Why are Ukraine and Ukrainians received so much more warmly than other wartorn places?
Volodymir Zelenskiy is understandably keen to shelter under the powerful umbrellas of the EU and NATO. And Europeans are keen both to welcome millions of Ukrainian refugees and Ukraine’s application for EU membership.
Europe is not always so hospitable, however. Germany and other EU members opened their arms to stricken Syrians for a while. Poland, Hungary and some others, on the other hand, were notably resistant to even modest numbers.
Yet those countries are already extending Ukrainians a heartfelt welcome. Most of Ukraine’s neighbours allow its citizens to enter without documentation, even offering them transport from the border to major towns where they receive material assistance. The EU is preparing to shelter more distressed Ukrainians.
Yet some worry about what this says about the qualified welcome extended to Afghan, Iraqi, Syrian and Libyan refugees in their hours of need. And if the EU were to accord any priority to Ukraine’s request to become a candidate for EU membership, what does this tell longstanding candidates such as Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia, not to mention Turkey, which seems to have been put off its membership application altogether by endless delays and now no longer even tries to conform to EU demands regarding human rights and the rule of law?
Why are Europeans so much less generous to equally deserving and distressed Afghans, Syrians and other non-Europeans? What is the distinction; should a line be drawn and, if so, where?
Is it to do with the nature of the conflict? Ukraine is the victim of an unprovoked invasion by external an aggressor, but so was Iraq. Anyway, what difference does that make? A puppet despot or band of religious zealots that terrorise their own countrymen can cause as much suffering to ordinary people as a deranged tyrant.
Is it proximity to our borders? Perhaps. But what difference, objectively, should that make? Is it that EU citizens are frightened for their own safety? Certainly, that may be one reason. But is there more to it than that?
In the same way that we feel more comfortable helping close friends and family members and are more ready to help and trust people from within our own communities than perfect strangers, many of us are more prepared to welcome Ukrainians, who we think of as European, than Syrians and Afghans who we may perceive to be different from us. You reflexively feel closer to your countrymen and women, who observe similar traditions, support the same sports team or simply share a common sense of humour to those with whom you have relatively little in common.
That ‘commonality’ can, of course, transcend national and ethnic differences, but it rarely does so immediately. A German teacher or a Spanish doctor may well develop an affinity with a Syrian teacher or Afghan doctor, but that can take time to happen. The initial perception is generally of ‘differentness’.
Our hearts and minds tell us that we should be ready to help any human being in genuine need, and many people do indeed help needy strangers, even those very different from themselves. But most people find that hard to do. Is it really so surprising that we find ourselves more sympathetic to those with whom we feel we have much in common?
Time after time, psychologists find that behaviour perfectly normal, some even proposing evolutionary explanations for it. They observe that most people, not just Europeans, are readier to trust and help others they perceive to be ‘like them’. It may look and feel like racism or bigotry but, in fact, it is simply human nature.
Ordinary Europeans are thus opening their homes to shelter stranded Ukrainians in a way they were not for equally desperate Middle Easterners and Central Asians. That is both heart warming and disquieting. But it is their choice as citizens of free countries.
By contrast, opening borders to refugees and granting candidate member status are other, much harder, questions altogether. The EU has an obligation, both moral and legal, to balance Ukraine’s and Ukrainians’ demands against the need to be compassionate, fair and consistent to all who seek its help. This means defining clearly whether or not refugees of this war are more deserving than refugees from the war in Afghanistan, for example and, if so, why. The EU is right to demand the same due diligence for Ukraine’s request for candidate member status that it would for any prospective applicant.
This will not be the last such crisis or hard decision for the EU, so it is important to establish the right rules now. To be fair to all candidate countries, present and future, these rules need to stand the test of time.
Image by Ann H on Pexels.