Ukraine and Double Standards on Refugees

Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has created a massive refugee crisis, with over 5 million Ukrainians fleeing the country. As a response to the invasion of Ukraine, several Western countries graciously received Ukrainian refugees.  However, critics claim that America and Europe have a problematic double standard. While white European refugees form Ukraine are welcome, non-white refugees from Syria, Africa, or other countries are often excluded. This is despite the fact that many of them are fleeing warlords and oppression. Pope Francis has stated, along with others, that racism is behind the discriminatory treatment of refugees.

They have valid points. The best way to solve the problem is to not close our doors for Ukrainians but to open up to refugees and other migrants fleeing terrible conditions.

The violence and oppression faced by non-white refugee from Africa or the Middle East is often comparable to what threatens Ukrainian refugees. Many Western countries are less likely to permit them to enter. Because the Biden administration has made only small steps toward opening US borders to Ukrainians, it is easier to see the differences in America than Europe. There are parallels between some of these steps such as the granting Ukrainians “Temporary Protected status” to the US and similar policies that were adopted toward other predominantly non-white refugee groups, like Venezuelans. (Regardless of skin color, Venezuelans or other Hispanics usually do not consider themselves “white” in America). Canada, and other European countries have shown greater openness to Ukrainians than the United States.

Racial and ethnic bias certainly plays an important role in the outcome, but it is not the only one. The fact that both the US (and its European allies) have a strategic stake at the Russia-Ukraine War is significant. It’s not the same as the US or European allies in Syria and the various African conflicts is less important. Being open to Ukrainians not only is a good moral choice, but it also serves as a means of opposing Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression which poses a threat to Western security interests.

It is also important to note that both the US and its European allies did not open their doors for Russian refugees fleeing Putin’s increasing repression despite strong strategic and moral arguments. The majority of Russian refugees are also white like the Ukrainians. The unwillingness of Western countries to accept them (at least so far) is probably due to a shortsighted inability to differentiate them from the regime they fleeing.

But, there is no denying that racism and ethnic bias are factors. It is openly acknowledged by some European officials. In February, Kiril Petkov, the Bulgarian Prime Minister, stated that Ukraine is openly welcoming Ukrainians because of “…”[t]hese are not the refugees we are used to.… These people are Europeans…These people are intelligent.”

However, I did explain in one my first pieces arguing for the admission of Russian and Ukrainian refugees that the best way to fight such disparities was “leveling up the treatment of refugees other than whites” rather than barring Ukrainians.

In certain cases, it may be legal to “level down” discrimination against the previously preferred group. It is possible to simply end subsidies given by the government to white-owned companies that aren’t open to all.

Even though it’s done “race neutrally”, barring refugees fleeing persecution or war is still a serious wrong. This still unfairly condemns those who are born to the wrong parents, or to death. This injustice is similar to racial disparity. Similar to racial discrimination, police who abuse African-Americans are not allowed to do so more frequently. Instead, the best solution in such a situation is to reduce brutality against blacks.

My view is that there should be an absolute prohibition against any peaceful migration, particularly those who are fleeing from wars, dictatorships or severe oppression. This ideal, however, is not likely to be realized soon. In the interim, it is important to make incremental improvements. These could include specific measures for refugee crises.

While I believe it is important to present a moral argument for immigration rights, there are no problems with mentioning considerations specific to one situation. There are strategic benefits to opening up our borders to Russians fleeing Putin. This strengthens the West’s stand against the most dangerous and illiberal autoritarian regimes in the world.

My view is that Russians who flee Putin’s regime should, as with other fleeing persecutions, be recognized regardless of any strategic advantages. These points, however, are important for the argument for openness and might be more significant for observers who may not be as pro-migration rights as I am.

When I talk about the admission of Russians and Ukrainians to our country during this war, it is often brought up that there are racial or ethnic double standards in migration rights. Interviewers and reporters often ask me about this. My support for immigration rights has never been and will not be confined by my race or ethnicity.

Here is a list, although not complete, of all my articles advocating immigration rights for predominantly nonwhite groups. This is because “white” in American political discourse is often defined as being white. These posts are posted at Volokh Conspiracy Blog, except where noted.

1. Nov. 23, 2015: “The Moral and Strategic Argument for Admission of Syrian Refugees,”

2. January 14, 2017: “Obama’s Cruel Policy Change on Cuban Refugees” Many Cuban migrants have light skin, but they aren’t usually considered white by the US.

3. “Supreme Court Rulings on Travel Ban Ignores Religious Discrimination.” USA Today, June 26, 2018. These and the following pieces are only a few of my many writings against Donald Trump’s anti Muslim travel bans.

4. “Trump’s Expanded Travel Ban Adds to the Faults of Old Versions,” February 2, 2020.

5. May 29, 2020, “Let Hongkongers Migrate to the West-And Other Victims Of Chinese Government Oppression,” This is only one of many pieces that I’ve written about Asian refugees.

6.”Immigration Restrictions and Racial Discrimination Have Similar Roots” The Hill Nov. 24, 2020.

7. “The Case For Accepting Afghan Refugees”, Aug. 20, 2021

8. You are free to move: Voting by foot, migration, and political freedom?, Oxford University Press, Rev. ed. 2021). I provide a critique of all justifications for migration policy discrimination based on racial or ethnic origin in Chapters 5-6. These restrictions are most common in the US, and other Western countries.

You could expand this list. This is just a sampling of what I’ve done in this area.

Some conspiracy theorists are also guilty of crimes (but not Volokh Conspirators! Can still claim that the above was written because I believed there would one day be refugee crisis for whites. It would be possible to use my credibility from previous articles about non-white refugees. That just proves that hardcore conspiracy theorists are not satisfied.