THE DEVILS IN THE (PERCEIVED) DIFFERENCE.
It is 9 days since the invasion of Ukraine began. After the initial shock, it is now clear that we have entered into a new geopolitical paradigm where we do not yet know the long term outcome. What is also evident is the constant news coverage of people escaping the Ukraine into neighbouring countries are being welcomed with open arms. But sadly, not all 'refugees' are equal.
Katsikas camp, Greece. 2016.
Since 10 years, the EU and UK are still dealing (or not dealing) with people escaping from Afghanistan and Syria and now, hundreds of thousands are leaving Ukraine. It was not only the shock of Putins maniacal viciousness of invading it’s neighbour, but the sight of white Europeans fleeing in their thousands. It has been written about in the media, that in the west, despite most being horrified to see Syrian or Afghan flee over the past 10 years, Ukrainians fleeing have not been perceived the same way. In Poland, we are seeing a steady flow of Ukranian families arriving on coaches and receiving hot drinks and toys for children. Just a 7 months ago in Aug 2021, a few thousand refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraqi Kurdistan who tried to cross into Poland from Belarus and were met with stern border patrols turning them away, sometimes with violence. Having been lured under false pretences by Belarus, Polish authorities showed their colours in a way they have not to the Ukrainians crossing in their thousands (We have also seen a similar attitude in recent days with overseas students trying to cross the Ukraine border* with Ukrainian border guards). Ordinary Polish people near the border tried to take people in but some were left to die in the freezing forest after failing to enter Poland or seek refuge in Belarus. 19 people died because of this illegal action. It hard to imagine that Ukrainians would ever suffer a similar fate as if they did, the world outcry would surely drown the whispers from the forest of dead Syrians**.
Camp in Calais formerly known as 'the jungle'. 2016.
So there is no misunderstanding, I am heartbroken and horrified by the events of the past week and by no means suggesting that the Ukrainians should be treated differently. On the contrary, Poland have seem to so far done an astonishing job of dealing with this crisis which makes the Belarus/Poland border events so much much damning***. Close to home here in the UK, our home office have unfortunately been fairly consistent in both their rhetoric, perverse bureaucracy and own set of racist double standards; Why break the precedent... Having worked with refugees in camps in Calais, Lebanon and Greece (shooting documentaries- I was a cinematographer for many years). I’ve witnessed the disbelief yet tragic discourse of so many families just trying to get somewhere and live a regular life- the kind of regular life they used to have before occupation or rockets bombed their apartment. Living in tents for months on end while dependent on a foreign state for handouts, they hope that war will end so they can go home or a government will take their asylum application so they can at least have a solid shelter above their heads. During my time at the camps, after I had finished filming, I knew I could go back to the UK simply because I have a bit of government issued paper saying that I was allowed to leave and enter as I wished. The inhuman cruelty inherent in passports and borders are never so apparent until they are in front of you; young children with their mothers or teenagers who have lost their parents. The stories one hears can freeze your soul and make you wish borders were a thing of the distant past.
Central, Hong Kong, 2019. The crackdown in Russia right now is reminiscent of what has been happening in Hong Kong in the past 2 years. One can only dream of such a protest being possible these days.
Meeting these people, I only know that the only different between them and I was that I was lucky enough not to have been living in a country that was at war. I was born in the UK but my parents are from Hong Kong. Had they stayed there in the 1960's, I would have been born there and may even have been one of the 90,000 who have left now due to the rapid crackdown on freedom of speech and right to assembly. Surprisingly, the UK have offered visas to those who hold a BNO (British National Overseas Passport) in the former colony though ironically, many of those who want to leave- namely the people born after 1997- do not have a BNO. Being the son of an immigrant, I understand all too well the lucky draw of birthrights.
Marshall law has been imposed that restricts men from leaving Ukraine; a difficult concept to grapple with in the modern world. The men in Ukraine have been called to fight, literally for freedom***. In my perspective, they are the front line of not just for Ukraine, but for the 'free world'. For myself, to not try and find a way to help in some form is a derelict of my duty as a fellow human. People out there are risking their lives for our collective way of life should not be something we turn away from. I know the only difference between these men and myself is...
However 'refugees' are perceived, the difference between this conflict and others is clear; a nuclear power invaded without explicit provocation (the expansion of NATO notwithstanding) and it's possible existential threat is felt by most because Putin has a myopic world view with a disregard for human life; undoubtedly a dangerous combination for someone in charge of nuclear launch codes.
I am not a nationalist in any way shape or form, I don’t even like flags (the label design is a visual language we all understand now to show solidarity) but this is a humanitarian crisis. I cannot differentiate myself to those in Hong Kong who want to leave or those in Syria, Afghanistan or Ukraine. Nor can I see the difference in the men in Ukraine who don't want to, want to and forced to fight for their families and the freedoms we all enjoy. I don’t have to hold a gun so I am making cream. By donating creams, I hope it can help make everyday go just that little bit easier for the women and children whose fathers, brothers and sons are absent. It is of small comfort in the larger context but when you lose most of your life overnight, the daily small things can matter a great deal. The broader hope is that we bridge the invisible gap between nations and people and let them know, they are not alone.
ps. Being a small brand, any sales we make these days would help us help the refugees.
**https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2022/feb/08/in-limbo-refugees-left-on-belarusian-polish-border-eu-frontier-photo-essay **https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/commentisfree/2022/mar/04/embraced-or-pushed-back-on-the-polish-border-sadly-not-all-refugees-are-welcome ***Personally over the past 15 years, I have been to Warsaw, Krakow, Łódź, Bydgoszcz and Toruń and have best friends from Poland so am fairly familiar with the country and it's character
Other good podcasts on the coverage: