Lesson for Europe in Face of Ukraine War: Case of Hungary and Western Double Standard

Felix Nussbaum: The Refugee // Public domain

The parliamentary election in Hungary held on April 3, 2022, ended with the fourth consecutive victory of Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his right-wing Fidesz party. Whilst the results may be less of a surprise for many, it should be noted that Viktor Orban was neither without structural advantages against the opposition thanks to legal amendments in favor of the ruling party, nor the present and prior election were free from gerrymandering.

In the meantime, free, independent media have slowly eroded in Hungary under the rule of Fidesz, which successfully took over the vast majority of media platforms, thus preventing the opposition from reaching wider audiences across the country.

In contrast to the openly racist and xenophobic anti-immigrant propaganda of the Fidesz party during the so-called “migrant-crisis”, the public enemy became the opposition this time, not migrants and refugees. Around this time, ahead of the parliamentary elections in 2018, the country was flooded by anti-immigrant billboards. One of them depicted a queue of non-white men, the same image that had been unveiled by Nigel Farage (a former leader of the UK far-right Independence Party) shortly before the Brexit referendum, which had been reported to the police for resembling Nazi propaganda.

For many years, the Hungarian government, together with other right-wing populist politicians in Europe, have been capitalizing on anti-immigrant sentiments. Most countries refused to take in non-white refugees who have been victims of brutal humanitarian conflicts, framing them as threats and claiming there was no room left for them. In the Hungarian pro-government media discourse, the term refugee effectively disappeared and was replaced by ‘illegal migrants’ who would soon flood and take over “Christian Europe”.

Four years have passed since then, and now we are facing the biggest crises in Europe since the World War II. The war in Ukraine has claimed over 25 thousand casualties, including total of 1,563 civilian deaths (of them 130 children) as of April 5, 2022. It has also resulted in over four million people fleeing from their country seeking refuge in neighbouring countries, including Hungary, where they have been able to receive humanitarian support.

For many years, Western media – including Hungarian pro-government media discourse – have been highlighting the otherness of refugees coming from the Middle East. By dehumanizing and criminalizing refugees, the Hungarian government has been able to justify discrimination, racism and state-sponsored violence against refugees.  By contrast, Western media are now emphasizing the perceived similarity of Ukrainian refugees to ‘us’.

For instance, a former deputy prosecutor told the BBC that it’s really emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blond hair being killed”.

Similarly, a French TV a journalist commented, We’re not talking here about Syrians fleeing the bombing of the Syrian regime backed by Putin. We’re talking about Europeans leaving in cars that look like ours to save their lives”.

Another journalist from The Telegraph wrote, They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking. Ukraine is a European country. Its people watch Netflix and have Instagram accounts, vote in free elections, and read uncensored newspapers. War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations.

Lastly, during a live broadcast, Charlie D Agatha told CBS news This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan who has seen conflict rage for decades. This is a relatively civilised, relatively European – I have to choose those words carefully – city where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen”.

As a journalist from The Guardian later put it, if this is how Agatha is ‘choosing his words carefully’, he shudders to even think about his less careful ones. Why are such remarks problematic?

The great shock expressed by many Western reporters and journalists that a war could break out in a European country suggests that war is unique to European history, while simultaneously normalizing war taking place in former colonies such as Iraq or Afghanistan.

By setting ‘places like Afghanistan or Iraq’ off against the ‘civilized’ Europe (as if they formed two opposing homogeneous groups), entire populations and diverse communities are represented as fitting into these two categories – the ‘uncivilized’ Other in contrast to the ‘civilized’ Europe. Such framing also further imply justifications of war and conflict which took place in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, evading questions of responsibility on the part of European nations and the United States.

Even more unsettling is the fact that such remarks may lead to refugees – coming from places deemed as uncivilized, and wherein war has been normalized – being seen as less deserving of protection than ‘white refugees’.

It is time to reflect on the double standard Western governments and media apply to victims of war when they are white Europeans in contrast to refugees of color. Yet, it is somehow forgotten, along with the popularity of years-long anti-immigration politics of several conservative, right-wing governments. So is the entire European history.

The idea that war is unique to Europe is a clear example of the collective amnesia that represents the enduring effects of the colonial ideology. Because war and conflict are not only not unique to European history. They are deeply ingrained within it. There would be no ‘West’ without the construction of the ‘Rest’, there would be no ‘civilized Europe’ against the ‘uncivilized Other’ if not for the brutal exploitation and oppression of millions.

More obvious, recent examples are the World Wars I and II, including the Holocaust, a racist genocide committed within the borders of ‘civilized Europe’. Not to mention that European colonial practices, together with race science that served to justify oppression and violence, constituted the foundations for the Nazi’s programme and rhetoric.

Europe should have been there for refugees of color just as much as they are for white, Ukrainian refugees. Refugees deserve protection, regardless of their physical proximity or skin colour. This is a lesson we must learn from, an opportunity to reflect on our past mistakes, to ask questions and learn more about our histories. If we, the people of Europe, really want our homelands to be regarded as developed, democratic, and civilized, we must prove it.

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Hanna Perenyi
Republikon Institute