Have you watched the news recently, opened a news article on Facebook or even just mindlessly swiped through your Instagram stories? If so, then there are probably two things that have come to your attention – firstly, that there is currently a war in Ukraine and secondly, that the news coverage of this war is different from the vast majority of reporting on other conflicts.
What makes this war different?
To answer such a question, we should turn to those who are doing the reporting. CBS Senior Foreign Correspondent Chris D’Agata, live on air from the besieged city of Kyiv last month, exclaimed that Ukraine “isn’t like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades”. He continued: “This is a relatively civilised, relatively European – I have to choose those words carefully, too – city, where you wouldn’t expect that.”
Stating that the conflict in Ukraine is incomparable to the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – because of how “civilised” Ukraine and its people are – is to insinuate that the people of Iraq and Afghanistan were not as “civilised” when war broke out in their regions. To make such a point undermines the deep trauma that thousands of innocent civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan have lived through. After public outcry at his comments, D’Agata did apologise for the words which he had so “carefully” chosen. A journalist who is yet to provide any clarity on his remarks is columnist David Hannon.
Saying the conflict in Ukraine is incomparable to the recent wars around the world – because of how ‘civilised’ Ukraine and its people are – is to insinuate that the people of Iraq and Afghanistan are not as ‘civilised’
Writing in the Telegraph, Hannon wrote about the “shocking” nature of the Ukrainian conflict. The conflict was so shocking to Hannon because, to him, it revolved around the fact that Ukrainians, “seem so like us”. He expands on his point by explaining how they too watch Netflix and read uncensored newspapers. The persistent discourse around how the people of Ukraine are seemingly so similar to us insinuates that it is perfectly acceptable to have less, if any, empathy for conflict-stricken communities to whom we cannot relate.
Peter Dobbie is an English Al-Jazeera anchor who said on air about the Ukrainian migrant crisis: “What’s compelling is looking at them, the way they are dressed. These are prosperous, middle-class people. These are not obviously refugees trying to get away from the Middle East … or north Africa. They look like any European family that you’d live next door to.”
Dobbie presents refugees that come from the Middle East or north Africa as people who have made a choice. Rather than fleeing deadly conflict zones, Dobbie dismisses them as merely “trying to get away” from where they were born. Ukrainians aren’t refugees, apparently – they are “prosperous, middle-class people” who you could easily “live next door to”.
By elevating Ukrainians who have fled their homes above the status of refugee, Dobbie dehumanises refugees who have had to flee other conflicts – classing them as an “other”. What Dobbie said on air betrayed why many in the western world see this war as so exceptional – the civilians involved are white Europeans who couldn’t possibly be scroungers or terrorists.
However, it hasn’t only been journalists contributing to the discussions surrounding the extraordinary nature of the conflict in Ukraine, having extended as far as world leaders. Britain’s Prince William visited the Ukrainian Cultural Centre in London to hear about their relief efforts. While there, he remarked about how “very alien” it was for his “generation” to witness war in Europe . In the first instance, such a remark displayed a certain level of European-centric ignorance. The prince was born in 1982 – so he has lived through the Bosnian genocide (1992-95), the majority of the Troubles (1968-1998) and the Russian invasion of Georgia (2008). While not all of these events are referred to as wars, for William to suggest that Europe has seen nothing but peace since his birth is glossing over several significant conflicts which shaped the lives of those who saw them firsthand.
By elevating Ukrainians who have fled their homes above the status of refugee, we dehumanise refugees who have had to flee other conflicts
In supporting this narrative of the war’s unprecedented nature in modern European history, the prince upholds the damaging idea of the exceptionalism of this conflict. It’s an exceptionalism that makes Ukrainians deserving of our aid, while we have shunned support for other conflict zones for decades. While one might argue that the heir to the throne of the most lavish monarchy in Europe might be ever so slightly out of touch to begin with, the prince’s influence across the UK, commonwealth nations and generally around the world makes his comments all the more permeating.
To turn the focus to elected officials, a certain trend has emerged – to pledge levels of support and aid for refugees from Ukraine that is far beyond anything that was offered to refugees of previous conflicts. While there have been differing explanations for this sudden burst of global generosity, few have been so forthcoming in their explanations as the Bulgarian president.
Late last month, President Rumen Radev referred to Ukrainian refugees as “intelligent … educated people … this is not the refugee wave we have been used to, people we were not sure about their identity, people with unclear pasts, who could have been even terrorists”.
“In other words”, he continued, “there is not a single European country now which is afraid of the current wave of refugees”. The double standard at play here is clear to see – Ukrainians are being treated as trustworthy, peaceful people in need of help, whilst those from other parts of the world are viewed with suspicion. Such unashamed remarks convey a blanket bias by the president – and have largely gone unremarked by other foreign leaders. Is it possible that this silence conveys agreement and even support for such a sentiment?
We should be asking why we still see someone’s ethnicity before we see their need for help
So, clearly, what makes this conflict different is whiteness. This isn’t a war between people of non-western ethnicities that we have long just accepted as prone to conflict. Our unwavering willingness to support Ukraine, while an undeniably positive action, is a blatant display of how we value humans differently in light of race. The justification for supporting Ukraine in place of other conflict-ridden regions plays on our preconceived notions about people from other parts of the world.
None of this is to dismiss the utterly abominable and devastatingly traumatic experience of the Ukrainian people. They are a people in desperate need, and should be given all that is available. Rather, we should be asking why we still see someone’s ethnicity before we see their need for help.