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How coverage of Ukraine highlights Western racism towards war in the Middle East

Article first submitted on the 12th March

Like many of you, my news feed is saturated with news from Ukraine. Visceral images of Molotov cocktails, families huddling in bomb shelters, and rallying cries from across the globe. In an age of constant streams of visual media, even going on my daily Instagram scroll has left me feeling shaken. However, what shocked me most was this idea perpetuated by the media; that the war in Ukraine is far more terrible, far more horrifying than wars such as Yemen and Syria because those affected ‘look like us’. 

What does this mean, to ‘look like us’? As the Conservative peer and former MEP Daniel Hannan wrote, ‘[Ukraine’s] people watch Netflix and have Instagram accounts’. Apparently, this makes them worthy of our empathy. Not the fact that over 500 Ukrainian civilians have been killed, nor that they are fleeing their country in droves, leaving behind loved ones at borders and watching their homes get destroyed. No, according to a large number of the British press and beyond, we should empathise with the Ukrainians because they are ‘middle-class’ – just like us. 

Tragedy and fear always reveals the worst in us. In this case, it drew back the curtain, only to reveal a world that had grown wearisome with the seemingly constant conflict in the Middle East and had chalked it up to another far away, unsolvable problem. The harmful notion that the nations outside of Europe are barbaric and war is simply inevitable is incredibly damaging. We can see the direct results of this apathetic view when we look at Yemen. For seven years, the country of Yemen has been decimated by the oppressive Saudi-led military intervention. An estimated 233,000 have died at the hands of this war and yet nothing is done. Where is the uproar, the global outrage? The world has turned its back on them. 

I by no means condemn the swift action taken by many countries, such as Germany who have taken in 50,000 Ukrainian refugees already. Yet, in the seven years of horrific war, Germany only accepted 373 Yemeni refugees. This number is a disgrace. Our betrayal of the Yemeni people could not be more obvious. One could argue that as Yemen is not in Europe, we should not expect European countries to provide the same aid they can for Ukraine. However, I believe that we are simply not trying. It has become evident from the press coverage and the dismissal of Middle Eastern, African and Asian conflict, that although wealthy European countries have the resources to do more, they simply don’t see the point. After all, Yemeni refugees don’t, in the words of an Al Jazeera news anchor, ‘look like any European family that you’d live next door to’, so why should Europe bother helping them? Angelina Jolie, who arrived in Yemen a few days ago to aid refugees, quite aptly put it ‘We cannot be selective about who deserves support’.

To my shock, last week this narrative was further pushed by Prince William. In the Ukrainian Cultural Centre in London, he commented ‘The news every day, it’s just, it’s almost unfathomable. For our generation, it’s very alien to see this in Europe.’ Of course, it is naïve of me to assume that the Royal Family would be anything other than tactless, but I had assumed they had extensive media training. The concept that Prince William’s generation has never seen conflict in Europe is blatantly false. The conflict in the Balkans between 1991 and 1995 left over 100,000 dead. Populations were subject to ethnic cleansing and unspeakable war crimes, with the countries that survived the redrawing of the Balkan map facing crippling economic repercussions. This is not a conflict of a long forgotten past, many survivors are even the same age as Prince William himself, a man who considers Europe above such uncouth things as war. For a global figure to dismiss war as unthinkable in Europe is to erase the memories of those that suffered and is incredibly harmful. 

The media’s reaction to the war in Ukraine has held up a mirror and revealed some uncomfortable truths. We’ve been blind. We’ve been turning away from countries suffering, simply because we thought they were too different, too far away, too difficult to reach. And now that war is on our doorstep, we are reminded of our privilege that we have been hiding behind, assuming we were safe because war is ‘alien’ to Europe. But we are once again reminded that is not the truth. 

While we turn our compassion towards Ukraine, rally to unite with them, and protest our government who simply isn’t doing enough, let’s remind ourselves that we need this fire and fuel for everyone, not just our immediate neighbours. Let’s not belittle the people of Ukraine by only offering our support because they look like us. Let’s support them because it’s the right thing to do. 

Image courtesy of Max Pixel