Lee Edwards, Professor of Strategic Communications and Public Engagement in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE, writes that even though the media coverage constructs Ukraine as an exceptional case of conflict and horror, Britain’s post-humanitarian response clearly maintains a racialised state, where a benevolent public narrative and minor policy change allows both politicians and citizens to feel good about themselves and yet construct refugees as a threat and danger.
The UK government’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has a predictable binary logic. The Prime Minister has declared that President Putin is delivering an ‘unprovoked, premeditated and barbaric attack’ on a ‘free and peaceful neighbour’ while Ukrainians are ‘fighting heroically’ and are a ‘brave country’. In the face of multiple criticisms of Ukraine’s allies not doing enough to stop the Russian invasion, the UK’s Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, Nadine Dorries, has declared that goodness resides in Britain, which ‘has led a united Western response to [Putin’s] brutality’. ‘Culture is the third front in the Ukrainian war’, according to the Secretary of State – a front for which, conveniently, the ‘full might of the UK’s soft power’ can be mobilised without fear of starting a third world war. In the media, the truth of western news outlets is contrasted with the disinformation emanating from Russian sources (including President Putin), and the nobility of Ukrainian civilians returning to fight is contrasted with the Russian army on the march in Ukraine, threatening Europe’s safety by seizing nuclear power stations.
This binary construction of the world has practical consequences. In the UK, it has allowed politicians to pressure the Home Office into easing visa restrictions for Ukrainian refugees. Of course, the recognition that Ukrainians need refuge from an increasingly horrific conflict is a matter of basic humanitarian concern. The extension of visas announced on Friday 5 March, reversing the previous decision to admit only immediate family members into the UK for a maximum of 12 months, and relieving the embarrassment of the Immigration Minister’s suggestion that they might take up seasonal work visas, is a welcome, if limited, relaxation of the ‘Fortress Britain’ mentality that underpins our immigration policies and practices.
Yet, as politicians and media have pointed out, it remains to be seen whether the visa extension actually makes any real difference to migration policy – the evidence so far seems to point the other way. Statements by the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, reveal that the relaxation of rules in fact remains conditional on Fortress Britain remaining intact. In Patel’s statement on 24 February she resists calls for visa waivers, based on the need to maintain border integrity, to ‘keep British citizens safe’, and to ‘ensure that we are helping those in genuine need’. ‘Essential security checks’ are being maintained for fear that Russia will infiltrate the Ukrainian refugee community. The fact that Ukrainian refugees may not be who they say they are, but may instead be Russian, extremists, or other ‘organisations who threaten the region’, is presented as a genuine threat to our domestic homeland.
These kinds of comments echo the depressingly regular claim that migration to Britain is a threat, not a benefit; that those who come for humanitarian reasons can only be recognised as such if they demonstrate appropriate bureaucratic credentials; and that the integrity of borders takes precedence over any other humanitarian concern. The Nationality and Borders Bill, recently heavily criticised by the House of Lords, bears witness to the government’s desire to reinforce a racialised immigration system by stealth. It penalises those whose routes for migration are illegal (thereby contravening the 1951 Refugee Convention) – a measure that directly affects those fleeing conflict in more distant countries, beyond Europe, who are forced to use precarious and fragile routes. It also enshrines the prospect of retrospective removal of citizenship without notice, a measure that would disproportionately affect citizens from ethnic minority communities in Britain.
How, then, is the easing of visa conditions for Ukrainians possible in the context of such a racialised, defensive immigration regime, and particularly when it could lead to 200,000 Ukrainians entering the country, according to the Home Secretary – a number that seems astounding given Britain’s previous reluctance to admit even a tenth of that number of Syrian refugees?
Attributing the change to the conflict itself, or to the unfolding humanitarian crisis it represents, is too simplistic an explanation – no such mitigation has been offered to so many Syrian refugees, for example, or victims of the war in Yemen, despite the same kinds of horrific circumstances prevailing. Rather, the decisions merit a careful examination of the justificatory environment for changing the policy. It occurs in a context delineated by phrases such as ‘our friends’, ‘our brothers and sisters’. Just as Ukrainians themselves are entitled to bring family members here, Britain is entitled to relax the rules for Ukrainians because they are also close to us – they are our own friends and family. This exceptionalism is crucial for maintaining Britain’s racialised approach to migration. Ukrainian refugees are entitled to mitigation because they face not just any war, but a war that threatens ‘our freedoms, our values and the security of Europe’, according to Defence Secretary Ben Wallace.
In other words, the suffering we are presented with is not ‘distant suffering’ as described by Luc Boltanski in his 1999 book, but suffering that we are asked to own and experience as Ukrainians do. The distinction is important. When faced with distant suffering, we are prompted to connect with those whose stories we hear or watch on the basis of our common humanity. The connection is grounded in a robust cosmopolitanism, where our commitment to supporting others is motivated by their suffering, not ours, and recognised through an awareness of our own position in relation to them, but not as them. When we are invited to suffer as the distant other, distance is overcome and difference is subsumed into the self. While this kind of representation is often celebrated as a means of communicating the depth and horror of experience that is necessary to prompt empathy, in reality it causes us to reflect upon and care for our own suffering and pain. It is this empathetic focus on ourselves, or those who are “like us”, that has recently prompted outrage against the racist media commentary of the crisis, where the plight of Ukrainian refugees is somehow more shocking and disturbing, because of their status as European neighbours, than the plight of refugees from non-European nations where, the media suggest, war is ‘normal’.
As my colleague Lilie Chouliaraki has argued, this ‘post-humanitarian’ world is underpinned by narcissism, and action is motivated by self-interest. The British government’s representation of the conflict – particularly the knee-jerk proposal of work visas, and the construction of Ukrainians as being worthy of support because they are fighting for us, if not as us, on the frontline of democracy, a necessary sacrifice for the greater good (our futures) – reveals the normalisation of this post-humanitarian narcissism. We support the Ukrainian people because they are useful for us, not because of any moral imperative. Coupled with media coverage that constructs Ukraine as an exceptional case of conflict and horror, this representation reveals how a post-humanitarian approach to representing distant suffering facilitates policy-making that can simultaneously maintain a racialised state, where refugees are constructed as threat and danger, while presenting a benevolent public narrative and minor policy change that allows both politicians and citizens to feel good about themselves in the face of such pain.
However, the cost of post-humanitarianism is high. The racist structures of Britain’s migration regime, reflected in the reality of its utterly abject response to multiple humanitarian crises situated beyond Europe, is hidden from citizens by a loud and insistent rhetoric of goodness and benevolence. The construction of a binary world means that challenging such rhetoric means choosing the side of evil, rather than goodness, which risks exclusion and stifles debate. And most importantly, the lives of thousands of migrants, whose need is just as great as any Ukrainian, continue to be discarded every year as ‘other’ to our concerns, worthy of nothing more than a brief mention in the media, silenced by omission, incarceration, death, or a years-long limbo as they wait for recognition of their asylum claim and permission to restart their lives. In this sense, the human cost of the Ukrainian conflict extends well beyond Ukrainian and European borders. And it demands our proper consideration.
This article gives the views of the author and does not represent the position of the Media@LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. For more commentary from LSE experts on the unfolding situation in Ukraine, please see here.