The Ukrainian Refugee Crisis Reminds Us of Authoritarianism's Devastating Impact
"My God. 1939," tweeted the journalist and scholar Anne Applebaum on March 6, looking at a NEXTA TV photograph of Kharkiv railway station. It shows thousands of Ukrainians desperately trying to flee as Russia's invasion of their country escalates.
1.4 million people live in Kharkiv, a city near the Russia border. This is an example of what they are leaving behind: the square in front of the city hall reduced to rubble by the Russians.
Applebaum was reminded of people who left their homes to escape the Nazis, and World War II can certainly come to mind these days. Some security and defense experts have concerns about a third global war erupting, and the Ukrainian exodus, which has exceeded 1.5 million people, is the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since the 1940s.
Many authoritarian aggressions around the world since then have created mass displacements, and the figure of the refugee remains the most concrete example of the consequences for humanity when plunderers gain power.
Often, those imperialist aggressors consider refugee crises a kind of collateral damage. As the Russian-backed Bashar al-Assad regime showed in Syria, creating humanitarian emergencies is a price autocrats willingly pay if it furthers their geopolitical goals.
This is, in part, Vladimir Putin's mindset. The primary target of his war on Ukraine is the destruction of Ukrainian democracy. His indiscriminate shelling of Ukrainian cities is designed to break the population psychologically, preparing it for occupation. As in Kharkiv, where three schools were shelled, the Russians have decimated the spaces of everyday life. A mass exodus of a hostile population that comes from that would make post-war Russian occupation easier.
Yet Putin has a second, larger goal for this invasion: to destabilize Europe and the democratic international order, creating chaos and social strife of the kind that has proved conducive to strongman solutions. Unleashing millions of new refugees on the world should fit the bill.
This has been the case, at least, when the refugees were not White.
Ukrainians and Syrians have had quite different receptions in countries like Hungary. There, the government declared Muslim migrants a "threat" and held Syrian refugees in conditions that alarmed human rights activists, but has opened its borders to Ukrainians fleeing Putin and agreed to have NATO troops deployed in western Hungary.
Helping a White, mostly Christian refugee population could be a winning move for Viktor Orbán, who is up for reelection in April. He can earn points as a humanitarian without jeopardizing his brand as the defender of Europe's White Christian identity. As refugee studies expert Serena Parekh comments, "The xenophobia that’s really arisen in the last 10 years, particularly after 2015, is not at play in this crisis in the way that it has been for refugees coming from the Middle East and from Africa.”
Ukrainians need all the assistance they can get, and whatever help Orbán gives them is welcome and essential, even if he "is still playing Russian music when he can," says Peter Balasz, a former foreign minister and EU commissioner. Autocrats are transactional creatures, and Orbán would never break with Putin, his longtime sponsor, unless he felt that Putin was in danger of being removed from office.
That's unlikely to happen anytime soon. Nor will the Ukrainian refugee crisis lead illiberal politicians to welcome refugees regardless of their race, ethnicity, or religion. The far right, former U.S. President Donald Trump included, has found weaponizing fear of non-White migrants and refugees too effective in attracting voters to give up the tactic.
Yet we can take hope that Ukrainians will benefit from the lessons NGOs and governments have learned from past waves of refugees about logistics, crisis management, and societal integration.
For the drama of those who must flee their country to escape tyrants is, at its heart, unchanged from 1939. There is the abandonment of everything familiar, and the difficult shift in self-perception that can come with a new designation: "refugee --a word you hear with mixed feelings," as the scholar Abel Polese, who had to flee Ukraine, writes from Romania.
The Ukrainians who now search for shelter, exhausted and frightened, are part of a larger history of displacement. Perhaps their plight will lead people to see other refugees in their societies in a new light. Then a collective sense of empathy and caring for those who have lost everything can take root.