Must we ration compassion?

Europe’s response to accommodate people fleeing Ukraine illustrates how sanctuary for all refugees is possible. Jun Pang and Nadia Hasan write.

Refugees from Ukraine arrive at the central station, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Berlin, Germany, March 14, 2022. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

Over three million Ukrainians have now fled the country as the violent assault on their country continues. After weeks of criticism, the British government has announced a visa offer and brand new community sponsorship scheme for Ukrainian nationals. Both schemes are far from perfect, but the fact that the Home Secretary now plans to welcome Ukrainian refugees after months of pushing prison and detention camps for other people fleeing danger reveals the ugly truth behind the way the UK deals with asylum issues.

Like its counterparts across Europe and North America, it’s a system where compassion and welcome have clear racial boundaries – and we don’t have to look far to see this at play. Over the past few weeks, European border officials have violently blocked black and brown people fleeing this conflict, media pundits have deemed white Ukrainians ‘more civilized’ than other migrants, and the British government has continued to push anti-refugee laws through parliament.

Meanwhile, governments across Europe have offered sanctuary to refugees escaping the war in Ukraine. The EU has announced that Ukrainians can enter without visas. Germany has given Ukrainians fleeing the war free train travel. It’s been heartening to see the generosity, but it has also been a stark reminder of the deeply-rooted racism of our global border regime, which has long meant open doors for some and doors slammed shut for others. This cannot simply be explained away through cultural ties or shared borders – is Europe not inextricably linked to Syria and Afghanistan through its colonial past and imperial present?

The scarcity myth

Europe’s response to black and brown people fleeing danger has been worse than unwelcoming – it’s been deadly. Many crossing European borderlands have been pushed back to starve, drown and freeze to death on land borders and at sea. One Syrian refugee who slept in sub-zero conditions on the Polish-Belarusian border and faced violence at the hands of armed border guards, said: ‘How is it possible that on one border you beat people and yet on the other you give them soup and cookies?’

How is it possible that on one border you beat people and yet on the other you give them soup and cookies?

The only logical explanation for this differential treatment is racism, which to paraphrase geographer and abolitionist scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore is ‘the state-sanctioned production of vulnerability to premature death for certain racialized groups’. Today, racism remains intrinsic to the nation-state system – the idea that there are ‘insiders’ who must be defended against the purported threats of ‘outsiders’; meanwhile, capital is concentrated in the Global North, built off the backs of those in the Global South who are prevented from entry.

The British state is expert at weaponizing the logic of scarcity. Notwithstanding its imperial wealth, the story goes that Britain lacks jobs and resources, which is why we can only admit ‘the best and the brightest’ and offer safe sanctuary to a certain subset of ‘genuine refugees’, the implication being that otherwise, we will be overrun and our resources further drained. This rhetoric underpins the Nationality and Borders Bill, which Home Secretary Priti Patel is driving through to criminalize, detain and remove people who’ve sought safety here via unofficial routes (as most refugees are forced to do).

In reality, as we can see through its policy towards Ukrainian nationals seeking refuge, the British state’s invocation of scarcity is inconsistent in its application. To give another example, after the inauguration of the draconian national security law in Hong Kong, certain Hong Kongers – imagined as ideal middle-class professional migrants – were welcomed to the UK with open, albeit cautious, arms (at the same time, Hong Kong refugees, like others, have continued to languish in the asylum system). Meanwhile, Afghans have no access to community sponsorship or extended family reunion rights – they risk asylum camps if they make their own way to Britain.

Of course, the logic of scarcity is also weaponized against Britain’s poorest citizens and used to justify the Conservative government’s continual gutting of the social safety net.

Malleable borders

While Europe’s reaction to the horrors of what has happened to the people of Ukraine shows that borders can be malleable, it also demonstrates that they are inherently limiting, designed to categorize certain people as deserving of compassion and support and others as undeserving of having their needs met. In the UK, black and brown people, working-class people of all races and other migrants continue to suffer and die at the hands of the state, whether as a result of arrest, detention, or deportation; or due to the slow violence inflicted as a result of No Recourse to Public Funds and data-sharing between public services, the police and immigration enforcement. The logical endpoint of borders is life for some and death for others. 

We should be wary of how easily the state’s crafted illusion of scarcity can operate to pit certain communities against others, when the target should be the government’s relentless clamping down on everyone’s ability to lead a liveable life. Even when the Home Office is being ‘generous’, the logic of restriction and exclusion rears its ugly head: for example, the Homes for Ukraine scheme has been criticized for outsourcing sanctuary to private citizens and the resource-strapped third sector, with minimal thought given to long-term sustainability and safeguarding issues.

The logical endpoint of borders is life for some, and death for others

In highlighting the Home Office’s racism towards different kinds of migrants, the aim is not to deny anyone’s suffering, but to call for a reimagining of what it would take for everyone to be able to access safety.  Instead of competing for the scraps, we should keep demanding the conditions under which everyone can thrive.

Nadia Hasan works for the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants - a charity which provides free legal advice to migrants and refugees, and campaigns for equal rights for people who move. She has a Masters in Migration, Mobility and Development from SOAS.

Jun Pang is a writer, researcher, and organiser, focusing on migrants' rights, policing, data rights, and building solidarity across transnational contexts. She organizes with Remember and Resist, and in her day job, works as a Policy and Campaigns Officer at Liberty.

This article is part of our From The Front series, featuring fresh perspectives on conflict, peace and environmental protection around the world. The series is funded by the Polden-Puckham Charitable Foundation and you can find out more about it here.