‘Not obviously refugees’

August 19, 2023
8 mins read
Refugees from the Ukraine war - Emad Hajjaj (Jordan)

There is a cognitive dissonance in the way Western media and European nations represent refugee identities. While pockets of dissent among journalist circles question how refugees from Arab and African countries have long been represented, Western media organizations largely continue to perpetuate the narrative of refugees as uncivilized people running from uncivilized countries where war is the ‘norm.’ 

The conflict in Ukraine and the arrival of Ukrainian refugees to European borders shake the long-held narrative that conflict, violence, and war only happen on exotic shores. This othering has historically been important as it washes Europe’s hands clean from the consequences and suffering happening in Damascus or Beirut. “Whatever is happening is too far away for us to worry about, that is not our business,” is the underlying message here. But the war in Ukraine is not far away, it is happening in their own backyard. 

Biases began occurring and were easily traceable in representation perpetuated by the Western news media, with regard to the image of Ukrainian refugees vs other refugees. As the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues, more soundbites and news reportage on the Ukrainian refugee crisis are accumulated. The wealth of examples provide us with more data to work with in comparing the narrative Western media paints of Ukrainian refugees versus refugees from non-European countries of origin. 

For instance, soundbites from Western reporters from different news agencies, as televised in the month of February 2022, share the same message and representation of what sets the Ukrainian refugees apart from their Middle Eastern, African and Asian counterparts. 

From BBC: 

“What’s compelling is looking at them, the way they are dressed. These are prosperous, middle-class people. These are not obviously refugees trying to get away from the Middle East… or North Africa. They look like any European family that you’d live next door to.” – Peter Dobbie, British reporter for BBC 

From CBS News: 

“This isn’t Iraq or Afghanistan…This is a relatively civilized, relatively European city” –Charlie D’Agata, CBS foreign correspondent 

From NBC: 

“Just to put it bluntly, these are not refugees from Syria, these are refugees from neighboring Ukraine. That, quite frankly, is part of it. These are Christians, they’re white, they’re very similar people.”- Kelly Cobiella, NBC Correspondent 

The last statement from NBC summarizes the views of recent media coverage of the war in Ukraine and the influx of Ukrainian refugees into the neighboring countries. Cobiella gave this response in answer to the news anchor’s question of what sets apart this year’s (2022) acceptance of refugees in Poland versus the hesitance of Poland to take in refugees in 2015. This statement, specifically mentioning, that these refugees are not from Syria and are Christians may be the nail in the metaphorical, discriminatory coffin. The quotes strongly imply a representation of refugees as being different and distinct from the “prosperous middle-class people” in Europe, which includes Ukrainians. This reinforces the idea that refugees are “others,” and not part of the mainstream European society.

Eurocentric representations of the refugee 

Media, especially the news media, is a visual medium. Representations are also visual. The images in our mind that represent our worldview and how we represent certain groups of people become apparent in the metaphors and words we choose. The words chosen by the reporter, Peter Dobbie, paint a picture of the Ukrainian refugee. They are middle-class…they are not Syrians or Afghans…. They are “not obviously refugees,” meaning these are not the kind of people you will picture in your mind as refugees.   

The key message this image paints is that the Ukrainians are not the typical refugees that the news refers to when they speak of the refugee crisis. They are not refugees — they are one of us i.e., European, Christian, middle class. These are not faceless hordes from unfamiliar cultures threatening to ‘invade’ and ‘change’ the European way of life. 

Ukrainians are welcome because they are not refugees. They are your neighbor. They could be your family. They could be you. 

Here, the implied you are middle-class, white, and European, taking into consideration the representation of the Ukrainian refugee and European family mentioned in the quote. 

This visual representation automatically influences the viewers, including policymakers, regarding the treatment of Ukrainian refugees and how they are welcomed into European countries versus how Afghani or Syrian refugees were, and continue to be, treated as they enter European borders. Refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and other countries experiencing conflict have to undergo rigorous screening processes, pass through several border controls and walk, hike, or swim to the countries where they will seek asylum. Upon arrival, they are not allowed to mix with the local population and are sheltered in temporary camps or cold tents. Ukrainian refugees on the other hand are allowed to take transportation for free, simply by showing proof of their Ukrainian identity.

This commentary does not aim to imply that Ukrainian refugees suffered less or that their experiences or traumas are less valid than their ‘Global South’ counterparts. This example is merely concretizing the biases that European countries, receiving communities, and policymakers are showing, by being able to aid Ukrainians within days of the crisis being broadcasted. This is the same aid that refugees from other nations have found difficult to access because policymakers in European countries say it will take time to make adjustments in policies or change the public’s acceptance.

The importance of othering in representation 

Ann Marie Baldonado said, “It cannot be ignored that representations affect the ways in which individuals are perceived. Although many see representations as harmless likenesses, they do have a real effect on the world.”  

At the core of the representations of Ukrainian refugees juxtaposed with Syrian refugees lies an unspoken, implicit worldview of refugees as outsiders coming into the European community. The examples above from Western journalists were condemned by the Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association as blatantly orientalist and racist in implying that conflict and war are the norm in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria but not for a European, Christian country like Ukraine, where people are “civilized” like you and me. 

This othering of refugees, particularly from African and Arab countries, plays an important role in creating the identity of the Ukrainian refugee as the safe, “right kind of refugee” that can be allowed into communities in the West. It is important to set this identity apart from the image of “hordes of refugees” that Western media outlets have long been warning the public about.  

Western media has long demonized refugees coming into Europe as “floods of people” “waves of refugees” and “flooding into Europe.” Instead of human faces, images of flood and disaster are evoked to imply catastrophic consequences if they are let in.  

These statements in mainstream news are often accompanied by eye-catching photographs or visuals showing masses of people in boats or at sea. The shots are always framed wide so that viewers see faceless masses amid the backdrop of endless water instead of individuals. This evocation of water metaphors and visuals is not accidental. “Water metaphors convey the notion of danger” because floods, deluges, and tidal waves are hard to control (People Can’t Flood, Flow or Stream: Diverting Dominant Media Discourses on Migration, 2016). 

This is how politicians and the media see regular refugees. But, not Ukrainians, who are not obviously refugees, but one of us. They are not dangerous; they are like us. This representation makes it more justifiable to provide different modes of integration and support for Ukrainian refugees versus their Arab counterparts. You are more likely to treat a member of your community with dignity, respect, and acceptance than a stranger, an “other.” This representation also implicitly plants the image of Europe as a community and the nation as a home. The Ukrainians are the neighbors. Other refugees are, at best, treated as guests, transients, or at worst, strangers trying to creep into your home and steal your resources. 

“Bienvenue”: Refugees from the Ukraine war, Osama Hajjaj (Jordan). Figure 1. Cartoons depicting the blatant bias of European refugee policy are depicted in Cartooning for Peace project. (2022) 

Impacts of representation and identities in policy and practice 

In a study conducted by the Social Cognition Center Cologne of the University of Cologne, social experiments were implemented in Germany regarding altruism and increased altruistic behavior of local communities towards refugees. The study took note of the fact that at the time of its implementation, Germany ranked at the top of the list of countries in Europe in terms of receiving refugees and asylum seekers in their country. The researchers assumed, due to the history of Germany receiving the most refugees, and the diversity of its population as a result of having more asylum seekers, that altruism will increase regardless of the ethnic identity of the refugees seeking help. 

However, the study has found that bystanders and locals increase their tendency to help, to altruism, if they perceive that the person they are helping is familiar or closer to their identity.  

Because Ukrainians are an in-group, and similar in identity and image to the European self-concept, it is only natural to treat them as one would expect a citizen of any European nation. The representation of Ukrainians as “one of us” “similar to us” and the middle class is essential to perpetuate the othering and different treatment of the Syrian refugees as “not civilized,” exotic, practicing culture and faith that is unknown to the European layman.

A cartoon of a boat in the water

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Figure 2: Lebanese artist Art of Boo satirizes the kind of refugees the West finds acceptable. In this drawing, he portrays “Fortress Europa” – a historical term used in World War II to refer to penetrating the European border as a literal impregnable fortress to refugees. 


Perhaps that is what is shocking to these journalists, that someone who looks like them, with an identity so similar to their own, can suffer as a Syrian man or an Afghani woman can suffer. The fear is that the presence and sufferings of the Ukrainian people will now validate the presence and sufferings of other peoples, who Western media and their governments have long dismissed and minimized.  

The fear of Western ideologists is that in empathizing with Ukrainians, the public will now see the similarity in the plight of the Cambodians or the Palestinians, or the Syrians. By emphasizing differences, rather than similarities between these groups, Western media can prevent this realization and continue the status quo of marginalization and stigmatization of non-European refugees which is made valid by the perpetuated otherness of their identities.

Cited works:

Baldonado, A. (2018) Representation – Postcolonial StudiesEmory.edu. Available at: https://scholarblogs.emory.edu/postcolonialstudies/2014/06/21/representation/ 

Hellmann, D.M., Fiedler, S. and Glöckner, A. (2021) ‘Altruistic Giving Toward Refugees: Identifying Factors That Increase Citizens’ Willingness to Help’, Frontiers in Psychology, 12. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2021.689184. 

Newman, D. (2022) ‘The Right Kind of Refugees’: Racism in the Western media coverage of the conflict in UkraineMedia Diversity Institute. Available at: https://www.mediadiversity.org/the-right-kind-of-refugees-racism-in-the-western-media-coverage-of-theconflict-in-ukraine/. 

Steger, T. (2007) ‘The Stories Metaphors Tell: Metaphors as a Tool to Decipher Tacit Aspects in Narratives’, Field Methods, 19(1), pp. 3–23. doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/1525822×06292788. 

United Nations Refugee Agency (2020). Global Trends in Forced Displacement – 2020. Available online at: https://www.unhcr.org/statistics/unhcrstats/ 60b638e37/global-trends-forced-displacement-2020.html

People Can’t Flood, Flow or Stream: Diverting Dominant Media Discourses on Migration (2016) Ox.ac.uk. Available at: https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subjectgroups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2016/02/peoplecan%E2%80%99t. 

Refugees from the Ukraine war – Cartooning for Peace (2022). Available at: https://www.cartooningforpeace.org/en/editos/refugees-from-the-ukraine-war/


Michelle Villariez

Michelle is a humanitarian worker of 17 years. She is an advocate of "nothing about us without us" and works with persons with disabilities, indigenous groups, refugees and vulnerable communities in ensuring their lived experiences are part of policy and program design in humanitarian programs."

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