Ukraine: Refugees, Reporting & Redefining Equality

Nadia Mailanchi

Seventy-five days into the war, the world continues to despair over, condemn, and rally to end Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and rightfully so. However, today, we at artil choose to flip the script and take a look at the western media outlets reporting the conflict. Shockingly, most have been complicit in perpetuating a biased and racist perspective about war and humanity in general — never forgetting to remind us that some societies are more equal than others.

It is not uncommon for mainstream news outlets to let glimpses of their deplorable stance on issues of race and equality slip. To them, political correctness is an armour to hide the real culprit. It is only natural that a storm brewed on Twitter when multiple mainstream western news outlets set aside their journalistic values and made an impudent display of their deep-rooted racism through discriminatory language while expressing shock and disbelief over Russia's attack of Ukraine. It seemed unfathomable to many of them that "white", "civilized" and "educated" people "who use Instagram" would have to go through the turmoil of war. CBS News' Charlie D'Agata states very matter of factly that this is happening not in Iraq or Afghanistan but in a relatively "civilized" European city. When the BBC gave its two cents on the issue, it was hard to decide what was more disturbing: the former Deputy Chief Prosecutor of Ukraine's reference to people with "blue eyes and blonde hair" being casualties of war or BBC Correspondent Ros Atkins' silence while listening to this overwhelmingly racist remark.

What mainstream western media chooses to publish influences both the officials in power and the general public. This explains why many politicians and people in positions of power have used every opportunity to extend their support to Ukrainian refugees.

The Bulgarian Prime Minister and former British Conservative member of the European Parliament Daniel Hannan are such examples — who have openly sympathized with and welcomed the Ukrainian refugees as "one of their own". This is in stark contrast to what the refugees from Iraq, Syria and the Middle East have faced.

According to Guney Yildiz, Turkey Researcher for Amnesty International, "just weeks ago, border guards from Latvia, Lithuania and Poland used tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets to push thousands of asylum seekers back into Belarus". We never read or heard of this in western media despite the timelines coinciding with the ongoing Ukrainian refugee situation. Civilians who are displaced by war are refugees no matter where they come from or what race they belong to. To add fuel to the fire, there were even reports of non-Ukrainian refugees and foreign students being held at the border while Ukrainians were given priority to cross.

Over the years, western media has used their news coverage to normalize war and loss of life in the Middle East and African regions to the point where the world is desensitized toward these issues. Much of it doesn't even make it to the news. How many of us have read wall-to-wall coverage of the ongoing war and devastation in Yemen or the Tigray region of Ethiopia? What about the people in those regions? Western media has continuously pushed the narrative describing people of these regions as underdeveloped, uncivilized, dangerous, and in many cases terrorists and therefore not deserving of a second or a better chance at life. The underlying issue with normalizing war in the Middle East and Africa is that the majority of these vulnerable groups who are in dire need of international aid go largely unnoticed; the few who are offered help are simultaneously treated as a problem for the West. What these media outlets conveniently forget to mention is how wars in Africa and the Middle East are more often than not the result of western intervention. They also prefer not to mention how such news coverage is often reflective of the global power dynamics at play; the mainstream media will always focus on stories that are likely to appease governments and elite interests. A good example of this is western media largely putting up a united front against Russia and non-NATO nations as opposed to being far more generous in justifying the US invasion of Iraq.

From a psychological perspective, human beings are wired to form groups amongst themselves and then differentiate between those who are part of their group (in-group) and those who aren't (out-group). We subconsciously gravitate towards, support and empathize with people who are similar to us, and this is true judging by how we tend to form friendships and relationships. Our cultural predisposition also plays a part here. Unfortunately, this also makes people biased to the point where compassion becomes reserved solely for those who are part of the in-group and oblivious to the human characteristics of others. Take, for instance, a country like Denmark which is known for its zero-asylum policy. They relaxed that policy and extended a warm welcome to over 40,000 Ukrainian refugees, which currently allows them to stay for two years. On the other hand, more than 1,000 Syrians have had their visas rejected and have been ordered to return to Syria citing it is now safe to live there. When asked about the double standards, a Danish governing party spokesperson mentioned that they would help refugees from Europe and that the Middle East should help refugees from the Middle East. Just empty rhetoric. This in-group/out-group mentality is what can be seen when news outlets choose individual stories to display people suffering in Ukraine — like that of a pregnant woman, a little girl's tiktok video or a schoolboy reuniting with his pet dog — to evoke sympathy and outrage in the reader.

Meanwhile, the same news outlets use numbers and statistics while referring to war in Africa rarely giving an identity to those who suffer. It is the same mentality we see when we learn about colonization and slavery, why such atrocities unfolded in history and why social injustice is still a part of modern society.

Some media organizations have stepped forward and called out the racist bias of western news coverage, and their general ignorance and insensitivity. It may come as no surprise that most of them are based in the Asian or African subcontinent. The Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists' Association (AMEJA) were one of the first ones to denounce the Euro-centric reporting of the war in Ukraine. They said that journalists in the West 'need to be trained on the cultural and political nuances of regions'. Similar comments condemning the Western media's portrayal of non-European refugees were made by journalists in Jordan, India, China and Africa. Very few were made from the West and only CBS has offered something on the lines of an apology so far.

Eurocentric thinking is nothing new. During the pandemic, western media largely ignored the successful efforts of South and Southeast Asian countries in controlling the spread of the virus, choosing instead to focus on dubious strategies of countries like Sweden and the UK. We know much more about the British royal family than the impact Britain has had on its former colonies. The media focuses on the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge's visit to the Caribbean rather than on the people who are protesting it. Our news feeds tend to cover a higher percentage of events from the US and Europe than Asia, Africa or the Middle East put together — and there is a much more detailed and nuanced analysis of such events in all relevant mainstream media. Anything outside this euro-centric bubble is deemed uninteresting and less worthy of attention and therefore be confined to a surface level analysis through a western lens. 

This is precisely how the humanitarian crises in countries like Zambia, Malawi, Central African Republic, Guatemala, Colombia, Burundi, Niger, Zimbabwe, Honduras, Ethiopia and Yemen have hardly ever appeared in our news feeds or made our blood boil the way the war in Ukraine does. What mainstream media outlets and journalists often forget is the power they hold in the dissemination of information and the formation of outlooks in society. We are what we consume. If consuming western media outlets is what skews our perspective of the world, then it is time to straighten and widen that perspective for the benefit of humanity.

Nadia Mailanchi

“I think we don’t celebrate intelligence and critical thinking as much as we should. If we did, there wouldn’t be so many people who confuse self-love with narcissism! Self-love is not just about accepting and loving ourselves. It should also be about how well we use our intellect and our creativity in making the world a kinder, more forgiving and a fun place for everyone.”
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