Sanctuary for Ukrainians, sanctuary for all

by Chris Bertram on February 28, 2022

Thousands of people, at this stage mainly women, children, and the elderly, are fleeing Ukraine and seeking safety in neighbouring countries. The European Union seems to grasp what is required and is offering them sanctuary; UK ministers are briefing the media that they are doing things but aren’t doing very much. People crossing border to neighbouring countries from conflict zones is what usually happens in circumstances like this. This is why the vast majority of the world’s refugees are in countries bordering Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. When countries like Pakistan, Iran and Turkey take in refugees from war they are partly just accepting the inevitable; they are also, to some degree, sensitive to their own populations who (at least initially) may feel an obligation to people who are like themselves in religion and culture.

The European Union (and the UK) have a pretty bad recent record when it comes to refugees. They have put in place measures to prevent people from escaping their tormentors and have paid dubious regimes such as Libya to act as buffer zones and prisons. While some European countries such as Germany and Sweden can point to things they can take pride in during the Syrian war, attempts to get others such as Poland and Hungary to accept refugees failed. Denmark has pursued a zero-refugee policy, with the goal of sending people back to places like Syria. The UK is currently introducing legislation to criminalize refugees and the current Home Secretary, Priti Patel, would like to follow the Australian model of sending them off to remote locations. Ascension Island in the Atlantic has been mooted by the pro-Tory think-tank Policy Exchange.

So when there is a rush of sympathy among majority white European populations for other white people trudging across borders carrying a few salvaged possessions, and when commentators and journalists refer to “people like us” and “people who drive cars like ours”, there is a predictable reaction from anti-racist social media: this shows the fundamental racism of white Europeans who didn’t care when bombs were raining down on brown people and when it was Eritreans or Sudanese trying to escape. This anti-racist reaction is understandably strengthened when there are reports of Polish border guards stopping non-Ukrainians from getting across, with Nigerian medical students pushed to one side. Yes, there is racism here.

But I think it is a mistake to let this reaction get in the way of our positive impulse to help the Ukrainians. First of all, although it is true that European governments have pursued racist exclusionary policies, and have done so partly in response to the racist right-wing populism of many of their voters, it is also true that there are large numbers of citizens (largely white) of those same countries who were moved by the death of Alan Kurdi in 2015, who solidarize with the Africans and Kurds shivering at Calais or who trek through the Italian Alps to France. Those people are also on the side of displaced Ukrainians, and they aren’t hypocrites though their governments may be. Second, and more importantly, we have a choice about how to take this moment. If our reaction is one of heavy sarcasm and bitter finger-pointing, that leads to a politics of doing nothing very much. If, on the contrary, we take the compassion that our compatriots feel towards Ukrainians as something positive, we can, I hope, show that their suffering demonstrates that we are part of a wider humanity. It is more than seventy years since there were masses of refugees trekking through Western Europe — though only thirty since the wars in former Yugoslavia — and many of us have perhaps made the mistake of thinking that we are invulnerable, and that massacre, state murder, rape, displacement, and things that only happen to a browner humanity that lives somewhere else in societies that seem remote from our own. Well, no more. This shows that it can happen here and that we too may be in need of sanctuary and to rebuild our lives with nothing in a foreign place. We should take the opportunity to tear down the barriers that our governments have placed to others seeking safety, whatever they look like.



Raven Onthill 02.28.22 at 7:47 pm

Your last paragraph, I think, would make the basis of an excellent tweetstorm. (Hint, hint.)


Sashas 02.28.22 at 7:59 pm

First, I’ll say that I think it is great how countries in Europe (excepting the UK, if I understand correctly) are reacting to support and welcome Ukrainian refugees. I also think, in addition to this, that how those same countries for the most part handled refugees from Syria, Iraq, and generally the “global south” has been awful. I also think that the difference between the two reactions is largely rooted in racism. In short, I think I’m the kind of person you are trying to respond to here.

But I don’t see how my genuine celebration of the response to refugees from Ukraine gets in the way of our positive impulse to help them. I’m not (and I’m not aware of anyone who is) suggesting we should help them the tiniest amount less.

Do you mean that pointing out the racial disparity will demoralize racists in our countries, who will then respond by helping the Ukrainians less? Do you mean that we should all be shielded from the reality that we’re doing good now but haven’t historically?

For what it’s worth, I think you are absolutely correct to point out the difference between individuals and governments. I feel no shame about the USA’s unquestionably shameful treatment of refugees from central america, for example, because I am not my government and in fact I put in some effort to oppose those shameful policies. If someone else in the USA is unable to separate themselves from their government policies, they might be uncomfortable with my criticism of those policies… but isn’t that their problem, not mine?

Even if some individuals around me will be upset by my pointing out the racial disparity in reaction to refugees, and even if some of those individuals will act poorly as a result, does any individual pointing these disparities out have a plausible effect on national policy? I know my hope would be that others would take up the call that we should also welcome non-white refugees. I don’t think this is very likely, sadly. But is the opposite any more likely? And if not, what’s the harm?


oldster 02.28.22 at 10:19 pm

” If our reaction is one of heavy sarcasm and bitter finger-pointing, that leads to a politics of doing nothing very much.”
Agree, Chris. Accusations of hypocrisy are particularly counterproductive when the targets will be happy to restore consistency by doing a more even-handed job of what you didn’t want them to do at all. Better that they should do the right thing now and then than the right thing (consistently) never.


Matt 02.28.22 at 11:46 pm

But I think it is a mistake to let this reaction get in the way of our positive impulse to help the Ukrainians.

This is obviously right. And, what we might hope for, and so work for, is that success in this process can be used to build a more general support for refugees. (“You see, we were able to help people fleeing from Ukraine – we did the right thing, and it did not cause us any significant harm. That’s reason to think we can do the right thing again, in this new (i.e., old) situation.”) Will that work with everyone? Of course not – but if you only try things that will work with everyone, you’ll get no where.


KT2 03.01.22 at 12:42 am

Here is a -the’ a wrecker of your good sentiment CB. Thanks.

CB says “The UK is currently introducing legislation to criminalize refugees and the current Home Secretary, Priti Patel, would like to follow the Australian model of sending them off to remote locations. Ascension Island in the Atlantic has been mooted by the pro-Tory think-tank Policy Exchange.” … chaired by Alexander Downer.

Alexander “push ’em back” Downer is part of the Bunyip aristocracy, coined in 1853. Exactly where the UK immigration policy will be, if Patel & shadowy figures represented by Downer via Policy Exchange will take it. Policy Exchange has had success trashing the NHS. Downer is and will be a downer for immigrarion, transparency, democracy and humanity.

To borrow CB’s phrase:.
“We should take the opportunity to tear down the barriers that our governments have placed to..” 
… prop up nefarious for profit off humanitarian crises 1853 version bunyip aristocrats and enablers, and rerurn the money and  engender goodwill to …
“others seeking safety, whatever they look like.
Who is the “Downer”  of the US?

Australian Alexander Downer says they are to be “informed on a need-to-know basis only”. 

You need to be informed as Australia’s vile refugee policy has deep roots in this ugly career politician turned lobbyist – “Downer is the chair of trustees of the Policy Exchange”(channelrescue below). What type if person takes this public facing role?

“Policy Exchange”, a furphy relarive to it’s mission. 

“Downer states “I know that a ‘push-back’ policy can work…My advice to Miss Patel would be to introduce the ‘push-back’ policy without fanfare, and to keep the French informed on a need-to-know basis only”.

“Problematically, Downer fails to understand the context. In the past he has stated that “(t)he vast majority of those coming across the Channel are young men who are economic migrants, so they respond to economic forces”. However, the Home Office’s own statistics show 98% of people who arrive after crossing the Channel make a claim for asylum.”..

“Statement: Alexander Dower to lead review of Border Force”

From above, “For example, Downer is the chair of trustees of the Policy Exchange think-tank,”.

Any idea who funds Policy Exchange?

Transparify rates ” Policy Exchange” a zero and “highly opaque”.
…” Michael Gove, the inaugural chairman of the UK think tank, Policy Exchange, “people have had enough of experts”. So this makes it somewhat troubling that Policy Exchange, a think tank that wields formidable influence on British government policy, falls right at the bottom of the Transparify report. In 2016 when much of our education and public sector policy including the NHS is essentially determined by our elected officials parroting from Policy Exchange materials they remain comfortable “taking money behind hidden doors from hidden hands”.

“In a country that has just voted against the “faceless elites of European bureaucracy” isn’t it time that we knew exactly who these people at Policy Exchange are working for?”

And (lord in his own mind) Downer is part of the “bunyip aristocracy”.

“Downer was born in Adelaide, the son of Sir Alick Downer and the grandson of Sir John Downer.”.

[With uranium domiciled in Jersey, and approximately for a bunyip aristocrat, is a contributional Monarchy supporter and “Executive Chair of the International School for Government at King’s College London”.]

” He has had a number of board appointments, including the Advisory Board of British strategic intelligence and advisory firm Hakluyt & Company,[54] merchant bankers Cappello Capital Corp.,[55] the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra,[56] Huawei in Australia,[57] and the board of Lakes Oil.[58] Downer has said that Huawei should not be considered a potential national security risk.[59] ”

“A longtime supporter of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy, Downer has played a leading role opposing moves to replace the Queen with a president.[61]”

“He is a non-executive director of CQS and of Yellow Cake plc.
[ Yellow Cake PLC, YCA:LSE summary – FT -Yellow Cake plc is a Jersey-based company that operates in uranium sector]

“In 2018, he was named to Tilray’s International Advisory Board.[65] 
[“Tilray is a Canadian pharmaceutical and cannabis company, incorporated in the United States with primary operations headquartered in Toronto, Ontario.” Wikipedia]

“As of 2019, Downer is Executive Chair of the International School for Government at King’s College London.[66][67]”

? Bunyip aristocracy
“… It was coined in 1853 by Daniel Deniehy in what came to be known as the Bunyip Aristocracy speech”..
“Bunyip aristocracy” is now a pejorative term for those Australians who consider themselves to be aristocrats.[6]

‘Our’ Ascension Island. One of several being showered with money which goes to “Canstruct International was initially awarded the Nauru contract in 2017 the company had $8 in assets. company” enriching owners to the tune of $340m… “Nauru detention centre operator makes $101m profit – at least $500,000 for each detainee …”Canstruct International’s holding company has more than $340m in cash and investments, according to accounts filed with regulator”

“‘Torturous’: Australian family fights to free refugee held for eight years without charge

“Loghman Sawari was 17 when he was placed in a men-only centre on Manus Island. Nearly a decade on, and another child refugee wants to know why he’s still in detention”

And the list of detention centre operators is the who’s who…

How is it that Downer goes so far? ” nauru-detention-centre-operator–101m-profit-at-least-500000-for-each-detainee”


nastywoman 03.01.22 at 9:03 am

when –
once upon a time –
East Germans left their country en masse there was this joke about:
‘The last one turns off the light’ –
(and leaves the leftland to whomever wants to own it)
and in order to teach the world the ultimate lesson ALL Ukranians who always wanted to be a part of Europe should move to any European state they like to – thusly shortening the process that their leftland follows later – and perhaps the same could be done by all the Russians who are sock and tired about NOT ‘Living in Europe’ –

And any ‘Anglo-American-discussion’ in this case is just a damn distraction…


Daragh McDowell 03.01.22 at 11:15 am

Just wanted to say I think the OP is 100% correct and to add my whole-hearted endorsement, for as little as that is worth!


Ashwini 03.01.22 at 11:48 am

“If our reaction is one of heavy sarcasm and bitter finger-pointing, that leads to a politics of doing nothing very much.” I’m not sure who the ‘our’ or ‘we’ in this post is meant to be. I wouldn’t dismiss the anger of Black and Brown scholars/activists/commentators about the obvious racism here as ‘heavy sarcasm and bitter finger-pointing’, nor would I think that it ‘leads to a politics of doing nothing very much.’

Appealing to the ‘hearts and minds’ of white Europeans, or telling them that ‘this could happen to them’ isn’t the only course of action, nor is it obviously the most effective; certainly, it hasn’t been shown to be the most enduring (as many a ‘bad immigrant/refugee’ has discovered, or those whose ‘European-ness’ is constantly under scrutiny, as is the case with many Eastern Europeans). Academics and activists can make these appeals and try to enlarge the scope of European solidarity, but this is a project that, ultimately, seems to be concerned with the attitudes and sensibilities of (mostly) white people, and the possibility of their redemption. No doubt this is an important project, but I think it would be helpful to note that it will not have universal appeal, and its instrumental value is uncertain.


Chris Bertram 03.01.22 at 12:11 pm

@Ashwini my concern here is with getting the citizens of wealthy countries, most of whom happen to be white, to act in solidarity with the forcibly displaced. The goal is not their moral redemption but rather tearing town the barriers to asylum that their states have put in place. I don’t intend to dismiss the anger of black and brown scholars and activists but rather the kind of “activism” that exists only on social media and which begins and ends with the sarcastic tweet that very justly, but impotently, alleges hypocrisy.


nastywoman 03.01.22 at 12:16 pm

‘I wouldn’t dismiss the anger of Black and Brown scholars/activists/commentators about the obvious racism here as ‘heavy sarcasm and bitter finger-pointing’, nor would I think that it ‘leads to a politics of doing nothing very much.’

My family and friends consists of all kind of Black and Brown scholars/activists/
commentators but most of them are aware – that it isn’t ‘obvious racism’ if they care more about ‘their family and friends’ -(whatever the race or nationality) – than anybody who aren’t their ‘family and friends’.

And it’s NOT ‘hypocrisy’ to care a lot more about anybody who is closer to your heart mind than a ‘Putin’ or ‘Trump’ (the worlds new word for: ‘The Utmost Soulless A…hole’)


Ashwini 03.01.22 at 3:12 pm

@Chris – thanks for your clarification. Your criticism of ‘twitter activism’ strikes me as true, but trivially so, and a criticism that applies to virtually any form of social commentary and political activism on Twitter. And I’ve actually been pleased to see the several mentions of hypocrisy and racism; no mention of these would have been worse, especially in the face of so many actors urging immediately for sanctuary to be granted to those fleeing Ukraine (but who never said anything along those lines about those fleeing Afghanistan). In any event, without knowing whom precisely you’re targeting I can’t really assess.

I’m curious to know more about how solidarity towards Ukrainians could be expanded. I would think the form of solidarity that we’ve seen–spontaneous, based on related notions of shared racial identity and civilisational status–doesn’t admit of that type of expansion. I don’t think this is actually a morally desirable form of solidarity (as opposed to, say, Kolers’ conception of solidarity), but I think its logic is inherently exclusionary (since the notion of civilisation entails that someone be barbaric). So when I think of how to expand that solidarity, calling attention to the hypocrisy seems important, not impotent.

Thanks again for your reply.


hix 03.01.22 at 7:15 pm

Do not forget that for those central Europeans of us who do not regularely travel arround the world, it can be genuinly remarkable how similar the Ukraine looks to rich central European countries in some ways. This is after all a relativly poor country with a completly incomprehensible language a majority was afraid to set a foot into long before any war threat. It still feals in many ways much more like home than the US. The scin colour is not the issue the. Mainly it is just the cityscape.


E.D.M. 03.02.22 at 4:04 am

Sanctuary for all life!

But, I would quibble … or add: “Sanctuary” is a religious/spiritual/philosophical embodiment of in-real-life communities that are willing to protect those who the (structurally racist and greedy) political and legal establishment would allow to be or see harmed. Importantly, communities of the displaced themselves, when they are allowed to exist, may at times and places enact this protection for themselves and others.

“Refugee Protection” (asylum, international conventions, domestic law) is a political/legal construct that through both goodwill and compromise with evil was created within – and always and everywhere will be subjected to manipulation by – forces of great power, but nevertheless right now presents the best and only real-world hope for meeting the basic biological needs of the vast majority of displaced persons. While – as Ashwini alludes – radical reform or de novo reconstruction is essential, how to accomplish the task of rebuilding that airplane while it is in the air is a challenge for which we need those of greatest goodwill and extraordinary imagination.

Meanwhile, people of ordinary goodwill and imagination need to have a compassionate response toward people so traumatized by racism that they cannot help but comment out of a place of cynicism. Antiracists of goodwill need tread a delicate path between using this moment to raise awareness of racism in the treatment of refugees now and/or in other places and times, and lapsing into avoidable cynicism or rut-in-the-antiracism-discourse. There are others, not of good will, who will use this moment to subtly fan the flames of racism, and still others who will “merely” use the “irony” of these actually existing human refugees as clickbait/point-scoring. No refugees anywhere, nor antiracists anywhere, nor those anywhere with compassion for refugees, will be well served by setting up a competition between antiracism and actually-existing refugee assistance.

The world desperately needs both those willing to directly protect others unconditionally, and those able to construct more just policies and laws. It needs those who can extend those policies to previously unrecognized and newly emerging “categories” of displaced persons (and ultimately, to dispense with the inherent violence of categorization). It needs such people in this moment. And it will need such people even more in our warming future.


MisterMr 03.02.22 at 10:43 am

For what is worth, here in Italy the leader of the main right leaning anti immigrant party, Matteo Salvini, said that Italy should accept ukrainian refugees because they are “true refugees”, with the implication that they really are taking refuge from a war, with the strong implication that other refugees are really economic migrants in disguise.

So is this based on racism/ethnocentrism? IMHO yes, however people who have this beliefs don’t see them as racist, it’s something quite unconscious.


Fake Dave 03.03.22 at 12:15 pm

I’m definitely fed up with this sudden obsession with pointing out that Ukraine is, in fact, in Europe and may even be part of that never-defined but much lauded agglomeration known as “The West.” Russia has been bombing Syria for years, but no one ever felt the need to clarify that it was “in the heart of Eurasia.” That said, the issue isn’t exactly one of whiteness or European-ness as it hasn’t just been brownish or Muslim countries like Afghanistan that got short shrift in the past. Recent conflicts in the Balkans, Caucasus and even the previous invasion of Ukraine also failed to elicit anything like this level of shock and outrage.

Something about this moment seems genuinely different to enough people that the usual emotional defenses of writing off certain regions as inherently “troubled” or “war-torn” (or “shit-hole countries”) and pretending it can’t happen “here” aren’t cutting it. Maybe it’s the WW2 echoes. Between Putin’s escalating revanchist rhetoric, the obvious failure of years of appeasement, and the simple image of hundreds of tanks rolling though Ukrainian fields, there’s an unmistakable which of blitzkrieg in the air.

It has been said that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. Only fools and liars can say with certainty that Putin will stop at Kyiv and a growing number of people are questioning why anyone ever thought he’d stop with Chechnya or Ossetia or Crimea and Donbas, Aleppo or Minsk. Or Salisbury, for that matter. Call it hypocrisy if you want, but the truth is even cowards will fight if they feel cornered.

American plutocrats and the leaders of Europe’s “liberal” order profited immensely from Russian state corruption and kleptocracy over the years and justifiably feared the political consequences of being seen to restart the Cold War. So they ignored the obvious danger as long as they could and far longer than they should and now that any hope for containment or accommodation is shattered, they’re scrambling to over-compensate in the hopes that we’ll ignore the obvious collusion and complacency that led us here. We should by all means point out the utter absurdity of people like Orban, Erdogan, and various oligarch-approved faux-populists suddenly talking tough on Russia and acting like they care about democracy and international law. However, even too little too late is better than nothing. Even bad actors can do the right thing sometimes and shouldn’t be scolded for it (or they might wonder why they bothered). So we can go ahead and call out hypocrisy where we see it, but should also feel encouraged that so many people suddenly care enough to contradict themselves. If they want to start actually living by the principles they’ve always paid lip service to, I say let them.

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