Skip Navigation

Double Standards: Why Do We Care Less About War in the Global South?

Image via Getty Images/Wojtek Radwanski

Since the outset of the occupation of Ukraine, the Western world has remained hypervigilant, immersed in constant media coverage and presidential press responses. The outpour of united international support has been poignant and inspiring; however, it has also exposed the role racism plays in determining where global sympathies lie in the face of conflict. Racism is, of course, ingrained in Western perspectives, but it is our responsibility to recognize how that is the case and actively work to decolonize our mindsets. War is war, and nobody deserves to be caught in its crossfires, especially not civilians.   

This is a sentiment expressed by Anas Al-Abdah, head of the Syrian Negotiation Commission. He specifically calls out the difference in the approach to aiding the Ukrainian government and Syrian opposition by Western nations. This is particularly relevant given the common role Russia has played as an aggressor in both situations. Some even argue that the two conflicts are related, namely that  Russian bombardment of Syria over the years has facilitated its attempts to invade Ukraine. Emboldened by its ability to attack Syria and support leader Bashar al-Assad with limited repercussions, Russia targets Ukraine with similar methods and weaponry. 

A critically influential sphere where ideologies rooted in racism have been perpetuated is media representation. Many Western news outlets have used biased language to create active divisions between the conflict in Ukraine and conflicts in other, more racialized parts of the world. Charlie D’Agata, a CBS correspondent in Kyiv, publicly said, “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. You know, this is a relatively civilized, relatively European—I have to choose those words carefully, to—city where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen.” D’Agata’s association between the terms “civilized” and “European” reinforces racialized perceptions in the West of Middle Eastern countries such as Iraq or Afghanistan as “uncivilized” places plagued by endless conflict. 

This prejudiced reporting is also reflected in the statements of an Al-Jazeera anchor that “[Ukrainians] are not obviously refugees trying to get away from areas in the Middle East,” and an ITV News reporter that “the unthinkable has happened to [Ukraine], and this is not a developing, Third World nation; this is Europe.” Once again, the contrasting imagery of Europe and the Third World or Middle East as respectively civilized and underdeveloped areas calls into question how white individuals seem undeserving of conflict while individuals of color for whom conflict is the natural state of being. Perhaps the most uncomfortable phrase that displays the role of race in eliciting sympathies in wartime is from a former deputy prosecutor general of Ukraine, now a BBC correspondent, who mentioned, “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blond hair … being killed every day.” All commentary falls under a common theme insinuating that conflict is the natural state of function in non-Western parts of the world, while it is unexpected and undeserved in the West. 

Beyond media coverage, racism can also be seen playing a role in the policy responses of different Western nations in the Ukraine conflict versus conflicts in non-European areas. This is especially salient in the case of Syria, a conflict wherein Putin’s military intervened to back President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. What resulted was mass death, suffering, and displacement that elicited a response from the West, of fewer fundraisers, shorter media publicity, and less public attention. Russian intervention was a consequence of the American withdrawal from the conflict two years beforehand and allowed for both the regime and Putin to benefit. Moscow was reestablished as an influence in the Middle East through the assurance of long-term Russian military presence in Syria’s Mediterranean bases. Such a move had negative implications for the relationships of key players such as Turkey, Iran, and Egypt with their Western relations. The development of the war in Syria, however, eventually lost its place in Western media as prospects looked hopeless. Mass destruction in places such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Palestine are receiving similar low levels of little attention or political action. Lack of change on this front sends the message that war is inherent in countries that are predominantly comprised of people of color, or Muslim. 

There also comes into question the matter of asylum. Asylum seekers have been prevented from exercising their universally recognized rights to seek asylum through various deterrence policies enforced by Western countries. This can be seen in the Central American, Rohingya, and Syrian refugee crises. Examples of such policies include forced repatriation upon refugees’ arrival, the criminalization of rescue at sea, and establishment of offshore processing centers that prolong refugee status and make it difficult to obtain asylum. In the case of Ukrainian refugees, however, temporary asylum can be granted in the European Union, which allows asylum seekers to obtain authorization to work and access to social services like healthcare and education for up to three years. 

The issue of mass displacement is one present both in conflict in Ukraine and in non-European crises. In the years 2015 and 2016, many Syrians and other Middle Easterners and Africans arrived in Italy and Greece with unauthorized boats. Initial sympathy soon gave way to resentment at the well over one million people seeking refuge. However, the more than two million Ukrainian refugees have arrived in Europe in a fairly orderly way in the last two weeks, disproving the claim that Europe could not handle a million refugees within a short timespan. It could be argued that Europe has since strengthened its infrastructure surrounding the processing of accepting asylum seekers. However, EU asylum policy has been established and considered final by its institutions and member states as of 2015, and therefore could have been equipped to handle Syrian refugees in the way it now handles Ukrainian refugees. Similarly, the United States announced that it would accept up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees while Trump-era policies still discriminate against the acceptance of Muslims or African refugees. 

The fact that Ukrainians are white Europeans has aided them in their refugee resettlement. The Polish interior minister, Mariusz Kaminski, declared that “Anyone fleeing from bombs, from Russian rifles, can count on the support of the Polish state.” Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer stated that “Of course we will take in refugees, if necessary,” despite opposing the resettlement of Afghan refugees that came to Austria as asylum seekers. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said all Ukrainians will be let in after referring to Middle Eastern migrants as “invaders” the previous year. Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov even deigned to insist that Ukrainian refugees as “not the refugees we are used to… these people are Europeans. These people are intelligent, they are educated people … This is not the refugee wave we have been used to, people we were not sure about their identity, people with unclear pasts, who could have been even terrorists.” This does, in fact, overlook how many Syrians were also highly educated and skilled but were simply not perceived as such. 

Perhaps the continuation of the Ukrainian conflict and ensuing refugee crisis will reveal similar feelings of resentment from Western countries over time. However, the current attention that surrounds the conflict does beg the question of where this awareness of the issue was when other countries were experiencing similar humanitarian crises.