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28 February 2022

Ukrainians don’t only deserve sympathy because they “look like us”

If there's room in our hearts for European war victims, there's room for Channel migrants too.

By Otto English

As the people of Ukraine bravely face down the threat of the invading Russian army, millions of Britons have been glued to our screens, watching the terrible events unfold.

Inevitably, given that the UK only seems to have one “go to” point of reference, comparisons with the Blitz have been drawn. The images of ordinary people sheltering in underground stations as the sirens wail overhead feel eerily familiar. So do the bombed-out buildings, irregular “Home Guard” soldiers defending their country, and those acts of almost cinematic heroism that have shared on social media: the townspeople in Bakhmach who stood in front of a Russian armoured convoy; or the woman who tried to give sunflower seeds to Russian soldiers so that they might grow when they died on Ukrainian soil.

World leaders have also acted decisively and swiftly against the invading power and Vladimir Putin and his cronies are being held to account in a manner which the Russian president seems not to have anticipated. The lessons of Munich appear to have been learned and at the same time many countries, most notably Poland and Hungary, have flung open their borders and welcomed refugees in.

All of this very welcome diplomatic generosity comes in stark contrast to the West’s response to the other 21 wars of various kinds going on in the world — and in the era of the “hot take” economy there is always someone on hand to explain why. In last Saturday’s Daily Telegraph Daniel Hannan had this to say: “They seem so like us. That’s it. That is what makes it so shocking. Ukraine is a European country. Its people watch Netflix and have Instagram accounts, vote in free elections and read uncensored newspapers. War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations. It can happen to anyone.”

Ukraine’s deputy chief prosecutor, David Sakvarelidze, was rather less subtle, telling the BBC: “I’m sorry. It’s really emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed, children being killed every day with Putin’s missiles.”

The CBS foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata guardedly articulated what a lot of people, devoid of 24-hour news coverage of events in Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Yemen, are undoubtedly thinking. “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, you know, like Iraq … that has seen conflict raging for decades. You know, this is a relatively civilized, relatively European…. [place] where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen.”

D’Agata, Hannan and Sakvarelidze have all been called out on social media. And they have, albeit unintentionally, hit on something unsettling. While in no way wishing to diminish Ukraine’s struggle, there is undoubtedly deep hypocrisy at play on the part of the UK government and right-wing media. They have spent years demonising people trying to cross the English channel but have now found a place in their hearts for victims of a European war.

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Indeed, even supposedly nice Western liberals like me can be guilty of this hypocrisy. Ethiopia, Myanmar and Libya are engaged in significant, protracted civil wars but barely a word is said about them on the homepages of even the most liberal news sites. In the months after the chaotic Western withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, news outlets, politicians and media commentators have largely turned their attention elsewhere.

Ukraine demonstrates, for the moment, that the world can act in harmony against warmongers when it wants to. But it also says much about us. It might be unsurprising to reflect on the fact that a conflict on our doorstep, in cities that look like ours, resonates more than conflicts in countries that many of us would struggle to place on a map. Yet perhaps as we continue to will this war to a swift conclusion, Ukraine can serve as a reminder that all victims of war and all wars matter. Nobody wants to be displaced. Nobody wants their lives, or those of their loved ones, threatened. Nobody flees their home through choice. Nobody risks it all on a perilous dinghy journey west for the hope of £39 a week.

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