The Russian invasion of Ukraine has initiated a lot of discourse in the news, the media, among politicians, and on social media about the prevalent issue of refugees. Correspondents and other journalists reporting on the conflict coverage in mainstream media have been accused of using racially biased language to describe the Ukrainian refugees in comparison to refugees from other parts of the world. But before we dive into that, it is important to note that there is no competition between crises. It is a matter of the perceptions that are strategically formulated to put forward certain agendas in the media.
The Arab and Middle Eastern Journalist Association (AMEJA) condemned the words that Western journalists used to describe middle eastern countries by calling it an “orientalist and racist” media coverage. For example, senior foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata for CBS news states, “This isn’t a place with all due respect, you know like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades. You know, this is a relatively civilized, relatively European—I have to choose those words carefully, too—city where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen.” I am repulsed by the impromptu casual racist comment. The fact that he defined Ukraine as “civilized” people appears like they need more of our pity than Iraqi or Afghani citizens. After the enormous outrage online, D’Agata has apologized for the rude comment.
Racism has continued to be a persistent issue across the media. Ukraine’s Deputy Chief Prosecutor stated, “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed.” The entire statement dehumanizes people who are non-white and do not have blonde hair or blue eyes. Especially considering that non-white Ukrainians are being denied refugee passage or relief in comparison to their fellow white Ukrainians.
It seems that physical appearance determines the value of someone’s life. Arwa Ibrahim, a journalist for Al Jazeera, tweeted a video of a journalist stating that war is only meant for third-world nations. But, looking back through history, it is true to say that the World Wars all occurred in Europe. Or, what about colonialism and genocide of the Indigenous people in the Americas. Those events were horrific and violent acts. When addressing developing countries, the journalists are setting up the stereotype that People of Colour are inclined toward war while white people strive for peace.
Ukraine is in extreme danger. We should provide life-saving services to Ukrainian people, particularly giving them the ability to flee their country. But the decision to help the Ukrainian people should not be based on the fact that they have white skin, blonde hair, and blue eyes, while refusing to help others that don’t fit this criterion like people from Palestine, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Somalia. We are all human beings regardless of how we look. All lives deserve saving.
Palestinian-Dutch supermodel Bella Hadid took to Instagram to describe the misrecognition of Muslim countries that have been in conflict for years, “The language we use to define oppression cannot favour one victim over another. How many Muslim nations aflame?” She goes on to quote Martin Luther King that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It is important to call out the injustices seen everywhere so that we do not feed into the Eurocentric media narratives of People of Colour. Other media personalities like Trevor Noah posted a segment that slammed the media’s racist comments, “Fighting crazy wars were Europe’s thing […] they got a Noble Prize to stop fighting. Imagine that.”
Now, I have to choose these words carefully—if it weren’t for imperialist countries waging war and displacing millions of refugees maybe the fleeing citizens who haven’t seen a day without war would be a bit more “European” or “civilized.” It is uncommon to find unbiased coverage of conflicts in Muslim countries. The same empathy being given to Ukrainians should be given to Muslim countries. Empathy shouldn’t be racist.
Associate Opinion Editor (Volume 48) — Haya Abu Ghosh is a fourth-year student double majoring in English and Political Science. When I am not doing any school work, I love going out with friends to coffee shops and dining in restaurants to socialize. My passions include but are not limited to reading, writing, sketching, binge-watching Netflix TV shows, taking pictures of nature and talking about politics (do not get me started talking about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Indigenous injustices, Uyghur Muslims in China and many more topics).