17 March 2022

Can you explain the current refugee crisis as a result of the invasion of Ukraine Russian forces?

Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February 2022, which has resulted in around three million people being displaced. It is geopolitical as it is a conflict which has (historically) the opponent of the west, the former Soviet Union (USSR). For the Ukrainians, this is an invasion of their sovereign state, and they are the victims. 

Ukraine flag

From Russia's point of view, it feels invaded because NATO has expanded closer and closer towards their borders, so the buffer zone that was in place after the collapse of the Soviet Union has shrunk. 

For the west this conflict is happening in the buffer zone, and raises issues of both the protection of refugees, as well as their relationship with Russia.

We know less about whether this is similar to other past wars. With wars over the last 30 years, we know they are different from previous wars in that they last longer and have more actors involved,  both internal and external. People have been called back to fight from abroad, their private military forces involved, then involvement from corporations and the economic factors too. There are also cyber-attacks as well as attacks on the ground and economic sanctions. All of this is leading to what will be a long conflict that will not end in just a few months. In fact, there has been conflict in the east of Ukraine (The Donbas War) for eight years already. This is a longstanding conflict already, and has now expanded. This is similar to the war in Syria. 

If there is a peace agreement, it is likely to be fragile. 

Can you explain more about the geopolitical nature of this war? 

This war is an example of a global geopolitical realignment. Ukraine could become another example of a proxy war between Russia and China configuring on one side, and NATO countries and the US as allies on the other side. Ukraine is the new territory here. 

What is different is that the UK and Europe are geographically closer here, compared to the wars in Syria and Afghanistan. However, the US is still far away in this war too. 

Why is the refugee situation different to others we have seen?

In different conflicts we see many refugees flee each time, however the difference this time is the approach the EU and UK are taking. The UK is adopting quite a generous approach, which allows refugees to work when they come, a three-year visa to stay and access to benefits. This is not the case for refugees from countries such as Syria and Afghanistan, to name a few. 

There are two schemes for Ukrainian refugees in the UK, however both still require visas, whereas other European countries have waived the necessity for visas to cut out bureaucratic processes to speed things up.

Are the Ukrainian refugees being treated differently to other refugees? 

There are geopolitical reasons at force here, with a tension between NATO countries and Russia, with Ukraine caught in between. 

The situation between NATO countries and Russia, and means it is in the interest of the NATO countries to receive the refugees.

However, there are also reasons related to discrimination and racism against refugees who are not white in the ways in which the refugees from Ukraine are being described by the media and government and the ways in which protection has been given to them. It does indicate some discriminatory and racist undertones that create hierarchies of refugees. 

We can see the language of some of media, the public and politicians that use phrases like 'brothers', or 'They look like us'. This language is very different to what has been used to describe Afghans, such as that 'They are a threat', even though they are refugees fleeing from conflict yet receive different types of protection.

I welcome this approach to the plight of Ukrainian refugees, and would hope this new found approach would be applied to refugees from other countries.

How is Brexit affecting the movement of people and goods in the refugee crisis?

While refugees are able to go from Ukraine into EU countries such as Poland, they are not able to do the same into the UK as they need a visa, and some may choose to do the undocumented route. There are also those who are going back to their home country to fight or help with humanitarian missions. Goods going to EU countries, such as donations of clothes and medical supplies, also need to be checked at the borders.  

You have hosted refugees from Eritrea and Iran in your home. What would you say to people considering hosting in the 'Homes for Ukraine' scheme? 

It has been quite an amazing experience which I would recommend, with so many positive things coming about, such as the sharing of stories and building long-term relationships. I would remind people that when you take on somebody, you don't just give them a room - you also have to look after their needs in many other ways. Also, many of them are traumatised by what has happened, so there is a lot of emotion.

Also keep in mind that is not just about taking one person in because this person will have family members, either back in Ukraine or in other countries who are in refugee camps, so their life is half here but also transnational. It's not just taking one person, it is taking in a family and community.

Professor Giorgia Dona is co-director for The Centre for Research on Migration, Refugees and Belonging at the University of East London.

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