As the West opens its doors to Ukraine, millions more refugees suffer around the world

As the West opens its doors to Ukrainians, millions of refugees suffer around the world.
Click to play video: 'Former refugee wants help offered to Ukraine extended to all refugees'
Former refugee wants help offered to Ukraine extended to all refugees
Former refugee wants help offered to Ukraine extended to all refugees – Mar 30, 2022

Alfred Maluach fled his home in South Sudan at the age of nine because of a civil war.

He spent the next 12 years living at Kakuma Refugee Camp, a sprawling encampment with 200,000 residents built beneath the scorching Kenyan sun.

Life in the camp was hard, he said. He usually ate one meal a day and sometimes went without food. Water was always rationed and there was never enough.

“A lot of people are dying there with no hope,” he said.

Maluach came to Canada in 2011 on a university scholarship and has a master’s degree in biomedical toxicology from the University of Toronto.

Like many Canadians, he has watched the war in Ukraine with horror. He feels tremendous sympathy for the people fleeing violence and for those forced to leave their homes. He also feels a sense of pride seeing how Canada has responded to the crisis.

But he questions why Canada and other western nations have responded to Ukraine in ways that are so different from how they have responded to other crises in the past.

“I’m not jealous about Canada’s response to Ukraine because that is how they should be responding,“ Maluach said. “But the kind of attention that’s been given to Ukraine would also benefit other refugees.”

The way Canada and its European allies have offered to help Ukrainian refugees has been heralded by human rights advocates as a model for future crises. But the conflict has also highlighted longstanding concerns about systemic racism and abuse directed toward asylum seekers from other countries.


Canada, for example, has said it will give temporary residency and work permits to an unlimited number of Ukrainians. It has also promised to create a new “expedited path” for permanent residency for Ukrainian citizens with relatives living in Canada.

Alfred Maluach, a former refugee, mentor and advocate.
Alfred Maluach came to Canada in 2011 to study at the University of Toronto. Before that he lived in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. Alfred Maluach

Experts say this marks a major departure from previous refugee assistance programs, such as for Syrians or Afghans, which have included caps on the number of people accepted and often required months, if not years, for applications to be approved.

“Canada, for its part, has done this super unprecedented thing,” said Craig Damian Smith, a forced migration expert and senior research associate at Ryerson University.

Some people have explained these different approaches by pointing to the cultural, historic and political ties between Ukraine and the West. Canada, for example, has 1.3 million citizens who claim Ukrainian heritage.

Others say the differences are based on the level of destruction in Ukraine, the speed with which refugees have fled the war, and that people are heading directly into Europe.

Smith believes these are all important factors, but he said none of it makes up for the fact that refugees facing similarly destructive conflicts in the past haven’t been met with such openness.

He also points out that Canada’s offer to help people fleeing the Russian invasion has only been extended to Ukrainian citizens – not everyone who was living in Ukraine and escaped the war.

“The bottom line is there’s a clear double standard here,” Smith said.

Differences are ‘stark’

While living in the UN-run camp in Kenya, Maluach applied to study in Australia. He said he eventually gave up on the idea when he didn’t hear back. He then applied to study in Canada and said it took two years to get accepted.

“It’s easy to say it’s racism, but it goes very deeply into other issues,” he said.

Colonialism is another factor that explains why refugees from Africa are treated differently, Maluach said.

Gurminder K Bhambra, a professor of post-colonial studies at the University of Sussex, has pointed out that stereotypes about asylum seekers from Africa – how they’re motivated by economic gain and not actually fleeing war or conflict – have permeated popular opinion in the West.

These stereotypes cause people to believe refugees from Africa are “bogus” and undeserving of assistance, Bhambra said.

The irony of these stereotypes, she said, is that Europe’s wealth and economic prosperity are directly linked to “misery” in other parts of the world, which is often the direct result of western foreign policy objectives.

“The gap in living standards between Europe and other countries is not a natural gap,” Bhambra wrote in 2015.

Click to play video: 'European nations add services as Ukraine’s refugee crisis grows'
European nations add services as Ukraine’s refugee crisis grows

Estimates from the World Bank and UN say the average length of time it takes for refugees to be resettled in a safe third country is between 10 and 26 years. These precarious circumstances often mean refugees are denied access to work, health care, education and other social services.


As of November 2021, there were 84 million people worldwide who were forced to leave their homes due to conflicts, according to the UN Refugee Agency. This includes about 26.6 million refugees, about 20 million of whom are supported by the UN.

These figures don’t include the 3.7 million people who’ve fled Ukraine since the Russian invasion on Feb. 24 or the 6.5 million people forced to leave their homes who are still living in Ukraine.

But unlike the way the West has responded to past refugee crises, which experts say has been slow and at times obstructionist, the response to Ukraine has been swift and robust.

The European Union, for example, initiated its never-before-used Temporary Protection Directive, giving millions of fleeing Ukrainians the right to live, work and study in EU member nations.

“The difference in which people coming from Ukraine and people who are coming from non-European countries are received is just stark,” said Jelena Sesar, a Balkans and EU specialist with Amnesty International.

“We have for years been documenting cases where people have been put in groups, handcuffed and beaten by men in black uniforms and balaclavas without insignia on their uniforms. We’ve had cases where people have been raped with branches and women who were sexually assaulted.

“All of this has been happening for years under the watchful eye of the European Union.”

Asylum seekers face abuse

Some of the countries now being praised for their work with Ukrainian refugees have previously been accused of human rights violations and abuse targeted at asylum seekers.

Serena Parekh, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston, said the way Western nations have offered to help Ukrainians is exactly how refugees should be treated.

But she also said it’s difficult to overlook the discrepancies compared to how other people are treated, especially in countries that have used aggressive “pushback” policies to stop certain asylum seekers from crossing their borders.

“It’s just infuriating when people also don’t talk about the fact that at this moment, this is what Poland is doing to refugees on its border with Belarus who are from Syria and from Africa,” she said.

A 2021 exposé from Lighthouse Reports, a consortium of major European media outlets, documented dozens of examples of violent tactics used along Europe’s eastern boundary to stop Syrian, Afghan and Pakistani asylum seekers.

Videos show refugees being beaten with batons and pushed into the river Korana that separates the EU and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The reports state these attacks were perpetrated by men who appear to be masked Croatian border police. Other videos show alleged pushbacks carried out by the Greek coast guard, including one video that shows the coast guard shooting in the direction of 25 refugees in a rubber dinghy and then hitting them with a stick.

“Those things have always been part of the paradox of liberal democracies,” Parekh said. “We help and we push away at the same time.”

Click to play video: 'Aid groups react to tragedy in English Channel, say migrants need better options'
Aid groups react to tragedy in English Channel, say migrants need better options

Pushbacks, which are illegal under international and EU law, aren’t limited to countries along Europe’s eastern boundary.

The United Kingdom recently proposed using the Royal Navy to stop asylum seekers crossing the English Channel and last year conducted training exercises with border guards on armoured jet skis.


Yet in response to the Ukraine crisis, the UK has announced it will give $450 a month to anyone in Britain willing to share their home with a Ukrainian refugee.

This announcement came at the same time British parliamentarians were debating a bill that could allow the UK to create offshore processing centres for asylum seekers and could criminalize anyone who enters the country without proper documentation.

Canada’s mixed history

Canada has a mixed history when it comes to dealing with refugee crises.

In 2018, Canada resettled more refugees than any other country in the world – 28,100 people.

The Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also recently pledged to resettle 40,000 Afghan refugees and previously resettled 40,000 Syrians.

Canada also approves thousands of refugee claims each year made by people who show up at the border.

But refugee advocates have criticized Canada’s efforts to stop asylum seekers before they get to Canada.

In 2011, the government of former Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper launched a program aimed at stopping irregular migrants making refugee claims in Canada after two boats carrying 568 asylum seekers from Sri Lanka arrived along British Columbia’s coast.

Police and military personnel wear surgical masks as they board the MV Sun Sea after it was escorted into CFB Esquimalt in Colwood, B.C., on Aug. 13, 2010. Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

The government has also been criticized for sending asylum seekers who show up at the border back to the United States, where they’re “immediately and automatically imprisoned,” according to a July 2020 ruling by Federal Court Justice Ann McDonald.

This decision was overturned by the Federal Court of Appeal and is currently before the Supreme Court of Canada.

A 2021 report published by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International also accused Canada of abusive tactics aimed at asylum seekers. This includes unnecessarily shackling and handcuffing immigration detainees and keeping people of colour locked up longer than white detainees.

By contrast, Canada has opened its doors to Ukrainians fleeing the war with Russia.

“Our commitment to Ukrainians goes beyond the historic ties between Canada and Ukraine, and beyond the cultural connections between our people,” Immigration Minister Sean Fraser tweeted on March 3. “It is a commitment to humanity.”

Maluach said this is a commitment that should extend equally to everyone.

He said he knows the circumstances of each situation are different, and that the response to these crises can’t always be the same, but writing off entire segments of the population as unworthy of being helped is no longer an option.

“We all have the same aspirations. We all want the best of life,” Maluach said.

“All humans are deserving of our welcome, our generosity. And Canadians are generally very generous people.”