The Volokh Conspiracy

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Ukraine and Double Standards on Refugees

Critics are right to point out that some Western nations are treating Ukrainian refugees better than those fleeing similar horrific situations elsewhere. But the right way to address the problem is to increase openness to other refugees, not exclude Ukrainians.


Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine has created a massive refugee crisis, with over 5 million Ukrainians fleeing the country. Many Western countries have admirably accepted Ukrainian refugees in response.  But critics argue that this relative openness by the US and Europe involves a pernicious double standard under which white European refugees from Ukraine are welcomed, but non-white ones from Syria, Africa and elsewhere, are mostly shut out, even though many are fleeing comparably grave dangers from war and oppression. Pope Francis, among others, has said that the differential treatment of refugees is driven by "racism."

The critics have a legitimate point. But the right way to address the problem is not to close our doors to Ukrainians, but to be more open to other migrants and refugees fleeing horrific conditions.

Non-white refugees from Africa and the Middle East really do often face violence and oppression comparable to that which threatens Ukrainian refugees, and many Western nations have been less willing to let them enter. In the case of the US, the difference is less glaring than in Europe, because the Biden administration has so far taken only modest steps to open US doors to Ukrainians. Some of those steps, such as granting Ukrainians already in the US "Temporary Protected Status" have parallels in similar policies adopted towards some predominantly non-white groups of refugees, such as Venezuelans (regardless of their actual skin color, Venezuelans and other Hispanics are usually not considered "white" in the US). The contrast is greater in Canada and various European nations that have been relatively more open to Ukrainians than the United States has been so far.

Although racial and ethnic bias surely plays a role, it probably isn't the only factor at work. It is also significant that the US and its European allies have an important strategic stake in the Russia-Ukraine War that is either smaller or entirely absent in the cases of Syria and various African conflicts. Openness to Ukrainians is not only a moral gesture, but also a way of opposing Vladimir Putin's brutal war of aggression, which threatens Western security interests.

It's also worth noting that the US and its European allies have done little or nothing to open their doors to Russian refugees fleeing Putin's intensifying repression, despite the strong moral and strategic case for doing so. Most Russian refugees are white, just like most Ukrainian ones. Western nations' unwillingness (so far, at least) to take them is likely driven by shortsighted unwillingness to distinguish them from the very regime they are fleeing.

That said, racial and ethnic bias clearly is a factor. Some European officials openly admit it. For example, Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov said in February that his country is welcoming Ukrainians in part because "[t]hese are not the refugees we are used to.… These people are Europeans…These people are intelligent."

But, as I explained in one of my earliest pieces making the case for admitting Russian and Ukrainian refugees, the right way to combat such disparities is "leveling up" the treatment of non-white refugees, not barring Ukrainians.

There are some cases where it is perfectly legitimate to end discrimination by "leveling down" the treatment of the previously favored group. For example, if the government gives subsidies to white-owned businesses that aren't available to others, there is nothing wrong with just abolishing the subsidy program entirely.

But barring refugees fleeing war or repression is a grave wrong even if it is done in a "race-neutral" manner. It still unjustly consigns people to oppression or even death merely because they happen to be born to the wrong parents or in the wrong place. That itself is an injustice similar to racial discrimination. In the same way, if police brutality is directed against African-Americans more often than whites, the problem could not be justly "solved" by having the police abuse whites more often. Rather, the only defensible approach in that situation is to curb brutality directed at blacks.

In my view, there should be a strong presumption against barring any peaceful migrants, especially those fleeing war, authoritarian regimes, or other severe oppression. But I recognize this ideal is unlikely to be fully achieved anytime soon, if ever. In the meantime, we should seek whatever incremental improvements are feasible, which may include measures focused on specific refugee crises, even as others remain (relatively) neglected.

And while I have long argued it is essential to make the general moral case for migration rights, there is nothing wrong with also noting considerations that may only apply to a specific situation. For example, there are specific strategic advantages to opening our doors to Russians fleeing Putin, because doing so strengthens the West's position against one of the world's most dangerous illiberal authoritarian regimes.

I think Russians fleeing Putin's regime (like others fleeing repression) should be accepted even in the absence of those strategic advantages. But these points still add to the case for openness, and they may be more decisive for observers who are less generally pro-migration rights than I am.

The issue of racial and ethnic double standards on migration rights often comes up when I speak about admitting Ukrainians and Russians during the present war. Reporters and interviewers routinely ask about it. I always emphasize that my support for migration rights is not and never has been bounded by race or ethnicity.

For members of the media and anyone else who may be interested, here is a convenient, though not exhaustive, list of my writings advocating migration rights for predominantly non-white groups (as "white" is usually defined in US political discourse). Unless otherwise noted, these are all posts at the Volokh Conspiracy blog:

1. "The Moral and Strategic Case for Admitting Syrian Refugees," Nov. 23, 2015.

2. "Obama's Cruel Policy Reversal on Cuban Refugees," Jan. 14, 2017. While many Cuban migrants are light-skinned, they are not usually considered white in the US.

3. "Supreme Court Ruling on Travel Ban Ignores Religious Discrimination," USA Today, June 26, 2018. This piece and the next one are just a small sampling of my extensive writings opposing Donald Trump's anti-Muslim travel bans.

4. "Trump's Expanded Travel Ban Compounds the Wrongs of Previous Versions," Feb. 2, 2020.

5. "Let Hongkongers Immigrate to the West - And other Victims of Chinese Government Oppression, too," May 29, 2020. This is just one of several pieces I have written on Asian refugees.

6."Immigration Restrictions and Racial Discrimination Share Similar Roots," The Hill, Nov. 24, 2020.

7. "The Case for Accepting Afghan Refugees," Aug. 20, 2021.

8. Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom, (Oxford University Press, rev. ed. 2021). In Chapters 5 and 6 of this book, I include an extensive critique of justifications for racial, ethnic, and cultural discrimination in migration policy. In the case of the US and many other Western nations, such restrictions most often target non-whites.

9. "The Case Against Covid-19 Pandemic Migration Restrictions," Cato Institute, Feb. 1, 2022. In the US, these restrictions have most heavily impacted  non-white migrants from Latin America. That's especially true of the Title 42 "public health" expulsions, against which I also authored an amicus brief when their legality was challenged in court.

This list could easily be expanded. But it's enough to give a representative sampling of my work on this issue.

Committed conspiracy theorists (though not Volokh Conspirators!) might still say I only wrote the above because I anticipated there would someday be a refugee crisis involving whites. My previous writings about non-white refugees would store up credibility that I could then make use of. But that just goes to show there's no satisfying hard-core conspiracy theorists!

UPDATE: I have made a few small additions to this post.

NEXT: Yosmin Badie, NYU Law Student and Antisemite

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  1. Sigh,

    "European" nations are "more open" to Ukrainian refugees because...Ukraine borders these countries. The reason you have a high number of Ukranian refugees in Poland or Romania is because Ukraine borders Poland or Romania. It's not racism. It's geography.

    True refugees almost always go to the nearest destination first. That's why you see a high number of Venezuelan refugees in Columbia. That's why you see high number of Syrian refugees in Turkey. The nearest stable location, ideally of the closest culture. A place to be "safe" while the war is ongoing, with a goal of returning when the war is over.

    It's important to differentiate this from "economic migration"

    1. Do you figure Prof. Volokh should go back . . . or that the United States should send him back?

      Or does your discredited xenophobic intolerance have a 'meritorious service to wingnut causes' exception?

      1. Artie, Artie, Artie. Bro, when are you resigning the law firm job? When are you interviewing the diverse to replace you? Did you know diversity is the strength of our nation? Until you report doing that, do you know what you need to do, bro? Dude, you need to STFU.

      2. Sigh.... Oh Arty..

        1. Our good Professor is not a "refugee." He is a US Citizen, who has pledged to defend this country. Have you pledged to defend this country?

        2. If you can't understand geography, perhaps you should join the Sarah Palin class.

      3. Artie, like Gaslightr0 aren't lawyers, they are Federal bureaucrats.

        In other words, under educated, risk averse morons who get paid twice as much as they would in private sector while adding absolutely nothing to the economy or society.

        1. That's an interesting credentialist elitism you got there. But if you want to play that game, I graduated cum laude, practiced for 9 years, and remain a part of the DC Bar.

    2. I know the lawyer is the stupidest bro in the land. Ilya, did you notice something? Most Ukrainians refugess are women and children. Most Middle Eastern refugees were military age males. They infiltrated Europe to serve as a terrorist base, and to take the jobs of the local people. That drives down the salaries of everyone including those of professionals. Those low salaries serve to increase the profits of billionaire oligarchs that run the government.

      Once again, Ilya why are you discriminating against the 100000 Indian law profs who would love your job at $25000? Also we need the home address so they can all be sent to live on your street, the street of immigration dreams. Seriously, bro, some common sense and consistency.

    3. If refugees prefer a destination culturally similar to the one they left, that makes refugees evil racists, right?

      Why aren’t they going to the Sudan? Aren’t they evil for not wanting to go to Costa Rica or Korea or Chile?

      Are refugees allowed a preference? Why? Who is allowed a preference and who isn’t? Why?

    4. The unlawful invaders from Central America entering the US are almost unique in their willingness to ignore countries to get to the land of the big welfare payments.

      Despite international law mandating that they stop in the first safe nation.

      1. Refugees doing what they can to choose the US is not unique to Central America, that I'm aware of.

        1. Of course not. But refugees from eastern (very 'Murica-centric of me) countries might find it more difficult to walk through Mexico to the US border, what with the Pacific/Atlantic oceans in the way.

          It's almost like seemingly similar situations can be uniquely defined.

          1. So when you said willingness was the unique variable, you actually meant geography. Easy mistake!

      2. 1) They are not "invaders."
        2) They are not eligible for "big welfare payments."
        3) "International law" does not "mandate" any such thing.

        Other than that, great comment!

  2. My bogusity meter just exploded.

  3. Now we can add race baiter to Open-borders Somin's resume.

    1. If there is anything the bigoted, faux libertarian conservatives who follow this white, male blog can't abide, it is the occasional bit of genuinely libertarian content.

      America's clingers failed with respect to the Irish, Jews, Blacks, gays, Italians, Asians, Catholics, Hispanics, eastern Europeans, agnostics, Muslims, women, other Asians, atheists, other Hispanics -- hell, most of America, at one time or another -- and our latest batch of bigots seems nothing special.

  4. With all due respect, not all refugees are equally possible to live with. When "refugees" from (or claiming to be from) certain countries, ethnic groups, or faiths bring huge crime waves with them, it is not prejudice to expect policy to respond to that fact. This especially goes in places where state media go out of their way to conceal that crime wave rather than allow the public to hear about it.

    1. You got any proof of those huge crime waves, or did the media do too good a job of hiding it from white people?

  5. When open borders advocates start housing random homeless people in their spare bedroom, garage, and camped on their lawn, then we will see that they’re actually committed to what they advocate.

    Until then we can all see that they're merely saying others should shoulder more burdens while open borders advocates live comfortably and exclusively behind their own gates.

    1. Ben_ — Supposing progressive politics to tear down those gates, I don't expect you to join in. Do you ever give thought to self-contradictory advocacy, and what it might mean to avoid it?

      1. I don’t generally have an informative response to people who hint at a point instead of making a point. If you’d care to speak plainly and literally, then I can answer back in the same fashion.

        What contradicts what? What thought about what? Why? What progressive politics to do what exactly? How will they be doing that?

        I’m not advocating for Somin to do anything except lead by example, showing us he believes in his philosophy when it threatens to cost him directly. (Or benefit him, because open borders are soooooo beneficial that they couldn’t possibly cost him anything if he made his personal property borders open.) Somin is advocating for others to shoulder burdens.

        1. Are you a Christian?

          Will you kill yourself -- sacrificing yourself to save others, perhaps -- soon to hasten your heavenly reward?

          If not, your statements of faith seem unworthy of respect.

        2. Look at the economic case Prof. Somin makes again and again. America relies on illegal labor. And you don't want to live in the housing they do.

          1. Open borders means letting the worst people in.

            If we choose who we let in instead, we can choose based on our needs. We can choose large numbers or small, prefer specific trades, etc. We could have a policy designed to benefit Americans.

            Somin consistently argues for policies designed to benefit others instead. It would be dumb for any country to choose a policy not designed to benefit that country's people.

            1. I'm not for open borders, but America does a great job of making it's own worst people.

              I may disagree with him on the practicalities of open borders, but illegal immigration absolutely benefits Americans. It's our new peasant class, working under the table to avoid those expensive health safety and wage laws that would make our food and commodities more expensive!

              Ever few years there's a hilarious example of some state actually getting rid of their illegal workforce, and finding not even convicts will do that work at those hours for that pay.

              1. You’re arguing against a strawman.

                If Democrats would allow America to have a controlled border, we could have a policy to allow the people who actually benefit America to come here and do that. Border chaos and the illegal underground economy and creating a permanent underclass of individuals hiding from ICE isn’t needed.

                1. Not and avoid health safety and wage laws. Which is what keeps our prices low.

                  It's not moral, but it's absolutely something our economy has come to depend on.

    2. Ben_(1954 edition): "When white civil rights advocates start inviting black children into their living rooms to teach them math, then I'll accept their arguments about school desegregation."

      It's not even that it's racist; it's just a complete category error. "Open borders advocates" (or who Ben_ refers to by that term) are not advocating that anyone — themselves or anyone else — house refugees in their own bedrooms, garages, or lawns.

      And, ironically, Ben_ and his ilk want to prevent immigrants from living in spare rooms and paying rent even if they are invited to do so by the owners.

  6. I must concede Professor Somin's several valid points. Still, I have reservations, and an example to illustrate them.

    The Binghamton area in upstate New York hosts an especially vibrant Ukrainian diaspora, dating to immigrants recruited in the early 20th century to work in its then-thriving shoemaking industry. The city offers several beautiful onion-domed churches, lovingly maintained. You might suppose the Binghamton area would be an ideal location to host Ukrainian refugees.

    However, the shoe industry declined, then disappeared. The local economy was bolstered for a time by high tech employers (IBM was founded in Endicott, NY, adjacent to Binghamton; aviation-related high tech got a foothold as well). But the end of the Cold War has put local high-tech in decline. Globalization and American de-industrialization has done for the rest. Binghamton is now become a rust belt relic, heavily dependent on the kinds of employment supported by imported revenues, and policy-driven activities, such as SUNY Binghamton's university campus, and some hospitals.

    Residential real estate in Binghamton has suffered, almost to the point of becoming one gigantic slum. All the signs of urban decay, with consequent crime and neglect are evident. Shiny newer buildings put there by policy stand out against a backdrop of conspicuous decline. The pervading atmosphere suggests struggle.

    Thus, you could hardly suppose adding Ukrainian refugees to the mix would be wise policy. Not unless they came with massive public funding to support them, and re-invigorate the Binghamton economy.

    That plight is not unique to Binghamton. This nation de-industrialized generally, everywhere. Baleful statistics confirm a national class, comprising a post-blue-collar demographic, which judges itself in dire straits, trapped on a slippery downward slope. It is as if the nation is already refugee-saturated, but with its own people as the struggling refugees. Regardless of the race of prospective immigrants, this is not an opportune time to throw more competition into that desperate mix.

    1. You are almost as long winded as Somin.

      1. No. Compared to Somin I am concise. But it is not a high bar.

  7. "The critics have a legitimate point. But the right way to address the problem is not to close our doors to Ukrainians, but to be more open to other migrants and refugees fleeing horrific conditions."

    I'm certain the pope would agree and I suspect most of the other critics would too.

    1. Yet we don’t see the pope inviting homeless people and migrants to camp in Vatican City, en masse. Do we? Did I miss that?

  8. Somin repeatedly equates all migrants as refugees, and this is most certainly not the case as the two groups properly operate under vastly different legal as well as more moral regimes.

    There is absolutely no doubt that the Ukrainians are true refugees under the law escaping open warfare, unlike the overwhelmingly young male, country shopping African economic migrants from the earlier waves to Europe that resulted in serious crimes and other cultural and economic tensions, and who never return home. The Ukrainians are overwhelming women, children and the elderly, they seek assistance in the closest safe countries bordering Ukraine, and no one remotely doubts they want nothing more than to return home as soon as possible as some are already returning to the north in Ukraine.

    Moreover, while racist elements may indeed exist, it's hardly surprising that that host countries and cultures would be more welcoming of refugees that share common elements in culture, religion, language, history, geography, etc. It makes integration and co-existence substantially easier (and lack of rapid assimilation has tangible costs like crime and violence). Race and ethnicity often, but not always, correlate to these factors, and welcoming obvious and long-standing commonalities hardly rises to the level of racism.

    Further, as acknowledged in the article, there are broader geopolitical elements in welcoming the Ukrainian refugees in countries in middle and eastern Europe compared to Africa. It represents mutual solidarity against Russian aggression they all faced at one time, and a repudiation of Russia right now.

    1. Thank you for stating what been thinking.
      Further, while the situation in Ukraine is in constant flux and verifiable information is hard to come by, it has been reported that many Ukrainians are moving back across the border now that Russia has pulled out of the area in the west and around Kiev.

    2. " Moreover, while racist elements may indeed exist "

      And you may reside on Earth.

      1. Can't quite bring yourself to say it?

        1. Racists exist everywhere, in Europe, the US, Africa, South America, everywhere. They also exist among every racial and ethnic group, whether Caucasian or otherwise (and whites aren't the majority in many places).

          However, racism is a extremely lazy and largely inaccurate answer to explain why many countries have been far more welcoming of Ukrainian refugees than past waves of African and middle eastern migrants, and the article acknowledges many of the more obvious reasons, and glosses over others in order to promote an open borders position.

          The simple fact is that borders matter for ample economic, cultural and security reasons, and people (and the law) will always be more sympathetic to legitimate refugees than economic migrants, particularly when those refugees are people very much like them and peaceful geographic neighbors.

          To prove the point, the same countries welcoming the Ukrainians have not been nearly as open with Russians, also Slavic Caucasians, seeking to enter, even if they claim to be escaping Russian repression.

  9. Why don't you be intellectually honest and say we ought to just let everyone in and require citizens of this country to support them via heavy taxation and similar public policy....?

    1. Yes, that's our Prof. Somin: tireless advocate for heavy taxation.

      You should be in Mensa.

  10. I do not know of any other conflict at this time that involves two nation states engaged in a war of territorial conquest.

    1. Tibet and China

  11. but non-white ones from Syria, Africa and elsewhere, are mostly shut out, even though many are fleeing comparably grave dangers from war and oppression. Pope Francis, among others, has said that the differential treatment of refugees is driven by "racism."

    OMG I am so sick of this kind of misinformation. It's not driven by racism, but by reality.

    1. First of all, there are NO conflicts in the world right now that compare to the scale of the war in Ukraine. None. Zip. Nada. Right now Ukrainians are the priority because Europe is dealing with a crisis involving millions of people.

    2. Second of all, if migrants coming from Syria, Africa, and elsewhere were fleeing for their lives, they could find a lot closer countries to claim asylum in. Everyone knows (even Ilya Somin, although he might not admit it) that they are heading for European countries because they are the most generous.

    3. Third of all, migrants aren't being shut out of Europe. They are still coming and still applying for asylum. Just this week 20,000 arrived by boat in Italy, and just today 24 of them were lost at sea, presumed dead, after being encouraged to come by people like Pope Francis!

  12. Oh, where should a logical mind begin to refute a silly argument?!

    1. Begin by identifying which silly argument.

  13. Another factor that professor Somin ignores is the blame that European countries bear in failing to discourage Russia from invading Ukraine. Indeed, by allowing themselves to become dependent on Russian fossil fuels, Europe made this war much more likely.

  14. There are ways to criticize open borders without being racist. I see like 2 people here who manage it.

    It seems like the VC comentariat is getting more racist over time.

    Though less into the 'Muslim hivemind' bigotry from back in the day.

    1. People are done worrying about being called racist. Such name-calling is a tactic to control others. You are welcome to personally choose to be under that control, as you wish.

      If refugees can prefer countries with a familiar culture, then why is it wrong for the people of those countries to prefer refugees with a familiar culture?

      A preference for the familiar is universal, in every society everywhere, throughout history. You might want to reconsider pretending that such a preference is hateful before you condemn 98+% of everyone who ever lived as evil deplorables of some type.

      1. You and 'favoring your own' below can enjoy your common bedfellows.

        What is the American culture, anyway? Seems to me there's a lot of Latin flavor in it.
        What is it about Eastern Europe that makes you feel like it's more your cultural bedfellow?

        1. I did not mention "American culture".

          And any peaceful bedfellows are good enough for me. We all live here together. I don’t intend to condemn 98+% of everyone who ever lived as evil. You can condemn me as evil for that. I’m not so full of myself as to hold myself that far above so many.

  15. There's nothing morally wrong about favoring your own. Period.

  16. Race? Geography? How about culture?

    Here is The Economist on culture:
    Trucking in Cameroon
    The road to hell is unpaved
    The Economist rides an African beer truck—and gets a lesson in development economics

  17. Racist? An over-used word in politically hyper-racialized America, employed by globalists to make you hate yourself and your Western culture. Destroy it, and build back "better"? "You will not own anything, and you will like it." ("We" will "take care" of you.)
    Ask any recent immigrant, and they will say the U.S. is hyper-racialized for political purposes.
    For thousands of year people belonged to tribes. It is in our genes to belong to a group for survival, and to be suspicious of outsiders. Today there is the possibility of having one global culture with no borders, but is that the goal of everyone, or just a trick for the benefit of a small ruling class? There are still many exclusive warrior cultures around the world - the Zulus and other African tribes, many Native American Tribes, the Maori, the Australian Aboriginies, etc. - patriarchal warrior cultures. Should all these groups be brought into the one-world gender-neutral culture? Or should the dominant cultures just disappear and leave these small cultures exist individually as they have for thousands of years? Or perhaps something inbetween, where the so-called dominant cultures are forced to support tribal warrior societies in perpetuity through credits and preferences?
    Why are there migrants leaving the rich continent of Africa? Is it because foreign corporations only support the corrupt tribal ruling classes of Africa, or is it because the tribal arrangement of Africa only favors the ruling class, as it has for thousands of years?
    I attended a public high school that had a majority of students from the Jewish culture, the school would close on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah (as well as Christmas), and I was told by girls that their parents wanted them to date Jewish boys. I understood their tribalism. Should we break down tribal barriers of all tribes? Or can we still maintain our tribal cultures for thousands of years while accepting millions of refugees over the years - refugees with their own cultures, moral codes, legal systems, financial systems, welfare requirements, etc.? Is migration and globalization a natural progression of humankind, or just a trick to benefit the few?

  18. While many Cuban migrants are light-skinned, they are not usually considered white in the US.

    Are you really trying to assert that Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez had a daring interracial marriage?

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