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When Asylum Seekers are White: Media Eurocentrism and Racism Within Refugee Discourses

SASW is pleased to host this guest blog by Renite Gosal, on our EDI hub. Renite is a current MSc student pursuing Global Mental Health and Society at the University of Edinburgh. She holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of British Columbia majoring in sociology and minoring in law and society. She is passionate about social justice, refugee health, and harm reduction.

“These are not refugees from Syria, these are refugees from Ukraine… They’re Christian, they’re white, they’re very similar [to us]”. – Kelly Cobiella, Correspondent, NBC News

Following the recent escalation of war in Ukraine, the world is witnessing yet another wave of women, children and men fleeing persecution and violence, and seeking asylum. The fundamental difference this time, is that most of these refugees are white Ukrainians, and the media will not let you forget it.

Numerous interviews document politicians, journalists and so-called experts explicitly differentiating the war in Ukraine from other current wars or refugee crises including, but not limited to events in Syria, Palestine, Afghanistan, Yemen, Myanmar, and Somalia. For instance, Charlie D’Agata, a correspondent with CBS News stated, “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilised, relatively European city where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen. I have to choose these words carefully too.” In this statement, D’Agata employs orientalist tropes that have been used in the past to justify the colonisation of “less civilised” peoples. Such narratives are deeply racist, divisive, and dangerous at best.

The sole differentiating factors between this refugee crisis to others are the race, religion, and nationality of those seeking asylum. There has been no need for such clarifications or distinctions. The neighbouring countries to Ukraine have not been asked why these refugees are different to others. In fact, the media’s persistent differentiation of these refugees insinuates that the word “refugee” or “asylum-seeker” has a tainted connotation. One such connotation that could only have been produced from Eurocentric, racist and Islamophobic discourses. In clarifying that Ukrainians are “Europeans just like us”, not only is Ukrainian culture reduced, but refugees from non-European or non-white countries are further othered and marginalised.

Strife and war should never be compared. However, we must ask questions when conflicts that Western countries are involved in, receive disproportionately miniscule media attention in proportion to the women, children and men being killed. We must not ignore the implications of Eurocentric media coverage, lest we forget Europe’s involvement in much of the colonial histories and current meddling in countries that currently face conflict today. In disproportionately reporting on wars and crises in the West, we are further minimizing the plight of those who have been facing conflict for years, much of which the world is aware of.

Global politics aside, in times of crisis, there should be no need to compare instances of war and the senseless murders of human beings. Yet mass media has made it apparent that white, European lives will always get more media coverage, more aid and be welcomed with open arms into host countries. Ukrainian Politician and Prosecutor David Sakvarelidze reifies this notion in stating, “It’s very emotional for me. Because I see European people with blue eyes blonde hair are being killed every day”. Humanity and compassion should transcend race, religion, ideology, nationality, and country borders. Suffering everywhere is emotional. War everywhere must be condemned.

However, until that utopian dream manifests, I implore media outlets to think before speaking, writing, and publishing. Are your words reifying racist, Islamophobic and Eurocentric discourses about refugees? Is it appropriate to engage in divisive, orientalist narratives against refugees of colour while opening your doors for European refugees?

For if these quotes that have emerged are your “careful words” about refugees under the public gaze, I fear what you say behind closed doors.