The Department of International Relations supports the work of the Grimshaw Club, LSE’s oldest student society. Established in 1923, the Grimshaw Club is open to students studying all subjects, with an interest in international affairs. Crossposted from the Grimshaw Club’s Bluebird Blog, below is the winning entry of the 2023 Essay Competition.
“The Empire and the Orient: Ukraine and Non-Western Refugee Crises” by Poorvika Mehra
This essay was selected by the Grimshaw Club editorial selection committee for its argumentative sharpness, clarity of exposition especially regarding its postcolonial approach, and well-founded evidence. The committee was particularly impressed by its critical comparison of the contrast between the treatment of Ukrainian refugees and Yemeni, Palestinian, and Iraqi refugees. The editorial committee congratulates Poorvika Mehra (MSc, School of Public Policy, LSE) on her brilliant contribution!
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has reinvigorated debates about the influence of neo-imperialism in this conflict. Conventional wisdom, popularised by the United States’ (US) foreign policy rhetoric, posits that Russia’s imperial ambitions to restore Russia’s Cold War-era status as a Great Power have caused this war (Stephens 2006: para 3; Lankina 2022). On the other hand, realist theorists like John Mearsheimer (cited in Chotiner 2022) claim that it is not Russian but American imperialism through democratic diffusion that has caused a security dilemma for Russia and triggered the war in Ukraine.
However, this essay moves beyond this Manichean placement of blame to examine the oft-ignored influence of imperialism on knowledge-systems, as inherent in the treatment of refugees in the Ukraine war. By comparing the treatment of Palestinian, Iraqi, Yemeni, and Ukrainian refugees, this essay argues that the “grammar of difference” that welcomes Ukrainian refugees and “others” non-Western refugees is rooted in Western cultural imperialism, which strongly influences the political landscape for displaced populations today (Manchanda 2020: 3).
By comparing the treatment of Palestinian, Iraqi, Yemeni, and Ukrainian refugees, this essay argues that the “grammar of difference” that welcomes Ukrainian refugees and “others” non-Western refugees is rooted in Western cultural imperialism, which strongly influences the political landscape for displaced populations today
The essay proceeds as follows. First, it will define Orientalism and imperial knowledge-systems for the context of this argument. Following this, it will analyse the treatment of Palestinian, Yemeni, Iraqi and Ukrainian refugees to highlight the overtones of Western imperialism against non-Western refugees. Finally, it will present its conclusions and the scope of further research.
Empire, Knowledge, and the Construction of the Other
Orientalism is the process of ontologically and epistemologically differentiating between the purportedly “rational, civilised, and modern” ‘Occidental’ West and the “primitive, uncivilised and irrational” ‘Oriental’ non-West (Said, 1978). In doing so, Orientalism allows the Orient and Occident to develop a relationship defined by the Occident’s domination of and power over the Orient in a complex hegemonic sense. Imperial power is rooted in Orientalist knowledge systems that propagate racial inferiority through a “grammar of difference” based on a Manichean division of the world. This division results in an Orientalist chasm which views the empire, such as Western nations in Europe, as the centred, voiced Occidental subject “Self” and as the Oriental Palestinian bodies as the marginal “Other” (Du Bois 1945; Said 1978; Manchanda 2020: 3). The power of the empire privileges imperial knowledges while rendering the voices of the Orient illegitimate, stabilising the former’s sense of ‘Self’. Such representations cement hierarchies of power through a continuum of epistemic violence. The Orient is fixedly stereotyped, making it visible enough for the imperial imagination, yet barbaric, uncivilised, and ‘different’ enough for the Occidental subject to maintain its cultural hegemony and continue its politics of distance/difference.
Positioning the Ukraine War in the broader refugee crisis
This discourse finds distinct meaning in the case of Ukrainian refugees. Over 8.1 million Ukrainian refugees have escaped the devastation of the Russian onslaught, causing Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since World War II (UNHCR 2023). 3 million of these have fled to Europe alone. The European Union (EU) has invoked the Temporary Protection Directive, granting Ukrainian refugees the right to stay, work or study within the EU for one year (European Council 2022). Many European railway companies also allowed Ukrainian refugees to use their transport systems for free (Euractiv 2022). However, refugees of other international conflicts, like the Israel-Palestine conflict, have been deprived of such treatment. Palestinian Foreign Minister, Riad Malki, pointed to as much in his speech at a security forum in Türkiye, wherein he called the Western response to Ukrainian refugees “amazing hypocrisy”, noting that “we have seen every means we were told could not be activated for over 70 years deployed in less than seven days” (VOA 2022). The same is true of the treatment of Iraqi refugees, who were widely turned away as potential security threats when fleeing the US-created war in Iraq, or of Yemeni refugees, who are fleeing the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world, which was created by Saudi Arabia’s US and United Kingdom (UK) sponsored war in Yemen (Krauss 2022). In all these latter cases, Western nations claim to have no room for refugees.
When juxtaposed with the historical treatment of non-Western refugees by European nations, the unequivocal acceptance of Ukrainian refugees indicates the presence of an Orientalist episteme that paints non-Western refugees to be ‘Others’, who are “naturally barbaric” “backward”, or “conflict-ridden” in a way that insinuates an expectation for these citizens to be used to living in war-torn conditions (Manchanda 2020: 26). Meanwhile, by virtue of their Caucasian descent, Ukrainian refugees are seen as a mirror of the Occidental ‘Self’, which is modern, educated, developed and must therefore be protected from devastation. This knowledge-system is reflected, nearly verbatim, in the words of Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov, when he said, “These [Ukrainians] are not refugees we are used to… these people are Europeans. These people are intelligent, they are educated people” (Butler 2022). Several news media outlets like CNN or CBS have also reflected an ‘othering’ rhetoric, with statements like ‘the conflict in Kyiv isn’t like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilised, relatively European city” (Brito 2022). In engaging with comparative language that Orientalises and diminishes non-Western refugees, such imperialistic knowledge secures the hegemony and cultural superiority of the ‘Self’ over the ‘Other’. It creates a discriminatory protective regime for non-European refugees.
The Ukrainian conflict highlights imperialism’s influence in presenting international conflicts and providing responses to refugees. The welcoming of Ukrainian refugees, when contrasted with the distaste for non-Western refugees, indicates the presence of Orientalist knowledge-systems that prefer Ukrainian asylum seekers as images of the Western imperial ‘Self’ while ‘othering’ non-Western refugees. This work does not aim to imply that Ukrainian refugees have been given unfair advantages in asylum systems. It tries to underscore the humanity of this treatment and urges nations to adopt similar systems for refugees worldwide, regardless of their ethnic origins. Further research into media and governmental rhetoric on non-Western refugee crises may paint a clearer picture of the presence of Orientalism in refugee policy and allow policymakers to remedy this discriminatory episteme.
Further research into media and governmental rhetoric on non-Western refugee crises may paint a clearer picture of the presence of Orientalism in refugee policy and allow policymakers to remedy this discriminatory episteme.
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This article represents the views of the author, and not the position of the Department of International Relations, nor of the London School of Economics.