“Like Us!” - The Shifting Grounds of Proximity in the Reception of Refugees, Then and Now

by Ulrike Bialas (MPI-MMG) and Jagat Sohail (Princeton University)

May 27, 2022


It is hard to deny that in certain crucial ways current Ukrainian refugees are being received more flexibly and benevolently in Germany than other groups of refugees have been. They are, for instance, automatically granted relatively secure legal statuses upon arrival, including the permission to work and access to welfare benefits, they may bring their pets into the arrival centers, their non-traditional family forms such as cohabiting unmarried couples or non-kin care arrangements are being recognized, and unaccompanied young adults are more easily admitted into youth welfare than those from other countries have been. These concessions have been accompanied by the suggestion - sometimes just an overtone, other times more explicit - that, for Germans, Ukrainians are similar to “us,” perhaps more so than refugees from outside of Europe.

A Tagesspiegel report about Ukrainians living in a hostel in Berlin, for example, includes the seemingly irrelevant addition that the group comprises “university students, teachers, and a microbiologist.”[1] Mere days before the first bombs hit their neighborhood, the taz informs us, Kyiv’s residents were eating in expensive Asian restaurants (“filled dumplings and prawns”) and choosing between dozens of pasta shapes in the supermarket. In other words, until the Russian invasion, Ukrainians were spoiled global consumers, just like us. During attacks on Kyiv’s TV tower, a journalist is reminded of Berlin’s TV tower.[2] Such news items are illustrated with pictures of grandparents, parents, teenaged and younger children and, often, the family cat peering through the mesh window of a carry case. Like “us”, Ukrainians evidently consider their pets family members not to be left behind in an emergency. These notions of likeness, moreover, are not only part of media discourses but also held by many Germans. One volunteer told us that while it was true that more activities for children were being offered to Ukrainains than had been to refugees in 2015/16, the Arabs wouldn’t have made use of such offers anyway, as organized freetime activities for children just weren’t part of their culture.

Critics - both among earlier refugees from outside of Europe and migrant rights activists - have read such narratives of proximity as a blatant preference for white, European refugees. As researchers who have worked with refugees in Berlin since 2016, we have heard friends and interlocutors marvel at the unanimity and speed with which the European Union decided to apply the Temporary Protection Directive it had ignored when Syrians fled the Civil War. Older volunteers still remember how the church near Lageso (the registration center for refugees in 2015/16) kept its doors tightly shut then and was unwilling to even share its WiFi password with volunteers or to let refugees, who were waiting on Lageso’s premises all night to get their turn in the morning, use the bathrooms. The same church took the initiative to become an emergency shelter just days after the first Ukrainians arrived in Berlin in March 2022.

Differences in treatment are obvious not just between Ukrainians and earlier refugees but also between Ukrainian citizens and third-country nationals fleeing Ukraine. Reports of Black refugees being prevented from traveling the same escape routes established for Ukrainian nationals abound. And once in Germany, their lives differ in perhaps smaller but no less palpable ways. While Ukrainian nationals, for instance, are allowed to use Berlin’s public transportation for free, no questions asked, non-Ukrainian refugees who claim to have lived in the Ukraine need proof of their former residence status there and are met with much suspicion by the same ticket inspectors who generously avoid checking passengers who “appear” Ukrainian. While Germans were willingly offering up their spare guest rooms to Ukrainians in the first weeks of the war, desperate volunteers sometimes sent messages like this one to the volunteer group chats: “We have 30 Moroccans here that no one wants.”

Undoubtedly, such differences in the reception of various groups of refugees are real and have far-reaching consequences in their lives. Yet part of the intervention we wish to propose here is one that is more cautious about the ‘a priori’ assumptions built into the resulting critiques of proximity. While there are crucial differences in the discourses of refugee reception now as opposed to during the “long summer of migration” between 2015 and 2016, it is also worth looking at some crucial points of overlap. Syrian refugees, in particular, were overwhelmingly established as the most deserving of the incoming national cohorts of refugees in 2015-16. Not only were they, unlike other refugees - even those from war-torn countries like Afghanistan - granted refugee status relatively easily and could thus attend language courses and other training programs that other national groups of refugees were ineligible for. They were also portrayed distinctly in the media. Crucially, this construction of deservingness relied not only on the devastation of the Civil War in Syria but precisely on rhetorical moves that emphasized the proximity of Syrian refugees to Germans and Europeans. While less articulated through religion or race, media discourse from the time overwhelmingly represented them as middle class, secular families. “Middle Classes on the Move” said one BBC headline[3]. Der Spiegel in Germany ran with similar themes: “They once were affluent, took vacations to Greece, purchased art and designer furniture. Now this Syrian family is on the run and forced to rely on charity. Their fate is typical of the exodus of the country’s large middle class.”[4] So strong was this narrative, that the Federal Minister of Labor, Andrea Nahles, felt the need to clarify that “not every Syrian is a doctor”[5]. Syrians were repeatedly set apart through the images and words used to portray them - they were middle-class, secular, cosmopolitan families, “like us”, they went on vacations to Greece and indulged in luxuries. In a 2014 second-a-day video by the organization Save the Children[6] we see a young girl’s life - she has chestnut hair, blue eyes, and freckles - shift from a carefree, “Western” one of birthday parties, dress-up, and first cheek kisses on playgrounds to one of power outages, bombings, and ultimately flight.

In Greece, Maria Kyriakidou conducted focus groups with members of the Greek public in 2018 to assess assumptions about the relative deservingness of refugees. Her participants distinguished, quite clearly, “between ‘shabby, poor people’ and Syrians.” They provided rationales that ranged from socio-economic status, to secular values and the fact that Syrians were families and not just young men. While the group seemed to skirt around the issue, one participant burst in: “Basically, they are like us, say it! As if we were to leave our countries now! And went sunbathing in another country. Like us!”[7]

For those of us conducting fieldwork with refugees at the time, these narratives are very familiar, and were part of the everyday frustrations represented in our notes. Yet it is important to note that these discourses of proximity very quickly began to be replaced with perceptions of racialized difference and distance. Images of the Syrian doctor-family where the women don’t wear hijabs have been largely taken over by the images of the young, sexually dangerous, single male refugee. For those looking retrospectively, the fault lines might appear to have already been clearly in place. The Syrians were, after all, mostly Muslim, non-white, and from the Global South. They were always already other to European self-imaginations and, from this perspective, it shouldn’t be surprising that the initial discourse on proximity would inevitably give way to the more predictable scripts of racialization and xenophobia.

And yet, whether or not this shift was inevitable, the fact remains that, in certain crucial ways, the rhetorics of proximity we see today are not new, and the paths they may take are not always forward. Notions of self and other are always in flux, and indeed this is why it is crucial we think not of difference but differentiation, not of race but racialization. Indeed, the fault lines are already present. In Western Europe, until now, the dominant discourse surrounding East Europeans has not been one of proximity. In the UK, Brexit was as much about xenophobic attitudes toward Polish immigrants as any other racialized ‘other’. Despite the introduction of eight post-Communist states to the EU in 2004, Germany only opened its doors to its new eastern neighbors in 2011. Until then, Polish workers had almost exclusively been absorbed into the country as subordinated labor in the informal economy. Going back slightly further, in 1995 Berlin, shortly after reunification, Poles were the most likely migrant group to be arrested by the police - thrice as likely as foreign-born Turkish residents of the city.[8] Of course, in the German case, these are ethnic fault lines that have centuries of history behind them. The result is that stereotypes about East Europeans tend to cast them as not just other but as the uncivilized other. Their women are frequently represented as needing to be rescued from their violent and patriarchal men. Whereas Europeans often imagine the Arab-Muslim woman to need liberation from a secluded life in the home and a public entrapment underneath the hijab, Western Europeans often conversely imagine Eastern European women to need liberation from a culture focused on the kind of feminity that totters precariously in high-heeled shoes, even into prostitution. The men, for their part, are constructed as rough alcoholics who, in the words of a former GDR citizen, were “always showing up in big groups, taking away our girls, and then beating us up!”[9]

Perhaps even more tellingly, Poland itself has been host to over a million Ukrainian refugees and migrants since the military conflict began in 2014. The rise of populist, anti-immigrant rhetoric did not exclude Ukranians, despite what we might think of as a shared post-Communist proximity.[10] Ukranians living in Poland have been at the receiving end of xenophobic violence, familiar rhetoric that accuses them of stealing jobs from Poles and constant public and inter-personal demands that they leave the country.[11] While again undoubtedly better off than their Arab or African counterparts, their relative position to Poles is not one of proximity but instead of a clearly marked and maintained distance and difference.

In the 1990s, Serbian anthropologist Milica Bakić-Hayden termed these embedded structures of difference “Nested Orientalisms”[12] to indicate how ideologies of civilizational difference are embedded in a geo-spatial gradient of self-purification by projecting whoever happened to be further east as the relatively uncivilized, primitive other, with Asia representing the system’s ultimate pole. Thus the British and German populists want the Poles gone, and the Polish populists want the Ukranians to get out, even if all of them can agree that the Arabs, Asians, and Africans should be the first to leave. It is an idea that helps complicate our notions of the borders of whiteness and European-ness, categories that are demonstrably in flux as the arbitrary boundaries of the ‘occident’ and the ‘orient’ are constantly renegotiated through ideological and material struggles. For instance, Piro Rexhepi shows how the influx of refugees from the Middle East along the Balkan route during the 2015 moment opened up negotiations through which Muslims were racialized - the Bosnian “European” Muslim became increasingly distinguishable from the “Arab” Muslim.[13] Yet this ‘whitening’ of Balkan Muslims is happening very much within the living memory of the ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims based precisely on the premise that they were ethnically ‘other’ as imagined by the Yugoslavian state.

In other words, the caution we hope to introduce to the existing conversation is to not take proximity as always already true, but as a negotiated social construction that is often open-ended, if structurally motivated. Yes, the current refugees from Ukraine have so far largely been women, children and the elderly, often from urban contexts, and this has surely contributed to their reception as kindred. But to over-emphasize the role played by proximity in the current reception of Ukrainian refugees threatens to foreclose an analysis of the precise categories that are at stake in the current moment. The questions of Ukraine in NATO, and NATO as Europe, are the dynamic concerns of a category of European self-definition that is, as the war in Ukraine reminds us, heavily contested and incomplete. Whether or not the proximity principle will prevail as the current refugee crisis continues, and as Ukrainians begin to establish new modes of belonging in their new homes is entirely uncertain. It may equally be that what we must pay attention to is how and when they become the wrong kind of white, the wrong kind of Christians, and the wrong kind of Europeans. We do them, and ourselves, a disservice if we are not willing to resist “common-sense” instincts about what the categories of “us” and “them” contain, and how they are reconstituted.


[7] Kyriakidou, Maria. 2020. “Hierarchies of deservingness and the limits of hospitality in the ‘refugee crisis.’” Media, Culture & Society 43.1, 133–149 (p. 146).

[8] Wilpert, Czarina. 1998. “Migration and informal work in the New Berlin: new forms of work or new sources of labour?” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 24.2, 269-294.

[9] Göktürk, D., Gramling, D. and Kaes, A. eds., 2007. Germany in transit: Nation and migration, 1955-2005. Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 77.

[12] Bakić-Hayden, Milica. 1995. “Nesting orientalisms: The case of former Yugoslavia.” Slavic review 54.4, 917-931.

[13] Rexhepi, Piro. 2018. “Arab others at European borders: racializing religion and refugees along the Balkan Route.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 41.12, 2215-2234.

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