As the world looked on in shock at the atrocities rolling out in Ukraine, many countries pledged to extend whatever assistance they could to Ukrainians fleeing the violence. The outpouring of sympathy and help from individuals and global political leadership is a testament to the way the world can come together in a time of crisis. But the help offered has led observers to compare the policies and practices of countries now admitting and resettling Ukrainian refugees to the same countries’ past and present treatment of refugees fleeing violence elsewhere in the world. This differential treatment highlights the role global powers play in exacerbating the global refugee crisis.
Global narratives about race and hierarchy shape the foreign policies and interventions of powerful nations like the United States and the United Kingdom, . They also shape the policies that drive climate change, resulting in the ecological and economic disasters that increasingly fuel global migration. These narratives also underlie the complicated systems and processes that refugees and asylum-seekers endure in their search for safety. The same countries that have opened their borders to Ukrainians have long held aggressive anti-refugee policies against generations of refugees displaced from Afghanistan, Palestine, and Syria, among other countries.
Such narratives are informed by the media, power dynamics in politics and global forums, and countries’ economic interests. Across these contexts, the human impact of refugee crises is largely ignored in geopolitical decision making, whether in the lead up to conflict or when resettling refugees afterwards. Given their entanglement in these conflicts, countries in the Global North must understand and take more responsibility for the intergenerational impacts of these decisions on human lives.
Racism Underlines Global Approach to Refugees
Critics have called out the double-sided nature of policies that decide who deserves asylum. The US government, for example, has committed to resettling 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, in contrast to US bans or restrictions on refugees from the Middle East, Haiti, and Mexico. Indeed, the Biden administration has turned away thousands of Haitians from the US border.
Systemic racism underlies such exclusion. As Kitana Ananda has written for NPQ, broadcasters for reputed networks like the BBC made the racial politics of solidarity with Ukrainian refugees clear in their comments on the situation: one even described Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as “very emotional” because “European people with blond hair and blue eyes” are being killed.
Whether it’s Pakistan’s exclusion and mistreatment of Afghan refugees, Mexican families being stopped at the US border, or boats of Syrian migrants being turned away in Europe, many of these decisions and policies are influenced by that is tweaked to fit localized situations. Even in countries where formal systems exist to resettle refugees, the scarcity of affordable and accessible resources such as jobs and housing, and the sheer difficulty of wading through complex immigration systems mean that refugees are often turned away, or they are left to fend for themselves even when accepted for resettlement. The lack of sustainable refugee resettlement policies and systems causes social pressures to build. Anti-refugee advocates use this pressure to capitalize on anti-immigrant and racist sentiments.
From the anti-Muslim sentiments underlying the former US president’s so-called “Muslim ban” to the hypocrisy of admitting “blond haired, blue eyed” Ukrainian refugees to the UK while deporting Black and Brown refugees from Asia and Africa, racist sentiments inform everything from everyday interactions between refugees and host citizens to state policy.
Omer Karasapan, a former World Bank MENA Region Knowledge and Sustainability Coordinator, has focused extensively on refugee issues throughout his work and points out that there’s a long global history to this racism. “Immediately after World War Two, large numbers of [Jewish] refugees entered the US, and this was something a majority of the population had a problem with,” Karasapan says, discussing how those wanting to keep refugees out capitalized on racist sentiments against Jewish people, who at the time were not seen as white.
Refugee communities often struggle with a lack of wealth and economic stability—and this has been used against them in narratives that portray them as a burden on host economies.While there is little research on what exactly drives anti-refugee sentiment, academics Wouter van der Brug and Eelco Harteveld put forth two interesting hypotheses about these sentiments in Europe. The Backlash Hypothesis assumes that, in countries where many refugees resettle, citizens—regardless of political affiliation—feel threatened by another growing ethnic group and counter this perceived threat by developing a stronger nationalist identity. The Polarization Hypothesis takes a different approach. It states that only right-wing citizens become more nationalistic and critical of refugees, while left-wing citizens are either not affected or move towards a more accepting and less nationalist stance. Interestingly, both groups are presented with yet they embrace such polarized views.
Resettling Refugees: Misinformation and its Impact
Mursal Saiq, activist, entrepreneur, and founder of Cue Point London, was subject to right-wing, anti-immigrant stereotypes when her family fled Afghanistan at the start of the first Taliban regime in the mid 1990s. Saiq shares that her family faced many racist attacks when they were initially assigned to live in North London, including having stones thrown at them. Their situation improved when they were relocated to Hackney, a more diverse neighborhood that was also one of the country’s most impoverished.
Refugee communities often struggle with a lack of wealth and with economic stability—and this has been used against them in narratives that portray them as a burden on host economies. Saiq points out that for many refugees, low socioeconomic status results from a lack of systemic support that begins with international policy. Saiq points out a paradox: While the United Nations defines refugees as people who are escaping dangerous situations and are unable to seek protection in their home country, it focuses on repatriation to countries of origin as a solution to forced migration—thereby endangering refugees and deprioritizing long-term, sustainable resettlement.
The mainstream media further perpetuates misinformation and biased narratives. Karasapan says that after 9/11, the media stoked Islamophobic narratives by relying on stereotype
While the ban came as a surprise to many, analysts like Karasapan don’t see it as all that shocking. He links such policies to 10 years of shifting narratives and scare tactics around migrants and refugees—the impacts of which continue today. “These theories are now finding resonance in a broader public. Even when Biden came in, a lot of Trump’s policies were kept in place,” says Karasapan, referring to the current US president’s decision to keep Trump’s 15,000 refugee cap and Title 42, a policy that has blocked non-citizens from entering the US to purportedly protect public health during the COVID pandemic. While the CDC rescinded Title 42 on April 1, 2022, the order remains held up in the courts and is still being used to expel migrants at the US-Mexico border. Karasapan also sees a global shift to right-wing politics, with the popularity of France’s Far Right in recent elections and Turkey’s campaign against Syrian refugees.
Sign up for our free newsletters
Subscribe to NPQ's newsletters to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.
Global Humanitarian Aid Is Not Enough
The US and other Global North countries frequently tout their acceptance of Ukrainian refugees and provision of global aid as evidence of concern—and indeed, the US provides the highest amount of such aid—$9.3 billion in 2019, only 0.04 percent of the country’s $21.43 trillion GDP that year. However, none of these countries has defined or committed to universal refugee policies or legislation. It’s easy to claim humanitarian intentions by citing aid dollars or admittance numbers, but what also matters is people’s lived experiences of the resettlement system. Wilmot Collins—a refugee from Liberia and the first Black mayor of Helena, MT—shares that “Coming to the US through the refugee process is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do,” despite the fact that his daughter was born in America, meaning his case involved reuniting his family.
While the number of refugees tells a story about the growing crisis, our narratives and policies must respond to the human experience of displacement: people whose lives are in limbo, often confined to camps while waiting for resettlement or being exploited in informal working sectors.
Mayor Collins was forced to flee Liberia in the early 1990s when war broke out. While his wife had received a scholarship in the US, he went to Ghana first and then the Ivory Coast while waiting for his asylum application to be processed. The process took two years and seven months. “I was 31 when I came here. I’d lost a significant part of my life, and despite speaking English, I had issues with communication because I spoke in a way Americans didn’t understand and vice versa,” he shared.
Beyond the Statistics: The Human Experience of Displacement
A deeper issue underlies the acceptance of refugees into Global North countries—the massive increase in human displacement that is creating today’s refugees. According to UNHCR, 26.6 million people have been officially designated refugees this year. This number—double that of the previous decade—when combined with the number of unofficial refugees and 53.2 million internally displaced people, totals to more than 100 million refugees, a new record. That number was 90 million in 2021 and has grown at a rapid rate, leading to questions about why there are so many refugees, where refugees are going, and what should be done.
While the number of refugees tells a story about the growing crisis, our narratives and policies must respond to the human experience of displacement: people whose lives are in limbo, often confined to camps while waiting for resettlement or being exploited in informal working sectors. Long-term assistance starts with finding solutions to the crises that drive people to seek asylum in the first place. It also means establishing systems in host countries that allow refugees to build social and economic security.
Elaine Alam, a development professional working on refugee rights in Pakistan and Afghanistan, says, “What I haven’t been able to understand yet, having worked with refugees for over 10 years, is where each of these countries—whether it be the US, the UK, or Pakistan—stand on the issue of refugees. Every time we have this issue [of what policies regarding refugees are needed], we hear new taglines from heads of state and news from various ministries who say they’re committed to improving the lives of refugees, yet not one thing has gone through.”
One in 10 refugees are Afghan by birth, and 88 percent of Afghan refugees are hosted by Iran and Pakistan—two countries that hardly have the resources to support their own growing populations, let alone enough political stability to create long-term, tangible solutions to the growing crisis. As an expert working on the ground in the region, Alam shares that she’s often felt a growing hopelessness around international intervention. Speaking of the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Alam says, “It was only people who had a direct stake with these countries [ie, intervening powers like the US] who were saved by those countries.” Referring to the many Afghans who worked indirectly with US organizations or the US government and were left behind despite the clear danger that any affiliation with the US posed under Taliban leadership, Alam said, “There were several people who had indirect connections with these international countries’ agencies, and some weren’t able to get help from them at all.”
Engaging and Educating Host Communities
Dauda Sesay, the national network director for African Communities Together, which advocates for refugee and immigrant rights in the US, echoes Alam’s sentiments from halfway across the world. Sesay, who escaped war with his family only to live in a refugee camp for 10 years, says that he spent much of his time in the camp fighting for better living conditions and education—which only proves how the current system is designed to keep refugees on the backfoot. When Sesay resettled in Louisiana in 2009, he found little understanding about refugees and their experiences. The lack of education around these issues made it easier for those with an anti-refugee political agenda to influence mindsets, further polarizing society.
Because of the challenges that growing polarization presents for political action around refugees, the onus has fallen on individuals and nonprofit organizations to bring about change. Sesay points out that he and other refugees are best placed to initiate such change because they’ve experienced displacement and sought asylum. “When we started engaging with our local communities and telling them our stories, we began to see a shift in community acceptance,” Sesay says. But with millions of refugees still displaced and generations stuck in limbo in refugee camps across the world, change has been too slow.
Mayor Collins takes an active approach to making a difference while remaining accessible to citizens in his jurisdiction. He says that the local refugee community is also part of the Refugee Congress, a refugee- and asylum seeker-led organization that informs government policymakers about issues relevant to refugee communities. “No one can help like I can; I’ve been through it myself,” Collins says.
Sesay and his team employ a different approach to improving resettlement. “We engage with local faith communities because they have a big influence in driving change. Many refugees and immigrants are also deeply connected to their churches and mosques, and so those become good spaces to gather and connect,” says Sesay.
Growing recognition that the existing system needs to change is proof that a better future is possible, but individual efforts will not be enough. “Both sending and receiving countries need to sit down and figure out an orderly way. There are ways of doing this that won’t only help refugees but also vulnerable host communities because when refugees come, they tend to strain resources amongst the most vulnerable as they often have no choice but to work in the informal sector,” says Karasapan, adding that there is no easy solution to this challenge.
In the long-term, Alam says a holistic approach to the crisis is needed to change the mindsets that perpetuate anti-refugee narratives. This, she suggests, can be done through education and other forms of youth engagement. While younger people may seem more open to immigration, a lack of exposure to refugees’ lived experiences and nuanced narratives about asylum seekers creates contention among youth, who differ on where exactly to draw the line and which immigration policies to support.
For Alam, such engagement involves upholding a basic standard of democratic inclusion. “Rights should be accessible to all, and rights should be the same for all.” She continues, “Rights cannot be held in the hands of one kind of ideology and be manipulated by a particular side. This may sound unachievable in the near future, but this is how younger people and newer democracies need to promote and rationalize rights.” Referring to the UN’s declaration of human rights, she states, “It is a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and we cannot differentiate between who that applies to.”