Americans show more concern about refugees from Ukraine


The ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine has attracted eyeballs around the world. As images of hospitals shot at and children covered in blood flood the media, civilian soldiers are fighting for their lives and donations to Ukrainian relief efforts are mounting. In New York, pedestrians march through the streets carrying blue and yellow flags and cardboard signs despising Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Over the past weekends, there have been queues for Veselka and other restaurants serving borscht and pierogies in the “Ukrainian village” on the east side, packed with customers in solidarity with the people of the country.

This mobilization of support feels encouraging, but also extremely rare. As the outrage grew, so did the distinction in how the West has handled the crisis in Ukraine compared to other regional conflicts worldwide, for example in Myanmar, Afghanistan, Ethiopia or Nicaragua, where people are also dying. Like Ukraine, these conflicts have been victims of horrific conditions and political strife, but the same call to action does not seem to be being felt.

That discrepancy was underlined in a recent Harris Poll conducted exclusively for Fast Company, which examined perspectives on global refugee situations. In particular, Americans were found to be more concerned about refugees from multinational conflicts that have gripped the world—with greater coverage and international involvement, as in Ukraine—than about refugees from conflicts arising from internal disputes such as civil wars, which are characteristic of developing countries with unstable governments such as Syria or El Salvador. This was true despite the fact that most Americans were aware of a range of global conflicts.

The poll, conducted from March 4 to March 8, asked 1,048 respondents in the United States to report how aware and concerned they were about the current refugee crises in Ukraine, Myanmar/Burma, Syria, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Central America (including El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua) and Haiti.

Unsurprisingly, given that it dominates the headlines, Ukraine attracted both the most exposure (95% of all respondents) and the most concern (89% of respondents). That was followed by Afghanistan, where 92% of Americans knew about a crisis — likely because the United States spent two decades fighting Taliban forces on Afghan soil as part of its high-profile War on Terror. When Kabul fell in August 2021, the world was watching. But six months later, only 77% of Americans said they were concerned about the displacement of refugees from the region, despite the continued occupation of the country by the Taliban.

And in Syria, where pro-democracy insurgents have clashed with a dynastic regime for more than a decade and 6.8 million people have fled under threat of massacre, 89% of Americans were aware of the conflict, but only 73 % were concerned. The crisis led to the scattering of 1.1 million refugees across Europe, where countries like Poland and Hungary refused to grant Syrians asylum and built walls and fences to keep them out. In the past two weeks, however, those same countries have opened their borders and successfully accommodated an influx of more than 2 million Ukrainian refugees.

For those who are aware, the relative lack of concern defies logic. Think about the devastation: an estimated 350,000 people have died in Syria in 10 years. In the Afghan-Pakistani war zone, the death toll is almost 250,000 since 2001. In Iraq it is 288,000 since 2003. In Ethiopia, 52,000 in three months during the Tigray conflict in 2020. If there is a difference, it is certainly not a matter of Scale.

Support groups feel the difference

At Save the Children, a London-based humanitarian agency that has been working to combat these crises for more than a century, donation data points to a similar bias. In the first two weeks of the Ukrainian crisis, the country’s total digital donations allocated were 31.5 times what was given to Afghanistan in the first two weeks, and 12.4 times that of Haiti. Each average donation was about 25-30% greater for Ukraine than for any other country. But even more remarkable, as the agency’s president, Janti Soeripto, tells Fast Company: “People really came to us on their own accord. [to help Ukraine]† Seventy-five percent of online donations came from people who have never given to us.”

“Normally you get funding from your existing supporters,” she explains. Such was the case with Afghanistan and Haiti, for example, where targeted emails from Save the Children were the main source of donations. With Ukraine, however, most of the money came through search engine traffic, referral links, and organic visits to the website.

Larger campaigns also suggested bias. In the United Kingdom, a public appeal for funding by the Disasters Emergency Committee, a joint effort of 15 of the national aid agencies, has raised £160 million for Ukraine, while previous calls for places like Haiti and Yemen have reached around £30 million.

And at the corporate level, the economic response has been both punitive and charitable: In the US, major corporations, from McDonald’s and Nike, to Netflix and Visa, were quick to hit Russia with corporate sanctions. But when the Arab Spring tore through the Middle East ten years ago and sparked multiple refugee crises, there was no commercial turnaround. There were even reports of Western companies making a profit, including tech companies selling surveillance to Arab dictators.

The role of media attention

According to the Harris Poll, Americans’ concern for refugees did not differ much by political party. However, it increased with education and income (possibly linked to increased awareness of the crises among highly educated and high-income Americans); it also increased in parents (possibly because of empathy for children) and was lowest in Gen Z.

In general, the bigger picture can still be too blurry to tell. But some believe the amount of media attention has a lot to do with it, and aid organizations may agree. “You have to think that is a factor,” says Soeripto. In recent weeks, she says, “it has been very difficult for us and for all other humanitarian organizations to bring attention to the current famine that is raging in 13 countries, putting 45 million people at risk – the largest number since the beginning of the war.” the 80’s. . We received no attention for the problems in South Sudan. Or Yemen, the world’s second-largest humanitarian crisis with 12 million children at risk.”

For Save the Children, responding to various crises has always been a balancing act: when Russia first hit Ukraine, Suripto emphasized that the most urgent priority was to ramp up its operations and meet the country’s immediate needs, as the earliest days require the most dexterity. But at the same time, she notes, there were multiple Category 1 crises worldwide. She was on site last week in Kabul, where Save the Children has greatly expanded its work over the past six months. ‘It’s hardly talked about,’ she says.

It was difficult for us to draw attention to the current famine that is raging in 13 countries.”

Janti Suripto, Save the Children

At UNICEF, the experiences are similar. “Emergencies that attract the attention of the international community and the media will often lead to spikes in giving,” Renée Cutting, chief philanthropy officer for the US division, told Fast Company. “In Syria, for example, we’re getting to 11, so the general public’s awareness may ebb and flow, waiting for the immediate needs and what’s being covered in the news.”

But take a closer look at how exactly some Western news outlets have handled it, and a disturbing undercurrent emerges. The day after the bombs first fell over Kiev, a senior CBS News correspondent sent to the capital mused on a broadcast“This is not a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan where conflict has been raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European – I have to choose those words carefully too – city where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope it will happen.”

The statement was a major faux pas, quickly mocked on social media by users who claimed it dehumanized people from war-torn regions of the Middle East. (The correspondent later apologized for the comment.) But days later, a reporter from Al Jazeera’s English bureau went on air and described fleeing Ukrainians as “wealthy middle-class people.” † † not clear refugees trying to escape from areas in the Middle East that are still in a major state of war; these are not people trying to get away from areas in North Africa. They look like any European family you would live next door.”

Resources are already stretched

If these blunders are a reflection of deep-seated prejudices present in the Western psyche, they will always be difficult to eradicate. But other than that, groups like Save the Children keep the work alive. In Ukraine and in many corners of the world, people still need critical help. The funding gap, Soeripto says, has only widened amid the COVID pandemic as people are being dragged back into poverty, with health services and schools closing. And against that backdrop, this year’s omnibus spending bill — signed by the White House Tuesday — has cut $1 billion in general humanitarian aid, despite allocating $13 billion to Ukraine. To some extent, a “cannibalization” of funding has begun.

The Western response to Russia’s invasion has been overwhelming, perhaps heightened by international waves: fears are mounting on American shores that the Kremlin — armed with an arsenal of nuclear weapons — could unleash World War III. Consumers are now boycotting anything vaguely Russian to almost ridiculous extremes; even the famous composer Tchaikovsky, who wrote the music for Swan Lake and The Nutcracker – and who died more than 100 years ago – became collateral damage in Europe.

But elsewhere, others suffer. “The public sees the heartbreaking conditions facing children in Ukraine and can share UNICEF that children in places like Afghanistan, Syria, Ethiopia, Central America, Myanmar, Haiti and beyond are facing similar situations,” Cutting said, adding. referring to more than 300 million children and families displaced as a result of violence and natural disasters.

It’s a constant battle to reach them, Soeripto says, as the rest of the world waits for the next fire to burn. Ultimately, she says, “the entire humanitarian sector is overburdened and underfunded. That’s always been the case.”


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