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The human toll of war

‘Long after conflicts slip from global attention, the displaced continue to pay the price.’

People escaping the Russian invasion of Ukraine reunite with others at the Medyka pedestrian border crossing in eastern Poland. As of 27 February, at least 368,000 people had fled to neighbouring countries, according to the UN. Nathan Laine/ABACA via Reuters Connect
People escaping the Russian invasion of Ukraine reunite with others at the Medyka pedestrian border crossing in eastern Poland. As of 28 February, at least 500,000 people had fled to neighbouring countries, according to the UN.

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I write this on the fourth day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, an invasion the majority of the world recognises as an unfettered act of aggression from a violent despot. I write this as a warning of what happens to people and communities when violence goes unchecked and human lives are deemed expendable as the world looks on.

We do not know what will happen to Ukraine or to Ukrainians. It is too early to tell. But we do know what has happened to people forced to seek refuge from other brutal conflicts in recent years, in Syria, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia, and elsewhere.

We know that the longer the war continues, the more people will be forced out of their homes and into a system that fails to protect the 82 million displaced people in the world – one in every 95 humans. And in a bordered world designed to exclude those who need resources and stability from countries that enjoy those privileges, displacement crises follow a predictable pattern – solidarity turns to frustration, then to resentment, and eventually to marginalisation.

I know this because for the past seven years I have been writing a book about the journeys of Syrians forced to seek refuge from another horrific war and another unreasonable despot. What I have learned from them, and from studying the history of forced displacement, is that the human toll of war is paid in lifetimes of trauma worsened by global systems unequipped and unwilling to support those seeking refuge.

Like Ukrainians are seeing now, Syrians saw the places they knew buried in rubble. Their children – like Ukrainian children now – learned to distinguish the whirs of bombs, and to hide when the sirens signalled an impending siege.

Like more than 500,000 Ukrainians in the past few days, Syrians found their way out of their country in search of refuge in nearby nations. Indeed, the vast majority of the world’s displaced people (8 in 10) never get farther than countries nearby. These countries are often poorly supported by the international community, and those seeking refuge do not receive adequate humanitarian assistance, let alone support for their aspirations and for keeping their sense of personhood.

At the same time, it's clear that the response to those seeking refuge is shaped by racism. Ukrainians have privileges that Syrians do not, and that will protect them from some of the adversity faced by Syrians. Ukrainians are white and European, and neighbouring countries, like Hungary and Poland, are comparatively wealthy and so far welcoming them with open arms. It is both tragic and telling that these same countries are blocking African students and workers who are also trying to escape the conflict in Ukraine, and simultaneously building walls on their other borders to keep out people from countries like Syria, Afghanistan, Nigeria, and South Sudan.

It is easy to forget now that Syrians were also initially welcomed by neighbouring countries where they are now threatened with deportation.

Unlike the predominantly Black, brown, and Muslim men and women who are waiting indefinitely in camps at the European periphery, Ukrainians seeking refuge are cast in media coverage and political rhetoric as “not the refugee wave we have been used to… with an obscure past, maybe terrorist”, as Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov reportedly put it.

Instead, the EU has already agreed unanimously to take in Ukrainians escaping the war for up to three years without asking them to first apply for asylum. This is how all people seeking refuge should be treated, but time will tell whether this goodwill (ballasted by racism and Islamophobia) will persist – during the Yugoslav war in the 1990s people displaced from the Balkans saw their welcome run dry in other European countries that had once offered them refuge.

If the war on Ukraine continues, the reality is that Ukrainians too will likely enter this sad and familiar cycle: wards of a system intended to protect the displaced but predicated on the humanitarian goodwill of countries who define their sovereignty by borders meant to keep people out.

It is easy to forget now that Syrians were also initially welcomed by neighbouring countries where they are now threatened with deportation. For a moment in the summer of 2015, despite dissenting voices, they were even welcomed into some European countries – a fact that seems laughable now to those I spoke to in Greece this past autumn; people who have been waiting for years in camps on the Greek islands for asylum because the same countries welcoming Ukrainians today had closed their doors to them, claiming there was no space.

I avoid using the term “refugee” in my writing – instead focusing on the humans seeking refuge – because the people I spoke to began to hate it. At best, they felt the word meant they were charity cases, at worst an unwanted scourge.

What’s more, even when Syrians did make it to countries in western Europe that offered them legal status and promised to support them – like Germany which took in almost a million Syrians – they found themselves strangers to strange systems where they were stigmatised minorities and where their skills and occupational histories were not recognised.

To be sure, whiteness will protect Ukrainians to some extent from the fate of Syrians. Still, eastern European immigrants – even those who are white and Christian – have long experienced discrimination in western Europe. And even with their legal status, like others seeking refuge, Ukrainians too will need to prove their worth in languages they do not speak and in systems structured around credentials they likely do not hold.

Testament to the resilience of the human spirit, displaced people manage time and time again to carve out new, dignified lives in unkind contexts. But there are some things that can never be made whole again. This is what war does, even to those who escape, even to those who become legal residents and eventually citizens of new countries. It condemns men and women to mourn family members who will never return, and to parent children who have separation anxiety from the loss of so many close to them. It condemns families and nations to endless diasporas, haunted – even in joyful moments – by guilt for loved ones who have suffered and continue to suffer.

Reflecting on the fledgling Ukrainian exodus is complicated both by its newness and by the racist realities of borders and systems that make it easier or more difficult for people to seek refuge depending on the colour of their skin. What is clear is that long after conflicts slip from global attention, the displaced continue to pay the price – that of longing for people and places that no longer stand, of lifetimes of sleepless nights reliving trauma, of the alienation of never truly belonging.

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