How to Counter the Double Standard of Refugees in the West
Perhaps the only bright spot amid a grim Russian invasion of Ukraine was the universal outpouring of support for the Ukrainian people. Neighboring countries opened their doors to refugees, who were treated with respect and dignity, which should ideally be the universal norm.
However, one cannot help but compare such positive treatment with the way Iraqi, Syrian and, more recently, Kurdish refugees and migrants, among others, have been treated in Europe. They had to wait for weeks, as they endured terrible conditions in cold and underserved refugee camps.
Certainly, if we are to compare the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the suffering of the Ukrainian people with the adversities faced by people in that part of the world, we must be careful not to minimize or ignore anyone’s suffering .
Yet this notion has been anything but universal. Western governments and the media carried out an unmotivated double standard coverage, with journalist Charlie D’Agata’s cynical “uncivilized” comment, for which he later rightly apologized, one example among many. others.
At the same time, some Arab activists were inclined to give the benefit of the doubt. They repeated their message that they simply want the same treatment, the same attention and the same favorable perception that is offered to Ukrainians.
Even then, the optimists who rejoiced that we might be on the brink of a paradigm shift in how the world views the victims of conflict – regardless of their background – were quickly brought back to reality. While social media conglomerates actively encouraged users to stand up for Ukrainian rights regardless of the posts, Palestinian cause advocates were once again being censored, as seen in the past two weeks.
Consequently, contrary to what they initially thought, the Arab defenders were unable to follow the movement and ride the wave of “globally awakened” activism caused by the Russian invasion, to defend the causes close to their hearts, the main one being the Palestinian cause.
Let’s get rid of the brutal and blatant “us” versus “them” debate. After all, we don’t need Western media approval for our level of civility. The fact is that we in the Arab world have advocated for peace and stood in solidarity with all human beings facing adversity, regardless of background; and it is the pinnacle of civilization.
We should rather proceed in a more practical way. Here, Track II Diplomacy presents itself as a viable approach to bringing parity to government and media responses to victims of conflict. For this to be successful, three interdependent aspects must be present: capacity, responsiveness and initiative.
Regarding the capacity component, there are two important stakeholders to discuss. First, there are thousands of Arab students and professionals studying, living and working in the West, and they have the networks and the ability to influence public opinion.
Victims of conflict must be treated with the same respect and integrity, wherever they are in the world
Mohamed Abou Dalhoum
Second – and perhaps more important – is the presence of influential Arab investors, whether independent or representatives of sovereign wealth funds, who control large shares in some of the world’s most important companies. They can potentially exert their political-economic influence to shape Western public opinion in the direction of policies favorable to our region, beyond trade agreements and treaties.
In terms of receptivity, a survey by the Anna Lindh Foundation at the end of 2020 suggested somewhat similar values between respondents from European countries and those from the Arab world, particularly in terms of how they view themselves.
Although this provides a favorable environment for positively shaping public opinion, the survey showed that interpersonal interactions were much more effective than media coverage in changing one’s point of view. In fact, 27% of European respondents indicated that meeting people from the Arab world changed their opinion positively, compared to only 8% for media content.
This leads to the initiative component. Students, professionals and investors – immigrants and multi-generational nationals – have a major role to play, and even an unspoken moral duty, if we are to see fair parity in the way the West views and treats migrants, refugees and Arab victims of conflicts.
They should cooperate with, and even train, non-governmental organizations and interest groups to gain public support, advocate for equal treatment and hold decision makers accountable. They should leverage their networks – whether in their schools or communities – by running awareness campaigns, asking their representatives questions and even starting petitions to rally support, with the common message that victims conflicts should be treated with the same respect and integrity, regardless of where they are in the world.
Efforts by young online activists over the past year to defend Palestinian rights have led Amnesty International to call on Israel to dismantle its apartheid system. It is possible that the efforts of far more influential people, in areas where public opinion plays a vital role in shaping foreign policy, will lead to more coherent policies.
It is also likely that such efforts will be met with denial and rejection, thus amplifying the current cognitive dissonance in the West. If that were the case, then we would unfortunately and clearly be living in an era of “us” and “them”.
• Mohammed Abu Dalhoum is President of MENAACTION and Senior Research Analyst at NAMA Strategic Intelligence Solutions.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the authors in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Arab News