Ritesh Shah: Why do we value some children's futures over others?
01 April 2022
Opinion: The scope and scale of the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine is unprecedented and raises questions about the West’s response, writes Dr Ritesh Shah.
The scope and scale of the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine is unprecedented and raises questions about the West’s response writes Dr Ritesh Shah.
As of 22 March, around 3.6 million Ukrainian refugees had been forced to seek refuge in neighbouring countries.
The situation for children living and trying to survive in Ukraine is particularly dire. For those in the east of the country, it has gone from bad to worse, given the conflict never really stopped there after 2014.
Having spent my academic career exploring the experiences of children living in conflict and crisis, including in Ukraine and parts of the Middle East, I feel it is important to ask some thorny questions about how the current humanitarian response appears different, and why that might be.
In 2018, I travelled to the east of Ukraine and visited towns adjacent to the border dividing the separatist-controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk from the rest of the country. One 13-year-old boy I spoke to recalled the situation in the previous winter.
“Shelling started in our town, and it was scary,” he said. “It would start at dusk and not end until dawn. One morning when I stepped outside, I saw dead bodies around. I grew very afraid and would have a lot of nightmares.”
Children deserve a future free of fear, but for many of them now, the only choice is to flee their homes and seek sanctuary outside of Ukraine.
Why is it that these refugees have been welcomed with open arms while other recent waves of refugees have been walled off, contained, detained, and denied protection and access to basic services?
We can be heartened by the warm welcome these refugees have received in Hungary, Romania, Poland and Moldova. The EU has already agreed to grant temporary protection status to Ukrainian refugees who find themselves in any of the 27 member state countries. This status will afford these refugees immediate protection and rights, including to housing, social welfare, medical care, and access to education.
This response aligns with the UN Refugee Convention which stresses the importance of hosting countries providing protection to fleeing persecution or armed conflict. Yet the convention also notes that refugees should be treated equally without discrimination as to their “race, religion or country of origin” (Article 3).
And this is where the difficult questions with the current humanitarian response arise. Why is it that these refugees have been welcomed with open arms while other recent waves of refugees have been walled off, contained, detained, and denied protection and access to basic services?
Bulgaria’s Prime Minister was recently quoted as saying, “These people [Ukrainians] are Europeans … [they are] intelligent, they are 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 terrorists.”
The view that Ukrainian refugees are “us” while others fleeing persecution are not is unacceptable. It reflects Orientalist underpinnings, which pit those with values perceived to be aligned to white, European and predominantly Christian as more deserving of the benevolence of the West than those of other groups (particularly Muslims). This “us vs them” narrative has justified the increasingly draconian measures taken to contain refugees who are brown or black, and non-Christian, under the guise of security.
It has led to walls being erected to keep out refugees and asylum seekers, not only along the US-Mexico border, but also in parts of Europe. The past few years have also seen invisible barriers to those fleeing persecution put up, where countries such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon have been asked to prevent an outflow of Syrian refugees into Europe and further afield, in exchange for billions of dollars of financing.
Someone fleeing persecution and war shouldn’t be naturally assumed a security threat by the colour of their skin or their religion.
Closer to home, Australia has used this approach to protect its borders, while leaving thousands of asylum seekers languishing in offshore detention facilities. In Aotearoa New Zealand, the government and opposition parties have been quick to agree to open our borders to family members of Ukrainians resident in our country. While this is a welcome decision, it underscores the double standards by which we treat others fleeing persecution and conflict. Similar affordances have not been demanded or offered to those fleeing conflict in Ethiopia, large swathes of Central Africa, Colombia, Syria, Myanmar or Afghanistan. Why is that?
Someone fleeing persecution and war shouldn’t be naturally assumed a security threat by the colour of their skin or their religion. Doing so highlights the norms of whiteness, which influence our sympathies and alliances to certain groups over others.
One Syrian refugee I spoke to in Jordan in 2017 told me about the incredible challenges she faced going to school there. She said when she and her family went to the school in the camp: “They told us to go home. They said they would call us back so that I could start school again, but they never did. I felt alone, and would relive memories of jet planes bombing our neighbourhood. I stayed at home cleaning and doing other housework.”
Despite being given sanctuary in Jordan, this girl was denied her basic rights to an education and a life with dignity. It illustrates the real injustices of humanitarian responses that value some children’s futures over others, and which sees some as more worthy of the West’s benevolence and protection than others.
Dr Ritesh Shah is a senior lecturer in Critical Studies in Education, in the Faculty of Education and Social Work.
This article appeared in the April 2022 edition of UniNews and was updated from a piece that originally ran in Newsroom.