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Foreign Aid and Refugee Support: Stop the Cruel Sum-Zero Game

EU states diverting foreign aid to receiving Ukrainian refugees is going to cost people’s lives and solidarity.

On my first day volunteering at Berlin’s Central Train Station, where Ukrainian refugees are arriving, I chatted with a fellow volunteer. He was a friendly young man from Syria who came to Berlin during the 2014-2015 period, when many Syrian refugees arrived in Germany. He told me how he received great help from volunteers at the time, and now was himself in the position to help other refugees fleeing from the all-too-familiar deadly Russian  aggression. After their volunteer shift ended, he and his wife took in a family, a Ukrainian woman with teenage girls, for a good night's sleep before their next train the following day.

I watch with horror as the Russian war crimes in Ukraine continue,  and the European Union’s politics does its best to make this kind of organic solidarity among refugees impossible. The divide-and-rule tactic never fails. In the case of Ukraine, EU states enact this tactic both domestically and globally. 

Domestically speaking, first came the “preferential treatment” of Ukrainian refugees in relation to all the less European and less white refugees. Let me be clear, being a refugee in Fortress Europe - even in its most privileged form - can still be a living nightmare. In Germany for example, Ukrainian refugees are granted a war refugee status that comes with rights and state support that many refugees from other wars - like Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq or Ethiopia - can only dream of. In Poland, 3 million refugees from Ukraine were welcomed, while refugees from Syria and other war-torn regions were left to die in the forest on the border with Belarus, supported only by local activists. Still, even being ‘welcomed’ as a refugee is an objectively difficult situation to be in. German bureaucracy has been known to traumatize and break people’s spirits unbroken by even a war. Leaving your life, home and family behind, finding yourself alone in a foreign country, is no less than a human tragedy. 

What is called a ‘refugee crisis’ is not the influx of refugees but the crisis of inhumane and often abusive and cruel asylum systems, designed not to receive but to reject as many people as possible. These systems that can crush your spirit even if you’re doing fine. So what is there to say about people escaping the traumatizing horrors of war, torture, loss of home and loved ones, people with biographies of surviving extreme violence and oppression? Listen for a much needed reality check, for instance, as Marlize shares her experience of navigating the German asylum system while Black, queer and trans. 

What Europe does for Ukrainian refugees must become the absolute minimum, not the maximum, of support extended to all refugees. Even with all this state support, it is the relentless work of volunteers, civil society activists, and autonomous social networks that save and support people as they navigate bureaucratic labyrinths. Informal Telegram groups are bursting with support requests, as people rely on fellow humans to assist and accompany them in accessing healthcare, education, and so on. This is all the more true for Roma families facing harsh discrimination alongside institutional and everyday racism en-route and upon arrival, as well as African students and other third-country nationals fleeing the very same war in Ukraine but are excluded from the same rights and services, if they are even allowed into the country in the first place. 

Unrecognizable child walking in tent. Photo by Ahmed akacha.
Unrecognizable child walking in tent. Photo by Ahmed akacha.

On the global level, now European countries are diverting foreign aid from Global South countries to themselves, to cover the costs of receiving Ukrainian refugees. Sweden diverted $1B in foreign aid from life-saving causes like HIV/Aids, vaccination, and civil society in the Global South, and Denmark withdrew over $280 million from countries including Syria, Mali and Bangladesh. This adds up to a trend demonstrated in the fundraising appeals of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs: to date, the flash appeal for Ukraine has reached 46.9% of its goal; Afghanistan is at 15.3%; and Yemen at 2.2%. It is a different story that all this money for Ukraine disappears in mega-budgets of international organizations and doesn’t go where it should: to frontline communities, women and community-led grassroots groups and first responders in Ukraine and border countries. Many feminist and grassroots groups in Ukraine are struggling to fund the vital work of sustaining their communities through the traumas of war and violence, including sexual and gender-based violence.

This diversion of resources is going to cost lives across the Global South, denying people of the life-saving services they need. It will also deprive civil society organizations and social movements from the necessary resources required to safeguard human rights, fight for social, economic and climate justice, eliminate discrimination against women, LGBTQI+ people, racialised and ethnic minorities and other marginalised communities, hold institutions of power accountable for violations, and lastly, to make governments function better. And of course it is going to cost money. People working day and night to improve their society are going to lose their jobs, and vulnerable communities dependent on those services will find themselves in even greater turmoil, facing new crises that will need to be solved. 

The willingness to divert foreign aid before finding other creative solutions (think more progressive taxation, for example) to solve domestic shortcomings of the asylum system is very telling. After all, European states can stop providing aid to the Global South, but European corporations and state companies will never stop extracting natural resources, exploiting labor, and otherwise profiting from the South. As immigration and asylum systems are increasingly privatized, the money often goes directly into the hands of the private sector processing visa applications or deporting refugees - for profit. 

Meanwhile, the divide-and-rule policy separates refugees into differentiated categories, rejecting some and co-opting others. This undermines the most important resource for refugees everywhere: solidarity. It is worth reiterating that Ukrainians are receiving the minimal decent treatment and basic rights all refugees should be entitled to: the right to stay, to work, to access health, education and social services. And Ukrainians are certainly not responsible for the violent racism of Swedish, Danish, German or Polish asylum systems. This is crystal clear in the words of Syrian refugees who testify to much worse treatment they have received upon arrival, and they still express strong affinity, empathy and solidarity with Ukrainians. Many Ukrainian refugees themselves have voiced their opposition to racial segregation at the borders and demanded equal treatment. 

Clearly, the lessons from the global pandemic about the interconnectedness of our lives and fates in this world are forgotten, if they were truly learned. The UN World Food Program already reported that rising food prices, resulting from the Russian war on Ukraine and other factors, had forced them to “spend $70 million more per month to buy the same amount of food as last year”. When European countries divert foreign aid in this way, starving aid recipients in the Global South in order to meet the needs of refugees in the North, they sow injustice and pave the way for old and new disasters, and for more people to be driven to seek refuge.

As feminists, social justice, and migrant rights activists, whether we fight against Russian imperialism or other colonial and imperial powers around the world, we are all facing the challenge of building and safeguarding mutual solidarity in the face of systems and institutions that tear us apart. These are systems that grant us different sets of rights and privileges, that legalize some of us and criminalize others. Systems pitting our lives one against the other, in some cruel and unnecessary zero-sum hunger game. But even if the short memory of state institutions has led them to forget how interconnected and interdependent we are, how critical solidarity is to our survival through difficult times, we remember. We - particularly those of us used to caring for our communities through difficult times, used to relying on each other, rather than on the state - we remember.