Photo credit: Michał Mitoraj (Varsavia, 25 febbraio - Davanti all'ambasciata russa)

The right to flee Ukraine and selective racism

8 points against all forms of border violence

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by Francesco Ferri

The movement of people leaving Ukraine is intertwined with the transit of migrants from many other contexts. It is necessary to question the categories we use to read current border crossings and to take critical attitudes towards all borders.

  • 1. Ukrainian people and all the others. It is not only Ukrainians who fled in the aftermath of the Russian army invasion. There are many people with the most diverse backgrounds who need to leave their country or move from neighbouring countries. We must constantly remember this: we must not only ‘welcome Ukrainians’, but it is essential to promote freedom of movement and welcome all people who are travelling or willing to move.
  • 2. Against all differentiation policies. The tendency towards classification and selection is an underlying characteristic of border management. In coming weeks and months, we will be constantly led to assume that Ukrainians should be able to move freely across borders and, on the other hand, that for other national groups – fleeing Ukraine or elsewhere – it is physiologically more difficult or impossible. The starting point of this argument needs to be strongly rejected: the choice of favouring the transit of some and preventing that of others is entirely political and, as such, it is necessary to question it.
  • 3. For Ukrainians the way is not easy either. At the same time, we need to reject the idea that Ukrainian people can move across borders and enter destination countries easily and without conflicts. Despite European leaders’ emphatic words, it is reasonable to think that the transit and reception of Ukrainians will be marked by difficulties, blockages, selective processes, ambivalence. This is a typical feature of border management that emerges repeatedly in many different contexts.

In the recent past, even national groups whose mobility and reception seemed assured for political reasons, have later faced obstacles, exclusion and marginalisation processes. Also the application of temporary protection must be seen through these lenses: it will be essential to monitor how the set up mechanism will work, what relationship it will develop with the traditional channels for international protection, what impact it will have on the quality of life of the people benefitting from it and, finally, the consequences for those excluded.

  • 4. Migration is a structurally selective process. Despite the strong impact of the images of people crossing Ukraine’s western borders, we should not assume that all people willing to move actually have the possibility to do so. It is not only men, who are to be involved in the army, who are trapped in the country. Crossing the border is a selective process from the very first step. Many people do not manage to leave, even though they want to, for a variety of reasons: lack of money and other resources, personal or family difficulties, information asymmetries, lack of supporting networks, etc. We need to keep this in mind: there is no alternative but the immediate end of the war.
  • 5. Immigrants or refugees? The movement of people fleeing Ukraine challenges the categories used in the mainstream debate to identify those who land – or try to – in the European space. It is indicative that the Italian term immigratə has been hardly used, so far, while describing the movement of Ukrainians. This is the word that, par excellence, alludes to supposed cultural otherness, poverty, as well as the condition of non-Europeanness.

It is not a coincidence that in current debates the most overused word is refugee. This expression has a contradictory dimension, and is often used in the public sphere for limited periods of time, characterised by a tendency to open up, at least discursively, to specific national groups. It is worthwhile to pay constant attention on chosen terms and to reject all stigmatising, hierarchising, victimising words. It is not just a question of form: discursive and physical violence often feed off each other.

  • 6. Not only victims: let’s think about agency. The impulse to frame people fleeing war solely as exploited is understandable but needs to be rejected. It is necessary to question the complex subjective dimension of migration, even when it develops towards apparently welcoming contexts. Crossing a border is always an exhausting activity, which very often implies the deployment of many individual and collective resources, and challenges each one personal subjectivity.
  • 7. Moving nimbly between continuity and discontinuity. The movement of people through and beyond Ukraine is very wide-ranging. It is part of a vast scenario of wars and conflicts in the Euro-Mediterranean and Asian area. It has characteristics that are partly new and partly overlapping with these observed along the migratory routes of recent years. We should not think that this is an usual war followed by an usual transit of migrants, nor that the conflict and the consequent movement of people across borders is something completely new in contemporary Europe. It is necessary to grasp any novelty of the current transits, constantly keeping in mind that they are part of an articulated tangle of multidirectional movements and large-scale selective stops.
  • 8. Against all borders. The movement of people fleeing Ukraine is an opportunity to comprehensively rethink border categories. Borders did not become liquid with the end of the 20th century, nor they are all characterised by the image of the impassable wall. Borders are structurally porous: they welcome, separate, and reject at the same time. Above all, they are not a fixed element. They have a precise historical and political dimension, which can be questioned and overturned by the movement of people and politicised solidarity.

If we want to help people on the move, it is necessary, in addition to basic material support, to frame a comprehensive, non-selective critique of every border of our time and to call for a widespread freedom of movement, regardless of legal statuses, countries of origin and reasons behind the right to flee. The confinement processes taking place in Niger, central Mediterranean, Balkans, Libya, Poland, Ukraine and in thousands of other global contexts are closely connected: they all deserve our deepest contempt, together with our most creative, radical and effective counteractions.