimacy as a foundation for future positive change. A preferable starting point is to build on lessons learned from practices visible on the ground, and to use those insights as the starting points for establishing core principles and future policy. 

The following lessons may be drawn from recent history. The first is something all too often forgotten. Namely, that given the right conditions, refugees can become valuable sources of skills and capital. The Vietnamese community in Australia is a case in point.[8] Refugees may need help initially, but given the right conditions, they soon contribute more than they extract from the national income of the host community. Even if the Vietnamese are considered exceptional due to the capital and resources, they had access to, in many regions around the world a grateful second generation of refugee populations have become highly assimilated and contributing members of host societies. That said, we cannot forget how displaced Vietnamese arrived in Australia and the U.S. These host countries were forced to take them in due to pressure from Vietnam’s neighbors in Southeast Asia, who insisted that the countries perpetuating the conflict take responsibility for the refugees created by their actions. Alongside the full appreciation of refugee potential, state responsibility for the inevitable human consequences of geopolitical actions cannot be ignored or forgotten. 

The second lesson is that host communities prefer to help people who appear to be like themselves. Familiarity breeds empathy. This condition is both a sad commentary on the extent to which the world today sees itself as a space divided between people based on – especially -- race and religion, as well as a positive resource for those in need of asylum and protection. Neighbors protect neighbors, Europeans assist Europeans, Muslims offer help to other Muslims, and so on. Universal responses to refugee problems are unlikely to succeed. Third-country resettlement is extremely rare among the so-called three durable solutions to refugee movements, and safe return to the homeland is often too difficult to contemplate, especially in the short term. This leaves residence in the country of first asylum as the most likely outcome of refugee crises. A regional response to the burden faced by the country of first asylum is the most practical outcome to most refugee crises, in other words. To be sustainable, however, such an approach must begin with the collective recognition that the host country’s burden is not theirs alone, but a regional responsibility. Resources to aid the country of first asylum must become the responsibility of regional neighbors, assisted by the international community. This is, in effect, what is happening worldwide but needs to be explicitly recognized and institutionalized. 

While based entirely on lessons gleaned from historical experience, these proposals may seem impractical. Given the primacy of state sovereignty in the current international context, why should any country agree to accept these ideas, some may ask. This leads to the third lesson. Recurrent refugee emergencies cannot be seen as exceptions or breaks with the normal order of things. They are the norm. They must be understood as systemic features of international relations, and as we increasingly realize, inevitable outcomes of a capitalist world order built on fossil fuel extraction. Today’s political refugees are already joined with tomorrow’s climate refugees. But further, whether we think enlightened policies based on these lessons are impractical or unlikely also depends on the histories that we choose to remember. 

Decades ago, deep dissatisfaction with the prevailing refugee protection system would lead to the progressive and prescient African Refugee Convention of 1969, drafted by the Organization for African Unity (OAU). Unlike the legalistic emphasis of the UN Refugee Convention, which focuses on individual protection above all else, the OAU convention would be grounded in practical experience and the immediate history of decolonization. This treaty recognized that groups, not just individuals, could be displaced, that internal political unrest and disturbances could lead to forced displacement, even as it extended the reasons for flight well beyond the overtly political to include social fault-lines as well. These once-novel expansions of the idea of the refugee and possible causes of flight have now become normalized ways of addressing refugee crises, even by the UNHCR, and is reflected in the recent Global Compact on Refugees. The African Convention is a stunning example of what is possible when states get together in good faith to address common concerns. A recognition of mutual dependence, often glossed as weakness, underwrote the adoption of the Convention. In the process, apparent weakness was converted into collective strength. But where we go also depends on where we start from. No modifications of the current refugee regime will lead to desired outcomes without appreciating its systemic and inherent limits. The Refugee Convention consciously began from exclusion, ideology, and selectivity. By contrast, any sustainable future order will need to start from the experiences and lessons drawn from the European response to the current Ukraine refugee crisis.



[1] Accessed 24 February 2023. 

[5] Accessed 24 February 2023. 

[6] Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994).

[7] Saskia Sassen, Guests and Aliens (New York: New Press, 1999).

Itty Abraham
Itty Abraham

Itty Abraham is a Full-Professor in School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University and a Senior Global Futures Scholar.

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