Disaster no matter which part of the world you come from is an inescapable human experience that none of us can run away from. On 24 February, Russia began an invasion of Ukraine in an escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian War that began in 2014. Like other countries across the globe, African countries were shocked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. However shock quickly gave way to angst over media commentary seen by many as implicit and explicit bias against people from Africa as well as the Middle East.
While it is widely acknowledged that Ukraine needs international support and aid, there is also an expectation from the global community on how Europe should embrace the international refugee protection system. Although the European Union (EU) calls the Ukraine war the largest humanitarian crisis that Europe has witnessed, it is essential to remember that it was not so long ago that Europe faced another critical humanitarian challenge, the 2015 refugee “crisis” spurred by the conflict in Syria.
It has already become evidently clear that Europeans categorise refugees based on origin, religion and skin colour. Africans who were trying to flee the war by going into neighbouring countries reported waiting at the Polish border in freezing temperatures even as busloads of white Ukrainians were allowed in. A Nigerian student fleeing Ukraine who spoke to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) noted that Ukrainian officials pushed her aside and told her that “If you are Black, you should walk.”
This is different from other Ukrainian migrants who were being assisted to get on trains. The pernicious racism also came from official political levels. Former Ukraine deputy general prosecutor, David Sakvarelidze, said “It is really emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blond hair being killed.” Peter Dobbie, who anchors Al Jazeera English also said “These are obviously not refugees trying to get away from areas in the Middle East that are still in a big state of war. These are not people trying to get away from areas in North Africa. They look like any European family that you would live next door to.” Other instances which reveal deep-seated racial bias are when Ukrainian migrants who were fleeing the war were being referred to as “Christian” and “civilised”.
All these testimonies show the mindset by the Western media that non-Christians, black people, or men and women from the Middle East do not deserve to be accepted as refugees. International law requires non-discriminatory protection of human rights, and all actors must respect this fundamental principle of non-discrimination, especially in times of great crisis. As a matter of fact, the idea behind granting a person asylum is all about helping innocent people who need protection.
It is also important to note the way Europe welcomed refugees from Ukraine while those who come from Syria, Iraqi or Afghanistan are labelled as a “migrant crisis”. In other words, for a refugee to be accepted on European borders they must be Christian, blonde, have blue eyes, middle class, and must not be from North Africa. Even if a person is black, Muslim, and have nothing to do with violence, Europeans prefer non-African, Christian refugees instead.
The Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association (AMEJA) did not take long to condemn some news organisations and reminding them to be mindful of implicit and explicit bias in their coverage of the war in Ukraine.
“This type of commentary reflects the pervasive mentality in Western journalism of normalising tragedy in parts of the world such as the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, and Latin America,” AMEJA said.
On Twitter, the Ukraine Foreign minister also admitted to the deplorable and heinous treatment that Africans were being subjected to. “Africans seeking evacuation are our friends and need to have equal opportunities to return to their home countries safely. Ukraine’s government spares no effort to solve the problem,” tweeted Foreign Minister Dmytor Kuleba. Filippo Grandi, the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees also pointed out that everyone is fleeing from the same risks and therefore they should all receive the same treatment.
“There should be absolutely no discrimination between Ukrainians and non-Ukrainians, Europeans and non-Europeans… (UN) plans to intervene to try to ensure that everybody receives equal treatment,” says Grandi.
Political commentator Ronald Dintle who spoke to this publication indicated that, while there was “outstanding solidarity” from the world over the Ukraine conflict, it also revealed an “appalling difference”.
“It seems the Western media is trying to persuade and infuse a dogma to their audiences in Europe and America that the Middle East and Africa is the epitome of failure,” says Dintle.
Among other things, he says by introducing a continental hierarchy of value, the western media is displaying all the tropes and cliché that “Africa is the dark continent”, cementing stereotypes that nothing good can come from Africa or the Middle East.
There is no doubt that Journalism is very potent. Perhaps it is right to say when it comes to Africa the western media believes that their followers are only interested in the most dramatic and dark events in the continent. Any positive reporting on the continent does not catch the headlines.
For us to assume that the western media will suddenly stop the negative coverage of African issues which by all accounts reinforce twisted narratives among the Western audience, will be a mistake. This is why African journalists must rise and counter this misaligned narrative by retelling their own stories.