People’s and Government’s Choices to Help Refugees | Facing History & Ourselves

People’s and Government’s Choices to Help Refugees

Excerpts from DW and NPR shed light on how individuals and governments are thinking about their responsibility to help Ukrainian refugees and non-European refugees.
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English — US


  • History
  • Social Studies
  • Global Migration & Immigration
  • Human & Civil Rights

Excerpt 1

The following excerpt is from the DW article In U-turn on migrant policy, Poland rolls out welcome mat for Ukrainians.

Ewa Godlewska-Jeneralska's house in the small southern Polish town of Czchow is ready to welcome refugees fleeing the bloodshed in Ukraine. The beds are made, the rooms carefully prepared for guests.

"It's natural to do this. The war is raging in our backyard," Godlewska-Jeneralska tells DW in a phone call. She hasn't received any Ukrainians as yet leaving their war-torn country, but she expects it to happen soon.
. . .
The war in neighboring Ukraine has jolted Poland, prompting a huge outpouring of aid and solidarity. There are collection points for donations in kind and advertisements by people willing to take in refugees.
. . .
Yet it was not that long ago that Poland produced some very different images to the ones playing out now—[in 2021] migrants from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other countries stranded in the forests on the Polish-Belarusian border. . .

There were reports of Polish border forces carrying out illegal pushbacks. Since the beginning of the year, Poland has been building a fence on the border to Belarus to keep illegal migrants out.

At the time of [this last] migrant crisis, aid groups, medical charities and individual Poles including residents of the eastern border regions helped migrants as best they could. But there was no mass mobilization and willingness to help the refugees.
. . .
For now, at least, Poland is providing quick and effective help for Ukrainian citizens fleeing the war. They are entitled to the same medical care in Poland as locals, with expenses borne by the state health insurance.
. . .
Before the Russian invasion, there were about one million Ukrainians living in Poland. Almost every Polish family knows Ukrainians who work in Poland. The countries aren't far apart geographically or even culturally.

In a survey conducted last year by the Center for Prejudice Research at the University of Warsaw, more than 90% of respondents said they accept people from Ukraine as colleagues and neighbors.

But, for Ewa Godlewska-Jeneralska from Czchow, the nagging question of the contrasting treatment meted out to Syrian and Ukrainian refugees remains unanswered.

"How can it be that Ukrainian children are better than Syrian ones?," she asks.

There is little doubt that the situation [involving mainly migrants from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria] in the late summer of 2021 was more confused because no one knew who exactly the migrants were and why they were trying to get to Poland.

At the time . . . [Polish] Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski portrayed the refugees as tourists or potential terrorists. But, the fact is that at the same time, families with children were freezing in the cold—without triggering a wave of solidarity.

Godlewska-Jeneralska says she had spoken with a psychologist who brought up another aspect: "Back then, when the refugees arrived at the Belarusian border, it was not a direct threat to us,” Godlewska-Jeneralska says.

"Now it's different: when you feel threatened yourself and helpless at the same time, it's almost unbearable. But when you start doing something concrete to help, you feel you can still control some things." 1


  • What does Godlewska-Jeneralska plan to do to help Ukrainians fleeing the war? Why did she decide to help?
  • According to the article, why do many Polish people feel close to Ukrainians? What are some other reasons people feel close to each other?
  • Why does Godlewska-Jeneralska believe it is “natural” to help Ukrainian refugees? Why might people feel a greater obligation to help those who feel geographically or culturally "close"?
  • What problems can it create when people prioritize helping those who feel close?

Excerpt 2

The following excerpt is from the NPR article Europe welcomes Ukrainian refugees but others, less so.

[W]hile the hospitality [extended to Ukrainian refugees] has been applauded, it has also highlighted stark differences in treatment given to migrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa, particularly Syrians who came in 2015. Some of the language from these leaders has been disturbing to them, and deeply hurtful.

"These are not the refugees we are used to . . . these people are Europeans," Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov told journalists earlier this week, of the Ukrainians. "These people are intelligent, they are educated people. . . . This is not the refugee wave we have been used to, people we were not sure about their identity, people with unclear pasts, who could have been even terrorists..."

Syrian journalist Okba Mohammad says that statement "mixes racism and Islamophobia."

Mohammad fled his hometown of Daraa in 2018… Mohammad described a sense of déjà vu as he followed events in Ukraine. Like thousands of Ukrainians, he also had to shelter underground to protect himself from Russian bombs. He also struggled to board an overcrowded bus to flee his town. He also was separated from his family at the border.

"A refugee is a refugee, whether European, African or Asian," Mohammad said.
. . .
Some journalists are also being criticized for how they are reporting on and describing Ukrainian refugees. "These are prosperous, middle-class people," an Al Jazeera English television presenter said. ". . . They look like any European family that you would live next door to."
. . .
When over a million people crossed into Europe in 2015, support for refugees fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan was much greater . . . [B]back then, Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel, famously said "Wir schaffen das" or "We can do it," and the Swedish prime minister urged citizens to "open your hearts" to refugees.

Volunteers gathered on Greek beaches to rescue exhausted families crossing on flimsy boats from Turkey. In Germany, they were greeted with applause at train and bus stations.

But the warm welcome soon ended after EU nations disagreed over how to share responsibility, with the main pushback coming from Central and Eastern European countries.
. . .
Much of [Hungarian Prime Minister] Orban's opposition to migration is based on his belief that to "preserve cultural homogeneity and ethnic homogeneity," Hungary should not accept refugees from different cultures and different religions.

Members of Poland's conservative nationalist ruling party have also consistently echoed Orban's thinking on migration to protect Poland's identity as a Christian nation and guarantee its security, they say, arguing that large Muslim populations could raise the risk of terror threats.

But none of these arguments has been applied to their Ukrainian neighbors, with whom they share historical and cultural ties…

"It is not completely unnatural for people to feel more comfortable with people who come from nearby, who speak the (similar) language or have a (similar) culture," Crisp [a former head of policy, development and evaluation at UNHCR] said.
. . .
The United Nations Refugee Agency has urged "receiving countries (to) continue to welcome all those fleeing conflict and insecurity—irrespective of nationality and race." 2


  • What assumptions do the politicians and the journalist quoted in this article make about refugees from non-European countries? What assumptions do they make about Ukrainian refugees? What do these assumptions say about who they think “belongs” in their countries?
  • The politicians and the journalist mentioned socio-economic class, religion, education, and physical appearance as significant aspects of refugee identity. Why do you think these factors shape the way people respond to refugees? Should they matter?

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History & Ourselves, "People’s and Government’s Choices to Help Refugees," last updated March 11, 2022.

This reading contains text not authored by Facing History & Ourselves. See footnotes for source information.

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