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Serena Parekh on the Ukrainian humanitarian crisis

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People fleeing the conflict in Ukraine arrive at Przemysl train station in Przemysl, Poland, on Friday, Feb. 25, 2022.

With all eyes on Ukraine and Russia, the world could witness the next largest refugee crisis in Europe since 2015. In recent talks with The New York Times, ABC News, and Newsweek, Serena Parekh weighs in on how this situation compares with other recent humanitarian crises.  

Parekh points out that initial responses from the European Union and Ukraine’s neighbors are hopeful; countries have dedicated support and state they are prepared to take in up to a million refugees. However, she warns that similar sentiments were held back in 2015, when 1.3 million Syrians, Iraqis, and Afghans were displaced due to civil war and violence, only to be abandoned later. Refugees were soon viewed as a problem by many right-wing politicians and subjected to growing xenophobia.  

The Ukrainian refugees differ in the fact that the majority of them are white, Christian, and European. Parekh attributes part of Western welcoming of Ukrainians to the “natural tendency to be sympathetic to people [perceived] to be like them in some significant way.” Additionally, the people of Ukraine and Western nations have a common enemy: Russia.  

Although these factors contribute to declarations of support now, Parekh speculates that cultural, religious, and economic differences could still lead to antagonism between Western Europeans and Ukrainians. If the situation plays out like the 2015 crisis, she insists it would be in Putin’s political favor. A humanitarian crisis would serve to “destabilize Western democracies and cause right-wing backlash and the rise of authoritarian leaders.” It is important that Western leaders maintain their perspectives and avoid downplaying the scale of the Ukrainian refugee crisis.  

Prof. Parekh has written extensively on humanitarian crises, including the books No Refuge: Ethics and the Global Refugee Crisis (Oxford 2020) and Refugees and the Ethics of Forced Displacement (Routledge 2017). She specializes in social and political philosophy, feminist theory, and global justice. 

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