Opinion: No transactional ethics is needed for the 7,000 Ukrainian refugees who have just arrived here, as part of an open-ended welcome. Still, we won’t take displaced Afghans or Syrians now fleeing the war in Ukraine

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If nuance is a casualty of war, irony is a great beneficiary. Russia’s savage invasion has displaced over three million Ukrainians — which evokes constant comparisons with scenes from the Second World War. “People like us” are shattered and on the move in Europe, in a “war against basic values.”

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When interrupted by scenes of raw racism by border guards who couldn’t care less about young Africans, asians and Middle Easterners fleeing Ukraine, the narrative casts these as hiccups. UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi deemed these as unfortunate “instances” that were “not state policy.”

Poland rightly earns lavish acclaim for welcoming over a million Ukrainians, while Hungary follows in its wake. Yet both countries have not only slammed their doors since 2015 against desperate Afghan and Syrian refugees, but turned them into scapegoats in ethno-populist campaigns. Never mind that Poles and Hungarians themselves were part of massive human flows into Western Europe and North America since the Second World War.

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What of Canada, which has resettled some 8,500 Afghans fleeing the Taliban’s brutality? This was rationalized as a quid pro quo for what the Afghans did for us as interpreters and the like. No transactional ethics is needed for the 7,000 Ukrainian refugees who have just arrived hereas part of an open-ended welcome.

Still, we won’t take displaced Afghans or Syrians now fleeing the war in Ukraine. We reject refugee status for Egyptians who supported the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that won a democratic election in 2012 after the Arab Spring. And what of the millions displaced by the US-backed war in Yemen, billed as the worst humanitarian crisis today?

But let’s return to the Second World War evocation. We turned away Jewish refugees, regarded as not quite like us (“none is too many”), while fighting a war for liberal values. Ukrainians weren’t felt to be sufficiently like us either (more “Asiatic”), and had suffered internment during the First World War — when Punjabis (Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus) aboard the Komagata Maru were turned away from Vancouver harbor amid public and official hostility.

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The idea that refugees have a moral claim on our humanity had its heyday in the aftermath of the Second World War, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights put it on a footing beyond “kin empathy.” Still, the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees — which created our refugee system — was about Europeans displaced by the Second World War, even if claimants were to be treated “without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin.” It took over a decade to globalize the idea under the 1967 Protocol to the Refugee Convention.

Yet there was no legal obligation to grant refugee status, only the right to claim it. States could decide for themselves who merited their protection. palestinian refugees dispossessed of their homes in 1948, and again in 1967, were a conspicuous casualty.

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What’s wrong with greater empathy for those we regard as closer to us? Why shouldn’t we favor Christian Syrians over Muslims? What’s our sovereignty worth if we can’t choose whom to allow through our borders?

That sentiment would land us in the populist backyard, a dodgy place to be these days. Brexiteers, for one, now proclaim solidarity with Europe amid Russia’s depredations. Donald Trump’s insistence on the “genius” of Vladimir Putin is akin to the cheerleading (until now) by France’s Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour.

It certainly plays into the “clash of civilizations” thesisfavored not only by Western populists but also by Vladimir Putin. Rallying on the basis of kinship or ideological solidarity has raw appeal. Xi Jinping’s China is certainly on board. And we risk driving an array of Asian, Middle Eastern, and African nations into that camp with our selective empathy. Few of them have any enthusiasm for the sanctions regime adopted by the West.

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Do not surprise there, if we insist on acting as children of a greater god.

In Omar al-Akkad’s What Strange Paradise — winner of the 2021 Scotiabank Giller Prize — Amir, a nine-year-old Syrian refugee washed ashore on a Mediterranean island is befriended by Vänna, a teenager. The children are worlds apart, and lack a shared language. Yet they navigate the xenophobia around them with panache, in ways that the 1951 Refugee Convention could only dream about.

This Canada Reads contender is a timely reminder that we must choose between populist and pluralist futures.

Amyn BSajoo is a scholar-in-residence at Simon Fraser University, where he lectures on international relations. He is a former policy adviser with the Canadian Human Rights Commission in Ottawa.


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