Who gets to be a “worthy” refugee?
Yes, we should stand with Ukraine … and all the other victims of war. The only thing stopping us is racism.
History changed last Thursday when Russian military forces attacked Ukraine. The assault was the first full-scale war on the European continent since the end of World War II, 80 years ago. The images are harrowing. Refugees fleeing the country, trains full of women and children evacuating major cities. Men and women, young and old, handling weapons they only learned how to shoot days earlier, repelling the Russian onslaught.
Ukranians, both those who stay and those who flee, deserve our support. But then again, so do all victims of war — which is what makes this moment so striking.
Ignoring wars in Asia or Africa is bad enough. What’s worse is how the contrast is being justified. CBS News correspondent Charlie D’Agata described the bombing of Kyiv on Saturday this way:
But this isn’t a place, with all due respect, 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.
“Civilized?” Iraq is the cradle of civilization. “Seen conflict raging for decades?” No, our war machine waged war on those countries for decades. “Where you wouldn’t expect or hope it’s going to happen?” Why do you expect or hope it would happen anywhere?
D’Agata’s thrust is that we should care more about these people because they’re white and European, as opposed to other war victims who are brown and Asian. The gap here is simple: it’s racism. It’s a manifestation so pernicious, it barely registers as unusual. It’s bad enough to implicitly value the lives of a particular group of people more because of the color of their skin or where they’re from, but as if to emphasize his point, he deliberately articulates the contrast. He says the quiet part out loud.
It’s not just D’Agata; this kind of rhetoric has colored coverage from the jump. NBC correspondent Kelly Cobiella described Ukrainian refugees this way. “These are not refugees from Syria, these are refugees from neighboring Ukraine…these are Christians, they’re white….”
Though this isn’t the first mass-scale war that has occurred recently, it's the first mass-scale war Americans have been shown in such excruciating detail. The tone, tenor, and content of this coverage points us to why. In their 1988 classic “Manufacturing Consent,” Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky describe “worthy victims:”
…worthy victims will be featured prominently and dramatically, that they will be humanized, and that their victimization will receive the detail and context in story construction that will generate reader interest and sympathetic emotion. In contrast, unworthy victims will merit only slight detail, minimal humanization, and little context that will excite and enrage.
This isn’t the first war in our lifetimes by any stretch. These certainly aren’t the only refugees. But this is the first war to befall Europe — the first to create “worthy refugees.” They are white, European, Christian, from high-income countries. This contrasts, by implication, with “unworthy refugees” for whom war is essentialized as part of their identity. They are Black or brown people from “war torn” countries — people for whom being victims of war is an essential character trait.
There’s something more. Not only does this racist narrative excuse the world from opening our arms to these “unworthy” war victims, it excuses the war we make upon them. Go back to Charlie D’Agata’s description. He defines these war victims from Iraq and Afghanistan as people who’ve “seen conflict raging for decades.” He conveniently excludes the fact that the reason those countries have “seen war” is because our country waged it on them.
In Poland last week, border guards welcomed Ukrainian refugees with open arms. This is the right thing to do. It’s not that Ukrainian refugees don’t deserve to be welcomed with open arms. It’s that all refugees deserve it. But not months ago, the same Polish border guards were repelling refugees — including children — from Yemen, Syria, and elsewhere. Not only did they exclude these refugees, but they denied a U.N. human rights team from entering the restricted border area and blocked Doctors without Borders from providing basic healthcare to the refugees.
As we watch the soul-crushing images coming out of Ukraine, remember that what makes this war so harrowing isn’t that it’s Ukraine— but that it's war. As we stand with Ukraine, let’s ask whom else we’ve failed to stand with, and seek to stand with them, too. While we’re at it, let’s ask ourselves against whom our double standards about “worthy” victims of war have allowed our country to wage war in our name.