No excuse for racism

A filling station by the side of the road. The signs are a stylised yellow W on a green circular background. There are three blue signs on the approach, the first showing a petrol pump, the second a cup with the name 'WOG' below it, and the third a 'P' for parking.
WOG filling station on the Ukrainian approach to the Polish border. (Source: Google Street View)

After Russia invaded Ukraine two weeks ago, there was an outpouring of solidarity from people all around the world at the attack by the dictator Putin’s forces on a democratic country which had dared stand up to it and resist being dragged into the status of a satellite country to a corrupt, decaying former superpower. As soon as bombs began falling on Kyiv, the country’s capital, people began fleeing, mostly to the western borders with countries like Poland and Romania; more than a million refugees have fled the country. Among them are foreign students and others from African and Asian countries, and numerous stories have emerged of racist treatment they had received from border guards, the police, shopkeepers and others while attempting to leave the country. These include the use of racial slurs, physical assaults, being pulled off trains so that Ukrainians could take their place, being told to walk across the border, being left to sleep out in the open in the cold, being sent to the back of queues at the border as well as in food shops where, when they finally gained entry, they found no food of substance left as natives had bought it all. As remarks in the media that “you don’t expect this sort of thing in a civilised country in Europe” started to be noticed as well as the still festering issue of the African and Asian refugees stranded by Lukashenko at the Belarusian-Polish border who have received nothing like the warm welcome the Ukrainian refugees have in Poland, many of us started to form the conclusion that solidarity is only for White people and (as the experience of Bosnians shows) then only if they are not Muslims. Others remarked how disturbing it was that, even when bombs are raining down, people find time to be racist.

Yesterday, the Ukrainian ambassador to the UK made some laughable excuses for his countrymen’s behaviour: that the country had always been ‘homogeneous’ and people were not used to the sight of African and Asian people and one solution might be to segregate foreigners from natives at the border. This is very clearly inaccurate. This part of Europe has never been homogeneous: there are twelve official regional languages which include Russian but also Belarusian, Hungarian, Crimean Tatar and Yiddish. Over the years western Ukraine has been ruled by the Poles, Lithuanians, Austrians and Germans as well as Russians: the city of L’viv, the major city of western Ukraine, had four names over the course of the 20th century. The country is a popular destination for students from India and other Asian and African countries, particularly medical students. While these people would have been concentrated in the cities, surely people in smaller towns knew about them. This idea that they had never seen a brown face before is ridiculous.

And western Ukrainians are not, yet, traumatised by war. The Polish border is a long way from anywhere there has been any fighting, although there have been a few air strikes in some western cities including Lutsk and Ivano-Frankivsk but not L’viv. Knowing there is a war elsewhere in your own country, when that country is very big, is not the same as having direct personal experience of it. I lived in London through the time when the Troubles in Northern Ireland were ongoing; there were occasional bomb attacks on the mainland such as in London, Warrington and Manchester (Guildford and Birmingham were before I was born) but I was a long way from the scene of each and I witnessed nothing and suffered no injury or loss, so I cannot have been traumatised by any of it. Even if you have suffered trauma at the hands of people who are in some way different from you, it does not give you the right to become a bigot or to become abusive and cruel to people who look in any way like your abusers if you later gain power over them (and Russians do not look like any of the refugees who have been abused in western Ukraine these past two weeks).

Do these incidents demonstrate that Ukrainians in particular are more racist than any other nation? Probably not; border forces the world over are notorious for humiliating people trying to visit from poorer countries and finding spurious excuses to send them back, Britain included. Over recent decades, anti-immigrant narratives have taken hold in many countries’ media, portraying refugees as ‘bogus’ asylum seekers who have come to live off the benefit system and immigrants as criminals. Right now, the UK is the only one in Europe which still requires visas for Ukrainian refugees to enter, and those with family here have found it impossible to get the visas required. It’s possible that this display of racism stemmed from selfishness; people wanted to get out as quickly as possible (even though that part of Ukraine is still mostly safe), and used racism as an excuse to get others out of the way. It’s my country! Me first!

None of this detracts from the truth that the invasion was unjust, that Russia has no claim over Ukraine and no right to demand its subservience, that even if much of its population wants closer ties, this does not mean they want to be ruled by Putin’s regime (a fact borne out by local resistance even in Russian-speaking eastern parts of the country since the invasion) and this has intensified since they saw what atrocities the Russian state and military are willing to inflict; the same goes for anti-liberal or autocratic governments previously sympathetic to Russia (e.g. Hungary), who equally do not want to be reduced to vassals as during the Iron Curtain era, which now appears to be Putin’s aim. The invasion has finally resulted in a crackdown on the Russian billionaires who have used their mostly ill-gotten wealth to buy properties and businesses abroad, particularly the UK, and such a crackdown will be to the benefit of people living here who have found the cost of housing rise as the foreign rich buy up properties as ‘investments’ and to launder money. Putin has to be stopped; he and his regime bring corruption and oppression wherever they go. But this is going to be a hard sell for those who are seeing people like them abused as they try to flee to safety while their abusers are hailed as heroic defenders of civilisation, even if they had no sympathy for Putin themselves. Ukraine’s ambassador should be apologising to the victims of the appalling racist violence, and talking to his own government to fix this before all the solidarity his people received two weeks ago evaporates.

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