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Why Ukrainians are being treated differently than refugees from other countries


In the wall-to-wall coverage of the crisis in Ukraine, a certain pattern has sometimes emerged that positions Ukrainians as different from other victims of conflict. The way we talk about conflicts can impact those who are already most directly affected by war, refugees. NPR's Andrew Limbong has more.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: On Friday, CBS News senior foreign correspondent Charlie D'Agata framed the fighting in Kyiv like this.


CHARLIE D'AGATA: You know, this is a relatively civilized, relatively European - I have to choose those words carefully, too - city where you wouldn't expect that...

LIMBONG: The phrasing rankled enough people that he issued a clarifying apology a day later.


D'AGATA: What I'd hoped to convey is that what's unique about the fighting underway here is that this country has not really seen the scale of war in recent years, unlike some...

LIMBONG: But it wasn't just CBS. In The Telegraph, Daniel Hannan wrote an article about Ukraine that led, they seem so like us. That's what makes it so shocking. An anchor for Al-Jazeera English called Ukrainian refugees, quote, "middle-class people," in comparison to refugees from the Middle East and North Africa.

MAHDIS KESHAVARZ: I always kind of think this imagery of, like, this pearl clutch of being just aghast that something can happen in your backyard, where things are happening in other people's backyards all the time.

LIMBONG: Mahdis Keshavarz is a board member with the Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association, which put out a statement criticizing this framing, which Keshavarz says relies on old tropes.

KESHAVARZ: And I think one very dangerous thing that we're seeing is - and it bears asking the question - is, have journalists become so desensitized to the suffering of different peoples of color, specifically people that are in war zones, that we're no longer seeing on the same level playing field?

LIMBONG: Rana Khoury, a research associate at Princeton University focusing on conflict and displacement, says this language has impacts on global refugee policy.

RANA KHOURY: We certainly do see it play out in terms of the politics of refugee reception in the idea of whose burden should it be to take refugees who are from the global South, the Middle East, Africa, versus, you know, who is welcome and who can be brought in here.

LIMBONG: Keshavarz points to Poland accepting Ukrainian refugees when not that long ago, the country was telling scores of Afghans, Syrians and Iraqis, no, the country's full.

KESHAVARZ: So as journalists, I think it's really critical that we look at that duality, and we question why that is. You know, looking and seeing why African migrants aren't allowed to cross into Hungary is just as valid as just asking why Ukrainians are.

LIMBONG: The Nigerian statehouse issued a statement today denouncing reports of Nigerians being denied entry to the Polish border. Khoury, the researcher, says race plays a part in all of this but also proximity and geopolitics, too. And if you zoom way, way out when talking about refugees and displacement, countries in the Middle East, Africa and the global South have taken in more than their fair share of refugees. She says that's a pretty good sign of civilization. Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.
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