War and conflict bring no good to society and have a hugely destabilizing impact on the communities and economies involved, causing them to be reliant on humanitarian aid. Looking at two countries, Ukraine and Afghanistan, who have both experienced, or are still experiencing, deadly conflicts, we however see drastically different responses to the humanitarian crisis.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has famously strengthened the country’s sense of national identity, and orientation as a sovereign nation that is independent and Western-oriented. While Ukraine’s leadership has demonstrated strong commitment to the country, many of Afghanistan’s key political figures fled the country after U.S. soldiers left, leaving civilians abandoned as the Taliban quickly seized control within a month. The different narrative around the two conflicts makes it clear - Afghani civilians have not only been abandoned by their political leaders, but by the whole global community. Afghanistan is one of the world’s largest humanitarian crisis in terms of those at risk of starvation - a quick look at statistics tell us that 55% of Afghans, a staggering 22.8 million people, are vulnerable to food insecurity, over 24 million Afghans are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance, and more than 2 million children are malnourished - however, it does not receive nearly as much media coverage as the crisis in Ukraine.
It is clear: Afghans are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. So I wonder: Did the world become less empathetic towards Afghan civilians because the war had gone on for too long or because of the color of their skin? Did Ukraine receive a quicker response to the humanitarian and why? Was it fair to give Ukraine more media coverage than Afghanistan?
All these questions spark a debate on the priorities of world leaders providing humanitarian aid. I wonder, what are the reasons that can affect the divergence of humanitarian aid and urgency from one country to another?
It may seem that the war in Afghanistan is over as the Taliban regime settles in, but the sad reality is that many Afghan civilians remain terrified of their future. In Kabul, women’s rights are once again challenged under the leadership of the Taliban. Recently, the Taliban announced that women must again wear all-covering burkas when in public. They are not allowed to leave their homes if they are not accompanied by their mahram men and there is no security provided by the regime to the victims of domestic abuse. Women have also been prohibited from obtaining many government positions/jobs and obtaining a secondary education. According to the Education minister in Afghanistan, Girls are allowed to go to school only if they wear the hijab properly. He said, “We have found inappropriate things in girls' schools, immoral things that can not be allowed in Islam.” However, a member of staff in a school in Afghanistan noted that the girls school only remains open because the teachers stood up to the Taliban. The situation remains precarious as teachers are working for free and owed several month's pay. As a result of the economic hardships in the country, the seclusion of women has only grown worse. In Kabul, women are seen patiently waiting outside bakeries to collect any charitable food that the passersby could spare. The sight of the begging women underscores how rapidly the country's economy has deteriorated and how the resistance of its people has been challenged by a series of calamities. Over the last five years, they have faced renewed conflict, pandemic closures, three droughts, and an earthquake in June 2022.
Despite this, Afghans face delays and rejections from the immigration departments of many countries, as their passport allows for limited mobility- while Ukarianians are able to migrate faster to safer locations. According to US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) statistics, more than 60,000 refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine have received parole or flight authorisation to the US under a Ukraine-focused parole programme between March 24 and June 23. Reportedly, European countries preferred Ukrainian refugees over Afghan refugees and the treatment for the two raised discussions around the prejudice faced by refugees of color.
To those that call the comparison of the narrative around the conflict in Ukraine with other conflicts in countries where the majority of population are people of color “whataboutism”, let’s not forget the role that Russia played in the conflict in Afghanistan – there is a common connection in both conflicts and I am not trying to diminish the horror experienced by Ukrainians, or argue that they should not be welcomed with arms wide open. However, I do think that people of color around the world are valid in feeling that the world is not as empathetic when the people suffering look like them.
The experience of Ukrainians and Afghans is even more connected that one may imagine at first:
the war on Ukraine also resulted in Afghan refugees, who had recently fled from Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover, being caught up in yet another war. Some refugees had also already been living in Ukraine since 1979, when Russia invaded Afghanistan. BBC reported that Jalal Noory, an Afghan Refugee living in Ukraine is now serving as a commander in the Ukrainian army. He leads a unit of 12 soldiers who defend Kyiv.
Refugees become part of the country they move to, bringing their rich histories and culture to their new home, as they become part of a now enriched social fabric. Refugees must be given equal opportunities before and after they migrate from a war torn country. Unfortunately, it has not been the case for Ukrainian and Afghan refugees. A shift in humanitarian actions must be imposed by first world countries who have the resources to accommodate refugee migrants.