Selective Empathy
Twitter, @ajplus

Is the West Selective With Its Empathy Toward Refugees?

International media outlets inundate the world with images of broken-hearted mothers forced to flee Ukraine, seeking safety and stability for their young children. These noble women leave behind brave husbands, sons, fathers, and male relatives who desperately fight to protect their nation’s sovereignty from an oppressive invading force. 

Foreign Policy details: “The silent suffering of mothers separated from their partners; limping to safety with their children and a few belongings toward an uncertain future in strange conditions.” An unnamed European diplomat explains how it’s the visuals of Ukrainian women and children that foster such a pro-refugee sentiment amongst the public. This is why Europe is so quick to act, not because of their nationality. So the question becomes: Should this support that we see from the West be deemed as selective empathy? Or is it a mere matter of “visuals?”

Women & Children in War: Ukrainians VS Syrians

A Polish woman from Lublin, who has taken in a Ukrainian refugee, drew comparisons between the current crisis in Ukraine and the one experienced by Syria starting in 2015, claiming that she would have been just as eager to help Syrians if they were mothers knocking on her door and not simply men seeking economic gain. A quick comment quickly turns the “largest refugee crisis of our time,” into a group of suspicious, ill-intentioned men harassing their generous European neighbors for food, shelter, employment, and dignified existence. 

The UNHCR estimates that more than 13 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance and that 2.5 million Syrian refugee children are without a school. Yet Syrian fathers, brothers, and sons knocking on Europe’s doors are not deemed worthy of their aid. If only the mothers came to comfort us from the suspicious brown men begging at our doorsteps for their human rights and dignity. 

More on Selective Empathy

What Ukraine News Taught Me: Not “All Men Are Equal”

Why Are Syrian Refugees Being Compared to a Bag of Skittles?

Why Are People Still Denying the Chemical Attacks Against Syrians?

The women and children of Ukraine have received an overnight policy of open-arms and open borders while women and children of Middle Eastern-descent live through red tape and endless waits just to be seen, although not necessarily accepted.

In 2018, Rasha al-Ahmed, her husband, Waleed, and their young daughter fled Syria for Turkey. After 7 years, the seemingly endless war led them to Turkey in search of hope and opportunity for their young family. Upon arrival, Waleed desperately sought work in any field or menial form of labor, without success. Not long after their arrival, they chose to pay smugglers to bring them to Greece where they hoped to find more opportunities for their family. Unlike their Ukrainian counterparts, al-Ahmed found closed doors and unsanitary and unsafe EU-subsidized camps. 

We don’t see countries like the UK, that contributed to the killing of Syrian civilians in the name of targeting IS militants, take any action to mitigate the repercussions the way they did with Ukrainians

By the end of 2015, more than one million Syrian, Iraqi, and Afghan refugees had entered Europe. However, it was only a matter of weeks that roughly 3 million Ukrainian refugees were welcomed by Europeans. By the end of 2015, Europe began to close its borders to Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans. The European Commission President Donald Tusk warned refugees “not to come to Europe” and that the risk to their lives and money was not worth it. In a matter of weeks, Ireland alone has welcomed five-and-a-half-thousand Ukrainians, stating that “the humanitarian response trumps anything,” including any potential security concerns the Irish public might have about incoming refugees.

If only the silent suffering of Syrian, Afghans and Iraqi mothers were received with such compassion; these mothers were forced to leave their homelands by an aggressive and oppressive force, risking their lives and that of their children to seek safety, leaving all that they knew and owned behind for uncertain futures in strange countries.

In response to the rapidly rising number of Ukrainian refugees, the EU has made swift and immediate immigration policy changes. Notably, Ukrainians are granted the right to stay and to work in 27 nations for up to 3 years without the red tape and endless waits afforded to their Middle Eastern counterparts. In addition, individual European countries have created special sponsorship programs to help increase their intake of Ukrainian refugees. The UK’s Homes for Ukraine program welcomes nominations for persons and families to live rent-free with the sponsor or at another property for a minimum of 6 months. Under this program, Ukrainian refugees can live, work, and access healthcare, welfare, and schools for up to 3 years. 

In 2015, countries such as the UK offered a much more subdued response to the humanitarian crisis impacting Syrians. A London-based think tank analyst described the “miserly policy” as a reflection of the “political atmosphere in a country where the tabloid press routinely characterizes refugees as an invading army attempting to storm the Cliffs of Dover.” Syrian women and children were also there, banging on Europe’s door, but the outcry over humanitarian concerns was faint and short-lived. 

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported on March 12 that more than 13.4 million Syrians need relief. The UNICEF stated, “Nearly 5 million children born in Syria since the war began have never known peaceful times.” And yet, we don’t see countries like the UK, that contributed to the killing of Syrian civilians in the name of targeting IS militants, take any action to mitigate the repercussions the way they did with Ukrainians; let alone the staggering responses from UK citizens who answered a survey made by YouGov on the UK’s intervention in Syria: “It is a problem between Syrian governments and Syrian people,” and “the unrest is an internal matter in another country.”

On top of that, let us not forget how 31 states in the United States rejected Syrian refugees in 2015, but now the whole nation is ready to welcome Ukrainian refugees with open arms. “We’re going to welcome Ukrainian refugees with open arms if, in fact, they come all the way here,” President Biden said on March 11 during a meeting with Democrats in Philadelphia.

Selective Empathy: It’s more than Just the Visuals of Women & Children

Perhaps, the CBS news correspondent said it best, “[Kyiv] isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized and relatively European city … where you wouldn’t expect that to happen.”

The selective empathy, along with the implicit and explicit bias against refugees of Middle Eastern descent, cannot be denied once compared to Europe’s reception of an international media’s portrayal of Ukrainian refugees.

The plight of Middle Eastern mothers and their children is drowned under European fears of “the other;” the “uncivilized” refugees who don’t share their eye, hair, skin color, or their values and their beliefs. The national security threats knocking on Europe’s doors from the “uncivilized” who are not afforded the right to access their basic human needs as their more civilized Ukrainian counterparts. 

The selective empathy, as well as the implicit and explicit bias against refugees of Middle Eastern descent, cannot be denied once compared to Europe’s reception of an international media’s portrayal of Ukrainian refugees. The mothers and children of Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq are as deserving of our empathy, compassion, and positive political policy changes as their Ukrainian counterparts. We cannot continue to turn a blind eye toward unjust and racist refugee policies that seek to welcome the “civilized” over the “uncivilized” non-Europeans.

Jessica Daqamsseh is a freelance writer, published poet and educator based in North Carolina.