All Refugees Deserve Respect, Empathy and Help

Here we go again, a journalist aghast at realizing Ukranians were becoming refugees and framing her tweets and stories as if the horrors befalling Ukraine were historically unprecedented.

Imagine you’re about to become a refugee because your town is surrounded by Russian tanks. You’ve never been abroad, speak no other languages, have little money & you have to say goodbye to your dad/husband/son at the border. This is your last night together. This is Ukraine.

Imagine you’re about to become a refugee

So tweeted Sarah Rainsford, the BBC’s Eastern Europe correspondent reporting from Ukraine last week while on temporary assignment. She worked out of Moscow for several years before being kicked out by the Russians.

Her tweet didn’t go unchallenged.

“Sobering indeed,” replied Jean-Yves Jault from Belgium. “Imagine you’re Syrian, Iraqi, Afghani, Eritrean, Malian, Rohyngia, Rwandan…and you get the same level of empathy for facing the same conditions. We ought to use this crisis on our doorstep to upgrade our compassion for refugees the world around. I hope we do.”

Nobody chooses to become a refugee, to the best of my knowledge. It’s horrible having to make split-second decisions to abandon one’s home, loved ones, country, things one holds dear, property, school, books, photos, souvenirs.

Screenshot of Pat Chappatte cartoon on selective welcoming of refugees in Europe

Anyone who must stuff their life in a small bag or a backpack and choose what to take while thinking there may be no return is scarred and traumatized, often for life.

Populist officials who weaponize the refugee/migrant card to score political points and stir raw racist emotions may find it comes back to haunt them, if they ever face the same fate and end up having to leave with just the clothes on their backs.

When interviewed by Britain’s Channel 4 News, member of parliament Dominik Tarczyski of the Polish Law and Justice Party proudly proclaimed his country had taken zero non-Ukranian refugees by twisting the initial question to him.

Asked if he was proud of that, he replied: “If you’re asking me about Muslims, Muslims illegal immigration, none, not even one will come to Poland. Not even one, if it’s illegal. We took over two million Ukranians who are working, who are peaceful in Poland. We will not receive even one Muslim because this is what we promised.”

Dominik Tarczyski of the Polish Law and Justice Party

The interviewer interrupted to say she hadn’t asked about illegal immigrants, but about refugees, noting that European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker had called Tarczyski a racist.

“This is why our government was elected,” he said. “This is why Poland is so safe; this is the reason why we have not even one terrorist attack.”

Asked further if European politicians had a moral humanitarian duty to step in, he bluntly replied, “no.”

But not all Poles shared his angry sentiments.

The Club of Catholic Intelligentsia runs a hostel in Warsaw that welcomes refugees from African, Middle Eastern and South Asian countries who escaped the Ukraine conflict, the Guardian reported.

In the UK, the British Red Cross posted this announcement on social media:

Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Ethiopia, Iran, Myanmar, Iraq, South Sudan, Venezuela, Nigeria, Sudan, Eritrea, occupied Palestinian territory. No matter where they come from, we believe every refugee matters.

It asked all those who agreed to click on a link and pledge their support.

Strident conspiracy theory xenophobia is also the hallmark of far-right candidate Éric Zemmour who wants to create a “ministry of re-migration” to deport “unwanted foreigners” once he’s elected president of France. He surpassed another white supremacist candidate, Marine Le Pen, who seemed timid by contrast.

Éric Zemmour who wants to create a “ministry of re-migration” to deport “unwanted foreigners”

Such a ministry would have the means to lease charter flights to send back the undesirables in droves. He also proposed traveling to Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia to see with officials of those countries how to send back their citizens.

Irony is dead.

Journalist/author Zemmour’s family is identified as “Jewish Arab” or “Jewish Berber” originally from Algeria.

During Germany’s occupation of France in World War II, the Vichy government passed several laws on the status of Jews, setting them apart from the rest of the population, depriving them from holding public office and of citizenship. That included those from French territories like Zemmour’s family from Algeria who’d become citizens in previous decades.

In early 2017, I wrote about a U.S. travel ban on citizens from mostly Muslim countries, courtesy of former president Donald Trump, that kicked up a storm of populist rhetoric and anti-migrant/refugee campaigns.

“When one minority comes under attack, everyone’s freedom is at stake,” said Federica Mogherini to a symposium I attended in Brussels hours before the travel ban took effect. “When people are discriminated (against) because they look different, it’s not only a violation of their human rights, but an attack against the very fabric of our societies.”

Mogherini, then the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of the European Commission, told conferees the rise of hate speech was a global phenomenon requiring global awareness and local mobilization.

CNN’s Becky Anderson ran an almost eight-minute segment on the “Refugee Response Hypocrisy” citing how Europe opened its arms to Ukranians fleeing Russia’s invasion of their country but how reluctant the continent was to being as magnanimous when it came to Syrians and other non-Europeans.

That was well after countless critics, this writer included, had spoken and written about the bigotry and obvious double standards.

A Syrian child refugee mentioned in the CNN report

She quoted senior international correspondent Arwa Damon as saying: “Each war is its own, its outlines drawn by powers larger than the individual, and by the greed and cruelty of geopolitics. But the pain of humanity caught up in the tug-of-war remains the same. The agony of realizing that not only is home no longer safe, it may no longer exist at all…That pain is universal. The reaction to it should be as well.”

A Washington Post report last week said Europe rewrote its migrant playbook for Ukranian refugees but some feared it wasn’t enough.

As the scale of the crisis became clear, European leaders forged political consensus absent from prior humanitarian disasters, setting aside procedures still being used to block other asylum seekers in a discrepancy shaped by race, geography and geopolitics. Now, the continent is under pressure to manage the arrivals under the terms of its new playbook. And formidable questions loom — about dispersing the refugees equitably across the West, about finding the wherewithal to set them up with meaningful lives and about sustaining the public support necessary for social cohesion.

Screenshot of The Immigrant’s Void sculpture by French artist Bruno Catalano

It’s not a matter of “whataboutism.”

The group known as Anonymous tweeted: “Ukraine, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, it doesn’t matter. War is war. Our condolences to those who lost everything without having a choice. Having more empathy would be an achievement for humanity.”

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Magda Abu-Fadil

Magda Abu-Fadil is a veteran foreign correspondent/editor of international news organizations, former academic, media trainer, consultant, speaker and blogger.