Opinion: Where Are The Lines of Innocence and Humanitarianism Drawn in Eastern Europe?

Brno Daily’s Melis Karabulut reflects on the lessons we can observe from four weeks of war and humanitarian efforts in Europe. Has there been a change in attitudes towards the innocent victims of war? Or is solidarity mediated through geographical proximity and shared history? Photo: Help for refugees at Prague main station, 2 March 2022. Credit: Jan Beranek / CC BY-SA 3.0.

The last two years have been hard on all of us, with a global pandemic, growing inflation, natural disasters, and a destructive wave of political turbulence. Since the last week of February, as Putin’s invasion and aggression in Ukraine shocked the entire world, it is almost guaranteed that the first half of 2022 will bring yet more difficult news, with peacetime out of reach.

Leaving aside for a minute the political and economic sanctions against Russia and the government aid programs to Ukraine, and focusing on the bare humanitarian perspective and everyday words and actions of people in Eastern European societies, we can witness such a groundbreaking solidarity that hugs the continent like a warm blanket, and reassures us that things can get better as long as we act together.

As a non-European observing the enthusiasm in Eastern Europe to help Ukrainians, taking it as the most natural duty, I cannot help but feel overwhelmingly amazed by how strong that historical empathy is. Czechs, Poles, Slovaks, Hungarians, Romanians, Latvians, Ukrainians and others living in the Eastern Europe know what it is like to live under Russian oppression. They share similar stories, characteristics, and national identities.

That is why the humanitarian response towards the Ukrainians fleeing war is not and will not be a matter of question of assets, by any means. It does not necessarily have to be bound to charity organizations, national governments, or the EU. It comes from the people themselves as they drive to Przemyśl to give Ukrainians a ride to safety. It comes from those university students packing boxes of diapers at night. It comes from companies that allow their employees to volunteer without losing their vacation days. It comes from those thousands of businesses hanging a Ukrainian flag on their windows, offering free food and services to them. The goodwill and holy energy born out of this solidarity surrounds you before you know it, and makes you see a different side to the local people.

Still, I know that the Eastern Europeans did not turn into big-time humanitarians in one day. I remember that six years ago, the humanitarian landscape looked very different from now. Looking at the Eastern Europeans in today’s light, those warm-hearted and resilient people marching in the streets to demand independence for Ukraine, and offering shelter for Ukrainians in their own homes, I can’t help but remember the same people marching in the same streets to protest against the arrival of people fleeing war in the Middle East. These days, proudly watching the politicians and city governors making all the right decisions and creating all the facilities needed to host Ukrainians as comfortably, rapidly, effectively as possible, I remember the previous Czech Interior Minister Jan Hamáček rejecting just 40 Afghan refugees from the overcrowded Greek camps, as a ‘security risk’. Doing my regular scroll through LinkedIn in the morning and seeing countless companies easing the employment procedures for Ukrainians, I remember that billboard in Hungarian streets in 2015, screaming “If you come to Hungary, don’t take the jobs of Hungarians!” As my Polish friends share photos on Facebook, assisting the non-stop aid delivery work of the gracious Polish charities, I remember the people of Warsaw chanting slogans “Today refugees, tomorrow terrorists”, fearful of Syrians getting relocated into their society. And I remember a lot more things about 2015, even while Eastern Europe is making history today.

Photo: Syrian refugees at Budapest Keleti railway station, 4 September 2015. Credit: Mstyslav Chernov / CC BY-SA 3.0.

I also notice that citizens and the media have adopted great sensitivity when they talk about the war in Ukraine. Writing and pronouncing the names of Ukrainian cities as Ukrainians do, avoiding the use of expressions connected to migration-caused-by-war that we remember most vividly from the war in Syria, such as ‘refugee tsunami that could swamp Europe’, or protesting against any politics or migration-related news that is not about Ukraine. When some writers raise a hand and say “Things are heartbreaking in Ukraine, but let’s not forget Afghan women and children,” or “The EU should treat all refugees like it is treating Ukrainians,” we see them criticised heavily and their arguments dismissed as “whataboutism”. I witness that in Europe, especially in the East of the continent, now is not the time to compare and contrast, but time to think and care only about Ukraine and Europe.

As a researcher of migration and its reflection in society and the media, I see a lot of food-for-thought in this topic, and an opportunity to think about how the war in Ukraine shapes and will shape attitudes to migration in Europe, as migration affects societies directly. When “whataboutist” writers call for attention to Ukrainian and the other humanitarian crises in the world – since we tend to easily focus our attention on only one – and are met with such social rejection, I can only question ‘why’ there are such sentiments from both sides.

Do Eastern Europeans feel horrified at even the possibility of a war breaking out in such geographical proximity to them? Do they feel duty-bound to restore their long-standing European peace, and react accordingly in a defensive way to keep only war-in-Ukraine headlines coming in the media? Does the war breaking out so unexpectedly, in 2022 and in Europe, make European sorrow more important than others – as there is always something happening in the Middle East?

And do the “whataboutist” writers see the war in Ukraine as their one-time chance to call for at least some level of awareness about the importance of all the humanitarian problems in the world? Could they be hoping to gradually erase that easily-triggered ‘WARNING: Dangerous Foreigner’ button in European minds about the war-fleers that are not ethnically European? Do they hope to create an understanding of how certain EU countries acted in very discriminatory ways in the previous migration problems in Europe, so that they as human rights advocates verbalize the need for a more equitable delivery of humanitarian aid in the future? Is there a chance that all they are advocating is spreading the lessons from today’s tremendous, fast solidarity in Eastern Europe, so that these countries simply won’t have the chance to use their unpreparedness or any other excuse when another migration crisis breaks out tomorrow?

According to Eastern Europeans, what is it that defines the importance of a humanitarian crisis as reported in the media? And, perhaps even more importantly – what is it that defines innocence as people flee wars?

For some, answering these questions requires saying the quiet part out loud. For others, any answer at all is difficult to utter. As for most of us, talking about migration is often like walking on sharp eggshells, but the conversation will continue nonetheless, with this crisis and every one to come.

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