Argument

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The Moral Realism of Europe’s Refugee Hypocrisy

The difference between Europe’s treatment of Syrians and Ukrainians is evidence of racism—and reality.

Traub-James-foreign-policy-columnist17
Traub-James-foreign-policy-columnist17
James Traub
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
Ukrainian refugees walk a bridge at the buffer zone with the border with Poland in the border crossing of Zosin-Ustyluh, western Ukraine on March 6, 2022.
Ukrainian refugees walk a bridge at the buffer zone with the border with Poland in the border crossing of Zosin-Ustyluh, western Ukraine on March 6, 2022.
Ukrainian refugees walk a bridge at the buffer zone with the border with Poland in the border crossing of Zosin-Ustyluh, western Ukraine on March 6, 2022. DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images

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This past week, I met (in person!) with the students I teach at New York University Abu Dhabi; our subject was refugees. We began by discussing the shocking contrast between the brutality meted out to Syrian refuges who tried to enter Eastern Europe in 2015 and the willing, even eager, acts of self-sacrifice toward the 3 million and counting Ukrainians who have poured into Poland and neighboring countries. A New York Times article we read followed Albagir, a Sudanese asylum-seeker who was beaten up and left to die by border guards, and the Maslovas, a Ukrainian family who could not stop weeping as they were supplied with food, blankets, and tenderness.

My students hardly needed to be told that racism and xenophobia accounted for the difference in treatment. But then, we noticed something: After escaping the mass killings in Darfur, Albagir (the article only provided his first name) had gone to Moscow to study; only then had he tried to reach Western Europe. Of course, Albagir had been denied the decent and humane treatment every individual has a right to. But was he a legitimate refugee if he had already found refuge? Would it be cruel to deny asylum to someone who has suffered so much misfortune?

Then a harder question arose, at which my students balked. What are we to make of the deep sense of kinship that has led Poles to welcome desperate Ukrainians but spurn Syrians and Iraqis? Wasn’t that related to the feeling of identification that made Europeans close ranks behind Ukraine in its war with Russia? Should we accord any legitimacy to “blood ties” when they are used to justify repudiation rather than passionate acceptance? “I don’t understand,” one of my scholars said. “You said that these are universal rights. How can it be okay for governments to say we’ll accept you but not the others?”

This past week, I met (in person!) with the students I teach at New York University Abu Dhabi; our subject was refugees. We began by discussing the shocking contrast between the brutality meted out to Syrian refuges who tried to enter Eastern Europe in 2015 and the willing, even eager, acts of self-sacrifice toward the 3 million and counting Ukrainians who have poured into Poland and neighboring countries. A New York Times article we read followed Albagir, a Sudanese asylum-seeker who was beaten up and left to die by border guards, and the Maslovas, a Ukrainian family who could not stop weeping as they were supplied with food, blankets, and tenderness.

My students hardly needed to be told that racism and xenophobia accounted for the difference in treatment. But then, we noticed something: After escaping the mass killings in Darfur, Albagir (the article only provided his first name) had gone to Moscow to study; only then had he tried to reach Western Europe. Of course, Albagir had been denied the decent and humane treatment every individual has a right to. But was he a legitimate refugee if he had already found refuge? Would it be cruel to deny asylum to someone who has suffered so much misfortune?

Then a harder question arose, at which my students balked. What are we to make of the deep sense of kinship that has led Poles to welcome desperate Ukrainians but spurn Syrians and Iraqis? Wasn’t that related to the feeling of identification that made Europeans close ranks behind Ukraine in its war with Russia? Should we accord any legitimacy to “blood ties” when they are used to justify repudiation rather than passionate acceptance? “I don’t understand,” one of my scholars said. “You said that these are universal rights. How can it be okay for governments to say we’ll accept you but not the others?”

The extraordinarily generous treatment accorded to Ukrainian refugees across Europe forces a series of uncomfortable questions about our refugee regime. The right of refuge granted by the 1951 Refugee Convention is, of course, universal—as human rights are by their very nature. Signatories cannot decide who to accept. Yet that is just what happened when Arab Muslims, rather than remaining in other Arab or Muslim countries, crossed into Europe—the one region of the world, ironically, most deeply dedicated to the Enlightenment principle of universal rights.

Those refugees, as author Ivan Krastev writes in After Europe, exposed the hollowness of European professions of cosmopolitanism—and, indeed, the triumphalist narrative of post-1989, post-historical Europe. Even the most progressive states, like Sweden, found themselves divided between urban liberals, who welcomed the refugees, and nationalists, most from small towns and rural areas who regarded them as a threat to cultural cohesion. The divide was sharper still between Western and Eastern Europe, where—as I discovered in trips to Hungary and Poland—even the cosmopolites refused to accept a national obligation to accept refugees.

The Ukrainian experience has proved the point in reverse. In 2016, a European diplomat in Brussels told me it was unreasonable to expect, say, a French city suffering high unemployment to embrace refugees who might compete for scarce jobs. Yet much of eastern Poland, now taking the brunt of the refugee flight, is a wasteland of industrial abandonment.

When it’s your brother or sister in distress, you don’t think about whether there’s enough to go around. The farmer who took in the Maslovas said he “couldn’t stay indifferent.” Yet I remember Poles telling me that if Syrians really loved their country, they would have stayed there and fought.

Krastev, borrowing nomenclature from British journalist David Goodhart, argues the world is increasingly divided between “nowheres”—the cosmopolites—and “somewheres”—the rooted. There are a lot more somewheres than the nowheres imagined, and their resentment of globalization’s unintended consequences, including mass migration and refugee flight, is a political fact of the first order. (See former U.S. President Donald Trump’s political rise.) At the outset of the refugee crisis in 2015, then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel promised that Germany would accept every Syrian refugee who made it to Europe; only a few months later, she was working out a deal with Turkey to choke off the flow of refugees lest public support for her government collapse.

Refugee universalism is thus a recipe for disaster. Yet it is possible to design a humane and just system that takes account of political and human realities. Doing so requires less doctrinal purity and more attention to what refugees really need. For example, some migration experts insist that refugees enjoy not only the right of sanctuary but the right to choose their preferred sanctuary. Yet current law only recognizes a right to a first country of refuge. That would leave Agadir in Russia—at least so long as Russia is deemed safe for people like him. All refugees cannot live in Germany or Sweden. Similarly, the distinction between refugees and migrants looks very blurry at the margins. Do victims of gang violence rather than state violence count? But absent such a distinction, states would have to surrender their right to enforce borders.

Exclusive focus on the refugee problem’s “who” and “where” obscures the all-important issue of “what.” We hope Ukrainians will only need to stay briefly abroad until they can return in the aftermath of some kind of negotiated settlement. What they need is physical safety and temporary material support. That is not enough for most of the world’s refugees, whether Syrians in Turkey or Afghans in Pakistan. The average length of a refugee’s stay abroad is 10 years. As authors Paul Collier and Alexander Betts argue in their book Refuge: Rethinking Refugee Policy in a Changing World (I’m revealing my reading list), what refugees do have a right to—beyond physical protection—is the “autonomy” enabled by work and access to education as well as a path back to their homes when it becomes safe to return. In other words, we need to confine some rights and expand others.

Refugees do not typically travel thousands of miles to find sanctuary; they flee to a neighboring state, just as Ukrainians did, and then stay there. Unlike migrants, refugees want to return home and so remain as close to home as possible. The terribly divisive argument over the obligation of European countries to accept Middle Eastern refugees was itself a sign of a failed response. Yet refugee flows place an impossible burden on countries with the misfortune of being located next to an exploding state. Collier and Betts suggest that if we are to, in effect, protect wealthy states from the great mass of refugees by keeping them in their respective regions, it is up to states farther away to provide development aid, trade, technical assistance, and the like to help create opportunities for work and schooling. That is a very tall order, but it’s barely been tried.

Even for wealthy Europe, housing, feeding, educating, and supporting more than 3 million Ukrainians is going to be a staggering undertaking. But it will probably be done because Europeans feel so deeply that Ukrainians are them. But Europe has done too little for the millions of Middle Eastern refugees who remain in their own neighborhoods. Back in 2016, Frans Timmermans, then an European Union official responsible for migration issues, said, “I would be at peace with all this if the member states would allocate billions [of dollars] on a yearly basis to Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey to take care of the refugees.” But they didn’t. Since then, many European states have struck deals with migrant-exporting nations in Africa, which amount to bribes to police their borders.

I felt a little ashamed as I tried to persuade my idealistic and devoutly cosmopolitan students to accept the limits of universalism and the political reality of kinship and nationalism. Most were not persuaded. Yet I was arguing that when politics collides with morality, we have to find a way to adjust both our moral propositions and our politics. Principle without politics is every bit as dangerous as politics without principle.

James Traub is a columnist at Foreign Policy, nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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