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Who Deserves to Be a Refugee? Ukraine, Racialization, and “Grievable” Lives

The illustration portrays an umbrella of ‘”EU solidarity” over an anonymous group of refugees walking hand in hand to seek safety under the rain and surrounded by barbed wire. In the front is a refugee woman in blue and yellow colors with her cat and dog, who are about to be welcomed into the EU. Next to them are the hashtags #StandwithUkraine inside a blue and yellow heart, and #RefugeesWelcome. Their path is laden with hearts and not interrupted by borders.
Grievable lives? Original illustration by Avie Azis, used with permission of the artist.

On 4 March, just over a week after Russia invaded Ukraine, the European Commission activated the 2001 Temporary Protection Directive to address the mass displacement crisis caused by the war. This directive is one of several examples of how EU member states and societies have demonstrated an unprecedented unity in welcoming Ukrainian refugees fleeing the atrocious war that Russia is waging in their country. As critical scholars of migration, we welcome these displays of solidarity—and the much-needed recognition of refugees’ right to protection. At the same time, we are deeply concerned by the differential treatment of refugees who are seeking protection in the European Union—and the dehumanizing, racist, and patriarchal undertones that have come to characterize ongoing debates around who is a “real” refugee and whose lives and bodies are “deserving” of life-saving protection. Racialized and gendered politics of differentiation are not merely of concern to the many refugees originating from places like Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, and Palestine —and who are forced to endure dangerous and lethal passage to Europe, stay for prolonged periods in squalid detention and asylum camps, or languish in protracted and Kafkaesque bureaucratic asylum procedures. Rather, the politics of differentiation is premised upon a dehumanization that affects us all.

Politicians on the right and left in Bulgaria, France, Denmark, Austria, and Sweden, who espouse explicitly anti-immigration agendas, argue that what sets Ukrainians apart from other refugees is that they are ‘womenandchildren' and “just like us”: “European,” Christian, “civilized,” and, hence, “White.” Similar rhetoric has characterized media reporting on the Ukrainian displacement crisis. We have also seen racist, differential treatment of people fleeing Ukraine at the EU’s borders, where international students from Asia and Africa, refugees, asylum seekers, and racialized Ukrainians, including Roma, have been refused entry into EU territory. Meanwhile, people who have fled other wars are prevented from seeking safety: the Global Detention Project has reported that people held in the EU-funded immigration detention center Zhuravychi have been left behind in the war zone, and Poland has moved to criminalize organizations providing humanitarian aid to refugees stuck at the Polish-Belarusian border. While some of these incidents of overt discrimination have been condemned, they are consistent with the racism that has historically defined European border and asylum politics.

As legal scholar B.S. Chimni has argued, the 1951 Refugee Convention, with its geographic limitation to people displaced within Europe, relied on a hierarchical conception of who was considered “human” enough to deserve the right to asylum. The geographic restriction was lifted in 1967, which meant that the “neighborhood” principle evoked by European governments today was abolished in law. Still, refugees were afforded different ideological and geopolitical value, with the White, male anti-communist posited as the norm, while people fleeing conflict and oppression in former European colonies in the Global South were considered undesirable and undeserving of such rights. Gendered constructions of vulnerability also rendered women, LGBTQ+ persons, children, and the elderly into feminized “victims,” which often meant that their need of protection was recognized but their political agency was denied. As refugee scholars have shown, these ideas of racial (and gendered and classed) difference remain today, affording people seeking protection differential value according to their presumed racial and national origins.

However, these categories of differentiation are not fixed. “Race,” as Stuart Hall argues, is nothing solid or permanent but a “floating signifier” that changes, shifts, and slides. The familiar yet flawed, narrow understanding of “race” as biological difference obscures the new racisms that draw on cultural attributes and practices, religion, ethnicity, or nationality as bases for hierarchization, exclusion, and discrimination. This understanding of racism enables us to interpret the ambivalent and shifting positioning of Central and Eastern Europeans, including Ukrainians, within Europe’s racial and geopolitical order. It also explains how their classification has been contingent upon where and under what circumstances they move. Historically, people from these countries have been constructed as “contingently White'' and “peripherally European,” and their racialization becomes increasingly evident as they move West. Before the war, low-wage Ukrainian migrant workers constituted an indispensable yet disposable workforce in several European economies, including Poland, where they reportedly endured exploitative, hazardous working conditions and xenophobia. In Denmark, Ukrainian nationals are categorized as migrants of “non-Western origin,” a classification that implies limited rights to settle in Denmark and restricted access to welfare provisions. Conversely, the same EU Association Agreements that have brought Ukraine closer to Europe by allowing Ukrainian nationals to travel without a Schengen visa for up to 90 days did not translate into similar privileges for Tunisian, Egyptian, or Moroccan citizens from the “Southern Neighborhood.” Racism is thereby manifested in and reconstituted through differential citizenship and mobility regimes governing racialized subjects within and beyond Europe.

Our point here is not to question the geopolitical or racial belonging of Ukraine and its citizens—nor their right to protection—but to illustrate the changing and shifting nature of racial hierarchization and how it translates into a politics of differentiation that has real-life consequences for those who seek a better life or protection from persecution and war. It translates into a politics that is not only about who gets to move across borders and who doesn’t but also about whose lives are, in Judith Butler’s terms, “grievable” and whose deaths matter. When we are told that Ukrainian refugees are like “us” and, therefore, need to be granted a different kind of protection to those racialized as “non-Western,” arriving from countries and cultures portrayed as “too remote” or “too different”; this also implies that the lives of those refugees are ungrievable, and their exposure to death at Europe’s doorstep, as Achille Mbembe has shown, is acceptable.

The activation of the Temporary Protection Directive and the welcoming attitudes demonstrated by European governments and citizens toward Ukrainian refugees is significant because it shows us what refugee solidarity can look like. Yet, while welcoming this moment of solidarity, we also need to problematize how refugees’ deservingness of protection is rendered contingent on their “Europeanness,” or their “Whiteness,” classifications which are fleeting and ever-shifting. This means that the refugee who is racialized as “one of us” today risks becoming “the Other” tomorrow. What we need to problematize is not the refugees or the genuineness of their claims but the geopolitical, racialized, and gendered notions of intelligibility with which we scrutinize and judge their claims to a livable life. A politics of differentiation produces indifference and uncertain futures for those displaced. In these uncertain times, we need a politics capable of protecting, valuing—and grieving—the lives of all.


This blog post has been collectively written by a group of migration researchers at School of Global Studies: Annika Lindberg (@Elinannika on Twitter), Anja Franck (@anja_franck on Twitter), Avie Azis, Alexander Jung (@AlexandJung on Twitter), Alexandra Bousiou, Jessie Jern (@jessiejern on Twitter), and Joseph Anderson (@janderwicki on Twitter).


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