I am reluctant to admit that I have recently found myself glued to the unfolding crisis in Ukraine, for reasons other than my primary concern for human welfare at times of war.
That has become almost secondary to my interest in watching how powerful Western nations and companies are rightly rushing to help Ukrainian citizens flee the bombardment of their homes, and boycotting Russian markets to put pressure on President Vladimir Putin to stop the war.
I wish the double standards in humanitarian concerns and international law were less obvious.
What has struck me is the significant contrast with what we are generally used to seeing when people from mainly non-white, non-European, and non-Christian backgrounds are forced to leave their countries in search of safety. Countries around the world considered safe havens and upholders of international law are rarely keen to open their borders in similar ways to how they have for Ukraine, leaving thousands to sink in ships trying to reach their shores or washing up on their beaches. And it is business as usual for oil and gas companies competing with one another to get lucrative contracts.
Here in Australia, there is often a reluctance to issue visas quickly to asylum seekers fleeing war from regions such as the Middle East without identity and security checks that take years because of negative sociopolitical discourses that posit them as not like "us". Instead they are seen as potential terrorists, anti-liberals, haters of democracy and wife-beaters. We are also not too keen to issue blanket visa extensions to others, including Sri Lankan Tamils or Myanmar nationals facing genocide in their home country, leaving us open to constant criticism from the United Nations for breaches of international human rights law.
But just last week, the federal government announced visas for Ukrainian nationals here will be automatically extended and others processed as a priority. Other members of parliament and their constituents have voiced support for helping to relocate large numbers of this "very handsome race" to Australia, noting an alignment between their values and ours.
Similarly, in countries such as Canada, an "unlimited number" of visas are being made available for people who want to leave Ukraine, and governmens are waiving a lot of the requirements people need to meet before arriving, including passport verification. Astonishingly, there is also widespread public support for helping the Ukrainian people, to the extent that even ordinary people are shipping them the armour and equipment needed to push back against the Russian invasion.
Many people of Ukrainian descent, and even those with no ties to Ukraine at all, are travelling to Ukraine to join the fight. All this is happening years after Western nations were rightly grappling with the fact that an increasing number of people wanted to join the fight in Syria. To this end, we were stopping them from boarding flights, threatening to strip their citizenship, and updating the list of banned terrorist groups so people felt the full force of the law.
The current tacit encouragement of volunteers to join the fight flies in the face of international law, since such irregular forces would lack the structure necessary to ensure adherence to the laws of war. It is doubtful that any criminal activity by these volunteers would be investigated or prosecuted. Additionally, by allowing civilians from across the world to join this war, Western nations may allow Putin to indiscriminately target civilians by painting them as armed resisters.
More broadly, we are hearing regularly from ordinary Ukrainians about the hardships they are facing, watching families being separated, and seeing tired women and children crossing borders. We are opening pre-eminent television shows with Ukrainian music in tribute to their losses. It is hard to find such coverage of people's suffering in other war-torn countries in mainstream media, and it's not because there is a lack of it. Reporters on the ground in Ukraine are providing us with narratives, perhaps inadvertently, that reveal underlying racial biases.
The differences in our response to people from white European backgrounds fleeing war brings to the fore the social chasms such as race, ethnicity, nationality, language, class and gender that remain powerful and generally immutable characteristics that can negatively impact upon how people respond to us.
Despite all of this, our response to the Ukrainian crisis provides us with examples of all the ways we can act in the future towards those we deem as "others". We should respond with empathy to ensure human dignity in every crisis, everywhere, not just when suffering is faced by people who look like us.
This will help keep our unconscious biases and prejudices in check, rather than hovering above how we respond socially, politically and legally when people are in need.
- Zeinab Zein is an Australian lawyer with interests in human rights and immigration law. She lives in Sydney.