Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor hosted an important and timely webinar on Monday to discuss human displacement and racial discrimination, to affirm the humanity and dignity of all asylum seekers pursuing equal rights, and to advocate for the provision of safe routes for all migrants and asylum seekers, regardless of race, religion, or nationality.
The webinar was titled “Double Standards at EU Borders” and moderated by Euro-Med Monitor's Migration and Asylum Researcher Michela Pugliese, and brought together two experts, Boston University professor Heba Gowayed and human rights activist Anna Alboth. The speakers examined the contrast between the legitimate rush to help Ukraine civilians and the widespread disregard for all other human tragedies occurring at the same European borders, from the Belarusian-Polish border to the Mediterranean Sea, from the Balkan route to the English Channel.
Heba Gowayed, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Boston University, focused particularly on the permeability of borders and the fact that they are designed to exclude, rather than protect, certain human beings according to their race. She spoke about the persistent inequalities lived by refugees all over the world due to the impact of colonialism, to foreign military and economic interventions in their countries of origin.
“While everyone who is subject to persecution suffers [in ways that are] dire and unfathomable, the systems that they attempt to find respite [in] do not treat them all the same”, Gowayed said. “Race matters. It matters in shaping who is seen as a human being. It determines whose lives are valued, who is recognized as someone who is worthy of state’s support—of refuge—and who isn't”. She explained that, since people fleeing Ukraine are predominantly white and Christian, the world is paying closer attention, but they are an exception to the rule.
Gowayed noted that, alongside the more ostensibly racist treatment at the border, there has always been a subtler, more pernicious racism that was present well before this crisis and will remain a threat long after. “Refugees are knocking on the doors [of] the very same countries whose foreign policies have subjugated either them or people like them [to harm], and whose domestic policies are patterned [after] the same racism that facilitated those foreign policies”, she said.
Gowayed highlighted the jarring contrast between the lives of the Syrian refugees trapped in destitution—in Greek camps or in Turkey—and the four million Ukrainians who have been offered residence and the right to work under the Temporary Protection Directive. Even so, she also reflected on the fact that, even when refugees are offered legal protection, they are not necessarily made to feel welcome. “Their potential as human beings, their skills and abilities, their hopes and aspirations for themselves and their children often go unheard and unmet”, she said. “They have to contend with systems that see them as outsiders, and these are the same systems Ukrainians will enter [into]”.
In conclusion, Gowayed stated that the reaction to Ukrainian refugees shows that “the permeability of our borders [has] less to do with state sovereignty and more to do with political will, as we decide every day who we keep out based on notions of who we determine [as belonging]—who fits into our [image] of what our countries are”.
Polish journalist and human rights activist Anna Alboth was the second speaker. The initiator of the Civil March for Aleppo in 2016, for which she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018, Alboth is Media Programmes Coordinator for Minority Rights Group and an activist with the collective Grupa Granica. She focused on her own experiences in the field and, in particular, on the striking contrast between Poland’s border with Ukraine and its border with Belarus.
“People in the same uniforms, instead of taking care of children [at] the border, were violently pushing them, screaming at them, threatening them, and bringing them back to the fence with Belarus and brutally pushing them through it”, she said, describing the situation at the Belarus-Poland border.
She explained that “one border is [fenced off] and guarded by police and army, and the second one is open, full of people willing to help”, but that this has a lot to do with the state of emergency imposed by the Polish government and the consequent criminalization of humanitarian workers at the Polish-Belarusian side. “There are less people involved on the Belarusian border because we risk being arrested”, she said. “We are risking our physical and mental health when we go at night to this swamped forest where nobody knows what will happen”.
Alboth stressed that there are still nearly 100 asylum seekers, mainly from the Middle East, trapped between the Polish-Belarusian border, undernourished, dehydrated, and ill. “It’s nothing but a policy of letting people die”, she said. “Maybe it's not an active killing, but it's letting people die—being absolutely aware that people have no chance to survive in these kinds of circumstances”.
She also focused on what she called the “language games” played by the European Union and its Member States, citing the rhetoric and imagery choices of the media that define who can be seen as a refugee and who cannot. “It's easier to live without a guilty conscience if we are not seeing it. This is what media are able to do. They can humanize the conflict, give a human face to situations, and this is what is happening on all the news channels about Ukraine”, Alboth said. “We see the sad faces of [Ukrainian] women there, but we are not able to see the faces of people on the Belarusian border. I think that introducing this zone of emergency was cruelly brilliant—to take away those [images] that would touch us and that would make us act. When people are allowed to help, when [help] is fully appreciated by society and not criminalized, everything is easier and I think this situation is showing that”, she added.
Alboth concluded with a hopeful remark: “In 2015, Poland didn't want to take 7000 Syrians from Greece [via] the relocation program because we didn't have space, and suddenly, we have two million spaces and it's possible. I think that this is something that cannot be unseen—that things like this are possible”.
Euro-Med Monitor's Michela Pugliese reminded attendees that while Ukrainian refugees certainly deserve immediate and comprehensive protection, it should by no means come at the expense of other vulnerable groups. “Protecting certain civilians while intentionally leaving thousands of others in despair across the same borders is not a solution”, she said. “With a war unfolding at Europe’s doors and the changing Eastern European security environment, it is fundamental that nobody remains locked out, a pending case [between] deadly borders”.