The war in Ukraine began in early 2014, following the “revolution of dignity,” which involved a series of anti-government protests in the capital, Kyiv, and ultimately the ousting of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych from the country. Since then, violence between eastern Ukraine (Donbas) and Russia has escalated and remained constant — marked by the deaths of thousands of civilians and soldiers over Ukraine’s potential entry into NATO.
In order to ensure that Ukraine would not advance in its plans to join NATO, Russia has threatened the nation multiple times with the prospect of war, and in mid-February of this year, the nuclear power instigated an ongoing occupation and invasion of Ukraine.
While the Russian occupation of Ukraine has been met with widespread international condemnation, it has also led many to reference conflicts in the Middle East, specifically Palestine and Yemen, as well as Kashmir in South Asia — which have been going on for decades.
Although tensions in Europe and other parts of the world are not necessarily identical to those in the Middle East, they are both still characterized by the same horrific effects of war. However, there have been clear differences in the ways in which the media has represented and responded to these crises.
The most common of these is how wars in the Middle East have been normalized — it is assumed that conflicts in the Middle East have been going on for so long that they are expected. In response to a U.S airstrike in Iran, former Trump official K.T. Mcfarland stated that the Middle East’s “normal state of condition is war […] they’ve been fighting for 4,000 years.”
Through doing so, Mcfarland reinforces the idea that Middle Eastern wars are unavoidable and that there is no use in advocating against them. In response to the Russia-Ukraine war, Prince William stated that “it’s very alien to see this in Europe” as “Britons were more used to seeing conflict in Africa and Asia.”
When war occurs in Europe, it is never defined by the media in the same way as the Middle East. There is no nation in the world that deserves war, and therefore, limiting it to be natural to one part of the world overlooks Europe’s legacy of colonialism and profiteering off of the political destabilization of these regions.
This distinction is not limited to media discourses, but on the ground as well. As thousands of refugees from the Middle East and Africa flee Ukraine, thousands of Yemenis, Afghans and Africans report discrimination from authorities as they attempt to leave the same types of dire circumstances.
On top of this, videos and reports coming out of Ukraine are indicating that African international students are being blocked from getting on trains or reprimanded in their attempts to leave the country — further exposing the racialized nature of European border politics, despite the war. It indicates that justice is demanded for those fleeing conflict, only if they fit the mold of who is considered to be a victim. Should they be a person of colour, they’re simply an opportunistic migrant that seeks to disrupt the social order of a pure, European society.
Notably, the conflict in Ukraine must not be solely constrained to these many experiences, just as the Syrian, Afghan, Palestinian, Yemeni, Iraqi conflict and its refugees should not be confined to comments of normalcy. All refugees should be treated equally, regardless of their status, ethnicity or religion. As many refugees find themselves stranded across borders, government and security officials instill hostility and geopolitics to those who are not “Europeans [and] who could be terrorists.”
Such rhetoric paints a distinct picture in which racism and Islamophobia instill stereotypes and generalizations when evaluating and policing dire situations. Many people of colour have learned that able applications and consequences of law elucidate certain rights of resistance and notions of “proper” refugees to the dependence of individualistic physical traits and racial lines. Rooted in a system of privilege and supremacy, the world remains indifferent to the oppression and discrimination of darker men and women.
In a blatant and racist response to the conflict, CBS correspondent Charlie D’Agata stated that Ukraine “is a relatively civilized, relatively European” country in comparison to “Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Another former deputy prosecutor general of Ukraine interviewed on BBC stated, “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair.”
The Ukrainian crisis reveals the existence of a socio-political power dynamic between European countries and other countries where violence is assumed to be the norm. When European and western countries fashion cultural and geographical importance, it insinuates their plight is of more significance than “other” identities.
The international response to Ukraine should be a default standard for global and collective action. International support should not be dependent on individuals having Eurocentric characteristics — but swift economic action and media commentaries have demonstrated otherwise. The international community and government officials who turn a blind eye to oppression in developing countries uphold notions of Eurocentric characteristics as it defines the extent of action, importance and attention.
When media and communicative outlets narrate on conflicts in non-western countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and Palestine, they implement a racialized lens in which oppression becomes contested. Let’s be clear — nothing should undermine Ukraine and the suffering and violence against the country and its people, but the contradictory status quo for visible minorities should not be overlooked.
Such commentary and ignorance reflect a pervasive mentality in journalism as it normalizes conflict and lack of action in certain areas of the world. The status of victimhood becomes an issue of contention on the basis of the ethnicity of the victim and whether or not their exodus into safer, often European, countries may disrupt the social order. If we are a compassionate people, our compassion does not stop at the colour of one’s skin.
This article is a part of our Voices section.