The proximity trap: how geography is misused in the differential treatment of Ukrainian refugees to hide for the underlying global apartheid in the EUropean border regime

Forum on the EU Temporary Protection Responses to the Ukraine War 

Contribution by

Rodrigo Bueno Lacy, Karelian Institute, University of Eastern Finland &

Henk van Houtum, Nijmegen Centre for Border Research, Radboud University & University of Eastern Finland

27 June 2022

‘’It’s really emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blond hair being killed’’

— David Sakvarelidze, Ukraine’s former deputy chief prosecutor

The fallacious smokescreen of proximity

The Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24th of 2022 has prompted the flight of over 5 million Ukrainians. Given the provision of unprecedented supplementary protection mechanisms to them, it would be an understatement to point out that the dignified manner in which Ukrainian refugees are currently being welcomed—and rightfully so—stands in stark contrast with the illegalisation, push-backs, deportation, open murder and fatal passiveness (i.e., letting die at sea, in the desert or by outsourcing migratory controls to Libya’s slave markets) that the EUropean border regime has reserved for other refugees.

Notably, the widespread accommodation of Ukrainian refugees in private homes across the EU as well as the seamless integration which such heart-warming policies afford them exposes a jaw-dropping incongruousness with the often inhumane, extremely violent, exploitative and conveniently delocalised camps and prisons where other refugees are kept apart or even left to languish. By comparison, the arrival of over a million refugees in 2015—most of them Syrians who, tellingly, were also to large extent fleeing the Russian army’s shelling-based terrorisation of their civilian settlements, was met with a securitisation discourse rooted in a long-standing European Islamophobia.

Granted, for a very brief period towards the end of 2015, Syrians were met with sympathy and even solidarity—especially after images of Alan Kurdi, a dead Syrian toddler lying on a beach near Bodrum, Turkey, made headlines around the world. Yet, such goodwill rapidly eroded over the course of 2016 as a downright anti-refugee discourse came to dominate the EUropean public debate.

Even though the so-called “refugee crisis” of 2015 was, at the time, drummed up as the “biggest challenge” the Union had ever faced, the EU waited only until now to invoke its Temporary Protection Directive: an emergency policy tool specifically designed to welcome extraordinary increases of asylum seekers in the EU and quickly integrate them by letting them participate directly in society and the labour market. Bafflingly, even though the EU has had this tool at its disposal since 2001, it has applied such a directive only this occasion to the exclusive advantage of refugees whose distinct vulnerability for some seem to stem from their ‘’blond hair and blue eyes’’—and the geographical imaginations of essential Europeanness such traits evoke.

Painfully and shamefully, the directive has exclusively benefitted Ukrainian refugees even as African labour migrants and refugees residing in Ukraine and attempting to leave the country are excluded from its enjoyment and remain instead beaten, arrested and prevented from leaving a country at war in which they are foreigners anyway.

The activation of the Temporary Protection Directive provides Ukrainian refugees with immediate access to employment across the EU. Opening the EU’s labour market to 5 million Ukrainians stands in diametrical antagonism with the endlessly prolonged waiting despair that the EU’s usual asylum procedure imposes on other refugees. In turn, the hegemonic EUropean rhetoric of “refugees as burden” has served to justify the structural harassment of other refugees as well as the systematic violation of their rights.

However, rather than analysing, condemning and countering the selective dehumanisation and cruel fate to which the EU damns refugees of a “less desirable” descent who have as much a right to international protection as Ukrainians, various commentators and politicians have tried to explain—or even condone—the discrepancy in their treatment with the deceivingly commonsensical “political logic” of geographical proximity.

Examples of this fallacious logic abound.

Take Philippe Corbé, head of the political service of BFMTV, who argued that Ukrainians are “not Syrians but refugees who look like us […] We’re talking about Europeans who are leaving in their cars that look like our cars and who are just trying to save their lives.” Reproducing a similarly revealing logic, Charlie D’Agata, a CBS News correspondent, stated that Ukraine “isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilised, relatively European—I have to choose those words carefully, too—city, where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen.” Santiago Abascal, the leader of Spain’s far-right party VOX, even alluded to the great replacement theory (a core element of contemporary fascist ideology) to justify the patent discrimination between Ukrainian and other refugees: “Anyone can understand the difference between these flows and the invasions of young, military-age males of Muslim origin that have been launched against Europe’s borders.” Likewise, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung bluntly claimed that “They are real refugees this time […] We see the suffering of these people. No one can deny the danger they are in. It’s different with many migrants who came to Europe in the past as supposed refugees.” Also Daniel Hanna, in the Telegraph, explicitly framed such discrimination as a differentiation grounded on geographical and cultural proximity: “They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking. Ukraine is a European country. Its people watch Netflix and have Instagram accounts, vote in free elections and read uncensored newspapers. War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations.”

On this very platform, some authors have chimed in with a similarly parochial argument (we do not employ this adjective gratuitously but rather etymologically, from the classical Greek pároikos: para– ‘near’ + oikos ‘house’) to justify this policy. As Joanne van Selm explains:

A […] related point […] is geography […] Ukraine is bordered by four current EU Member States. The EU, is by necessity, the location of first response—or one could say, as the EU might describe other continents: the EU is the region of origin […] The question of ‘why activate the TP Directive now, but not in 2015’ has been posed by many and responses often include a sense that racism or discrimination is at play. That could be the case, or at least part of the answer, whether directly for some member states, or with fears of a backlash from increasingly present right-wing political parties and their followers. However, I would suggest that a major reason for which the directive was not applied in 2015 was that the situation was not an immediate displacement crisis requiring the urgent protection response of direct neighbours. There is a political logic to differing reactions to the immediate displacement of people from a neighbouring state and to the secondary migration of people who, in many cases, were displaced over the course of five years but received limited protection or solution opportunities in other, geographically closer countries (even if a country of first asylum, Turkey, borders the EU). While there are legal and moral obligations to all refugees, there is, of course, a cold hard element of ‘who else could possibly protect them?’ or ‘where else could they possibly go?’ As such, activation could be a result of urgent political decision making in the face of an immediate, proximate crisis in which the EU itself, and most of its Member States as NATO members, has a direct and existential stake. Geography necessarily underpins many decisions in war as in life (sic).

In this piece, we contend that seemingly neutral and objective “geographical” justifications of this sort, intended to legitimise an essential moral distinction between otherwise equally deserving refugee populations, boils down to a fallacy of geographical proximity that is flawed for at least three main reasons: 1) It implies a misunderstanding of the universal geographical scope of the legal obligations to which the signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol—including the EU—are bound. 2) It neglects the EU’s b/ordering regime and its visa-based principle, which ascribes arbitrary moral value to human beings on the basis of descent and manifests itself spatially as a global apartheid. 3) It is based on a nationalist, essentialising and ultimately aberrant understanding of geography—both as a discipline and as an object of study—that risks replicating and sustaining the xenophobia and war-mongering nationalism responsible for producing refugees in the first place.

In what follows, we elaborate on these three flaws and conclude with a plea to end this apartheid—and dispel the belief that the geographical sciences can be honestly employed to justify such an immoral discrimination.

The three flaws of the proximity trap

Before Ukrainians became Europe’s largest refugee population, political forces across a broad ideological spectrum spanning mostly liberal to far-right political parties had started to scapegoat vulnerable and easily identifiable minorities lacking political representation as an electoral strategy to justify the sustained loss of prosperity otherwise caused by predatory capitalism. This electoral formula has been promoted by political elites who owe their power and socio-economic status to their ability to keep business as usual. Instead of denouncing the perilous alliances with strongmen and phasing out the environmentally destructive energy sources on which their politics of aggression depend, elite politicians opt, more often than not, to maintain their status by providing a scapegoat on which electorates can vent their anger for the undeniable decay in living standards produced by all sorts of inequality-sowing policies.

Although the geopolitical magnitude of this “swipe to the far right” is hard to overstate, a widespread awareness among the EUropean public about the devastation such a course is inflicting on their societies remains diffuse given the constant diversion into migrant blaming on which the EUropean political debate is bent. For this reason, we believe that the appallingly asymmetrical reception of Ukrainian and Syrian refugees provides a unique case study to analyse the political motivations shaping the EU border regime.

We claim that arguments relying on geographical proximity are wrong—even dangerously so—on three grounds:

  1. Making a moral difference between refugees is paving a slippery slope into unlawful autoimmunity

Musing on whether refugees’ origins or destinations provide a legal justification to treat them differently involves a process of legal mystification. The Refugee convention and its protocol, which all EU member states have ratified, do not stipulate geographical provenance or descent as grounds for discrimination. In fact, Turkey’s adherence to the obsolete geographical limitation of the 1951 Refugee Convention allowing such discrimination has represented an obstacle in the country’s accession negotiations to the EU.

These scope of these refugee-protection treaties is explicitly universal because it is grounded on the universalist conviction that lumping asylum requests by nationality would be immoral. Equally fundamental is the morally and historically imbued legal doctrine that such effort would undermine the ethos of EUrope’s inheritance as declared in the Lisbon Treaty, which praises “the universal values of the inviolable and inalienable rights of the human person”. Similarly, it would constitute an infringement on Art. 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights, according to which such rights “shall be secured without discrimination on any ground’’; as well as its preamble, which unreservedly declares that “all persons are equal before the law and are entitled to the equal protection of the law”. Given the mushrooming of legalistic intellectualisations to subvert the unambiguous meaning of these obligations, we should wonder how much such lofty words may still be worth—and how much they have been hollowed out—especially because the rights they confer reverberate on the human rights of all Europeans too.

Therefore, attempts to justify a distinction between refugees based on their alleged geographical proximity, however defined, stands in full antagonism with public international law and is hence unlawful. Furthermore, breaching the very principles which EUrope has agreed upon means that the EU is sabotaging its own rule of law, which is supposed to constitute an integral part of both its membership requirements and border policies. Elsewhere, we have diagnosed this border disorder as a self-destructive autoimmunity. Yet, it is conspicuous as well as telling that the EU’s systematic and blunt violation of its own fundamental principles—with all its far-reaching consequences—does not represent the core of this debate. Instead, EUrope is scraping the cesspool of its moral debasement by openly debating what sort of intellectual contortions and scientific distortions may provide a more credible cover to justify its differentiated treatment of Ukrainian and Syrian refugees.

  1. Global apartheid is the corner stone on which the EU border regime is built

The second flaw inherent to the proximity argument is that the EU already discriminates—morally and legally—between the origins of migrants and refugees. In fact, the hierarchical stratification of the world’s populations according to national provenance serves a European political economy that, housing the elites of such hierarchy, thrives by exploiting those below it, both within and beyond EU’s borders. This includes not only exploited undocumented agricultural workers from Morocco but also eastern European women who are forced into prostitution as well as Polish workers who are systematically abused in, for instance, the Netherlands.

This integrated system of power in which social imaginations and constructions of race serve an economic purpose of geopolitically stratified exploitation is what we link to practices of racism. In this regard, we consider crucial to point out the limitation of those who reduce racism exclusively to “black” and “white” phenotypes (which are both diffuse and biologically senseless anyway) instead of linking it to classism: the differential treatment based on perceived socio-economic class. Thus, reducing racism to legal codifications which narrow it to the criminalisation of open discrimination (e.g., neo-Nazis) or dismissing it as a “polemic” term—as has earlier been suggested in this ASILE platform—would reveal a naivety about the structural power dynamics of implicit discriminative othering.

On a global scale, such discriminatory othering processes spatially manifest themselves in the global apartheid of the EU’s external visa policy on which the whole EU b/ordering and othering regime is built: a system of power that constructs difference among individuals and nations, stratifies them by value through legal codification, spatial distribution, economic, and cultural appreciation and instrumentalises such divisions according to political contingency. This apartheid is built into the political economy of the EU to such an extent that the common visa b/ordering of the EU from which it stems dates back to the Schengen Agreement of 1985, which envisioned the gradual abolition of internal borders in exchange for the establishment of strict border controls along the EU’s external borders—which implied merging member states’ border controls under a joint command.

Ushered by the Schengen Information System (SIS) and Visa Information System (VIS) that resulted from these agreements—implemented in 2006 and 2011, respectively—the EU established common external border surveillance systems aimed at filtering out global border crossers lacking the travelling papers required by the Schengen Agreement. The culmination of this “paper” b/ordering regime was the common Schengen list of visa-required countries introduced in 2001. This highly significant—yet still remarkably under-researched—“black and white list” (later re-branded as the “negative and positive list”) demarcates a sharp discrimination between countries whose citizens require a visa to enter the EU—largely Muslim, African and, overall, less affluent countries—and those exempted from it—largely OECD members as well as a few countries in South America and Asia. This list is based on the principle of nativist discrimination: a principle that is forbidden by law in all member states of the EU and has, in effect, almost entirely closed off legal migration channels to the EU for the large majority of the world.

The result of this legalised and bureaucratised apartheid has been as counterproductive as it has been dramatic. The Catch-22 of this refugee legislation is that even if someone is fleeing from life-threatening situations in their country, they cannot get a visa for the EU because the country they are escaping from has been blacklisted by the EU and thus their entrance into its territory is already deemed suspicious—if not defined as “illegal. By refusing legal entry to legitimate asylum-seekers, the EU’s paper fortress paradoxically punishes people for being born in the wrong place and for trying to get away from an oppressive regime, violence, economic despair or natural disaster. This constitutes not only a violation of international refugee law (see our first argument) but also a factual rejection of both the humanist ethos and legal custom on which the internationally-recognised right to ask for another country’s protection has been built.

The result of the EU’s wilful non-compliance with such international obligations is that access to the EU’s regular asylum system can only be gained irregularly through smugglers and other illicit ways. The safe alternative of air travel is also excluded because, since 2001, air carriers can be fined for boarding migrants lacking the required visa (Directive 2001/51/EC); while humanitarian assistance has been criminalised along the Mediterranean as well as within the EU’s borders. By forcing asylum seekers to undertake a reckless journey—which also criminalises the travel of a large portion of the world as well as the work of those assisting undocumented migrants in their voyages—the EU has boosted a large-scale smuggling industry that profits from the legal void that the EU itself has made sure to enforce. Ergo, this paper border should be credited with turning the routes to seek asylum in the EU—a supposedly safe destination—into a grim and perilous survival of the fittest. Since this is precisely the kind of distress that refugee law is intended to prevent, the so-called “migration crisis” of 2015 in the EU would be better described as a “refugee-protection crisis”.

By erecting such an insurmountable paper border, the EU has advocated a politics of death—a necropolitics—aimed at killing or letting die targeted groups of refugees. This is precisely what makes the journey of Ukrainian refugees different from, say, Syrian refugees. Since 2017, Ukrainians have been on Schengen’s “white list”, which means that they do not have to travel illegally to the EU with the help of smugglers; that they are not victims of stomach-wrenching pushbacks including rape and abuse by EU border guards; that they do not need fear deportations reminiscent of totalitarian police dictatorships; or that they do not need fret dehumanising asylum camps. Such a privilege renders completely different images of Ukrainians’ traveling to the EU, thus informing a staggeringly different public perception of their plight, which is devoid of the atmosphere of illegality, illicitness and criminality pervading the experience and representation of refugees from countries on the negative list.

This asymmetry in the reception of Syrian and Ukrainian refugees constitutes a real-scale geopolitical testimony of a conscious regime of global apartheid created by the EUropean b/ordering and othering regime. The selective dehumanisation of refugees is a vivid illustration of what has been termed “borderism”: the discriminatory politics of spatial segregation that essentialises—and politicises—the value of human beings on the basis of the bordered (id)entity they are born into, reside in, travel from or are associated with. Thus, to employ geographical proximity as a justification to condone this discrimination is missing the point, namely that the EU’s b/order infrastructure is fundamentally based on apartheid. And worse, such a view risks normalising the unlawfulness of the EU’s refugee discrimination and legitimising their appallingly differentiated treatment which is based on descent and is expressed in a violent structure of paper, iron and detention camps aimed at preventing their movement and hospitable, humane reception.

Our argument here is thus that the visa policy underlying an ordering of EUropean space and society that determines the inclusion of some (the “blond and blue-eyed” Ukrainians) and the exclusion of others (the “threatening Muslims and Africans”) is neither a natural, nor a self-evident policy. Instead, this represents a purposeful strategy anchored in longstanding European prejudice whose irrefutable spatial consequence is apartheid—not only between the EU and its neighbourhood but also between EU metropoles and their migrant ghettos, which reproduce the racialised lines of division structured by the EU visa border policy and constitute an unequivocal continuity between EUrope’s colonial past and its colonial present.

  1. The argument on geographical proximity is based on unscientifically essentialist and politically corrosive geographical determinism

The third flaw of the proximity argument is its geopolitical ingenuousness. Although the assumption of Ukraine is as “being in the neighbourhood” seems geographically commonsensical, morally neutral, politically practical and cartographically unassailable, this is a mirage conjured up by the widespread but false equivalence between geographical contiguity and geographical proximity. Our main contention is that the geographical assumptions on which such analysis rests betray a misunderstanding of geography that paradoxically replicates the phobic violence-mongering rhetoric that keeps producing refugees through financial predation, war and the violent impoverishment of the EUropean neighbourhood they have engendered.

As Moustafa Bayoumi powerfully put it regarding the EU’s reception of Ukrainian refugees:

Yes, that makes sense, you might say. Neighbor helping neighbor. But what these journalists and politicians all seem to want to miss is that the very concept of providing refuge is not and should not be based on factors such as physical proximity or skin color, and for a very good reason. If our sympathy is activated only for welcoming people who look like us or pray like us, then we are doomed to replicate the very sort of narrow, ignorant nationalism that war promotes in the first place.

He is not only morally but also geographically right. Geography is more than just than misleading assumptions based on cartographical proximity. If anything, political arguments based on maps are perhaps the most deviously anti-geographical artefacts of the geographical disciplines.

Geopolitical analysts reproducing parochial arguments based on geographical proximity usually peddle common fallacies recurrent among commentators and practitioners of statecraft. Among their recurrently fostered fallacies, a perniciously prominent one is the “territorial trap”, a fundamental epistemological flaw in the analysis of world politics characterised by the convergence of three misleading assumptions: that the state represents the will of a homogeneous nation; that a state’s domestic and foreign policies are unrelated; and that each nation-state constitutes its own closed system. Keeping this fallacy in mind is crucial when assessing the proximity of a country to another. For example, a closer analysis of Syria’s position, reveals that countries are often closer than the map may make them appear.

Is Ukraine not closer—or more related—to the EU than Syria? It depends. It is often argued that Ukraine is the EU’s neighbour given that it shares a contiguous border with Poland, an EU member state, while, say, Syria, clearly does not. At the same time, however, arguing that Syria does not share a contiguous border with Cyprus, and thus with the EU, depends on an apocryphal geographical assumption of the sea as a “natural border”. This implies a neglect of the proximity between Cypriot and Syrian exclusive economic areas—as well as of the energy disputes taking place in them—but also of the fact that 12.000 Syrians have sought refuge in Cyprus since 2011. Moreover, an exercise as simple as measuring the distance between these two countries of origin and the nearest EUropean urban settlements, which constitute refugees’ preferred destination, reveals the spuriousness of any axiomatic notions of geographical proximity: the distance between Damascus, Syria, and Nicosia, Cyprus, is about 323.68 Km, while the distance between Kiev, Ukraine, and Warsaw, Poland—the nearest EU capital—is about 668.45 Km.

Proximity considerations like these, however, are both insufficient and misguided, for they do not take into account the larger geopolitical dimensions of the EU nor the caveats pertaining to a holistic appraisal of geographical proximity. After all, Syria is not only an Associated State of the EU but it also shares a border with Turkey, one of the most integrated Associated States of the EU, NATO’s second largest army and a strategic partner in the EUropean security architecture given its military stature as NATO’s second largest army as well as its role in the EU’s containment-hotspot policy—without mentioning its geopolitical position within a region from which the EU’s largest asylum seeking populations come from. This brings us back to our point: concerning the borders of the EUropean geostrategic neighbourhood, Syria is of as much strategic importance to the EU as Ukraine. Moreover, the Russian aggression of Ukraine, in its recklessness and criminal methods, is proof of the EU’s parochial understanding of its own neighbourhood, which underlies its failure to perceive that the unimpeded devastation of the Syrian civilian population not only encouraged Putin’s Russia to think it could invade Ukraine without much pushback but also to believe that it could resort to the same atrocities to demoralise its civilian population and weaken its resistance.

Finally, it should be noted that both the US’ and Russia’s geopolitical justifications for their involvement in the devastation of Ukraine find their intellectual foundation in their own expansionist versions of an argument captured by what is perhaps the most infamous geopolitical text ever published, Halford Mackinder’s “The Geographical Pivot of History” (1904). This text and the sort of geographically deterministic arguments it keeps inspiringwhich are the essence of European imperialism—constitute the foundations of a school of thought known as Classical Geopolitics: a pseudo-scientific discipline that emerged towards the end of the 19th century, eventually provided the justification for Nazi expansionism and later influenced the development of the realist school of International Relations in the US. Through a combination of imperial desire and a predator-centred distortion of evolutionary theory for the study of world politics, classical geopolitical writers made scientific racism and geographical determinism pass for a dispassionate study of global politics. A typical aspect to this strain of political geography is the cartohypnotic trance which such commentators employ to make believe that the politics of the world can be understood through simplistic glances at maps without questioning where the fundamental infrastructure of those maps comes from. Yet, as critical geopolitical scholars well know: merely to label a place is to make an implicit foreign policy recommendation.

Thus, whether Ukraine belongs to Europe or Russia is a statement that can be solved by neither history nor by a simplistic cartographic appraisal disguised as a sober assessment of geographical proximity—or imagined civilisational affiliation. Europe has never existed beyond the political will to create it. Europe is an idea—not a family, a people, a cartographical necessity or, as the failure of the Common Asylum System reveals, not even a congruent legal entity. Moreover, as its successive enlargement and overlapping jurisdictions show, its juridical borders and geographical neighbours are not enshrined in stone. Instead, grand geographical imaginations such as “the West”, “the East”, “the global South/global North”, or notions of a “Russian state-civilisation’’ are socially fabricated compartmentalisations of the world that only have meaning insofar as political organisations foster a belief in them as well as policies to preserve them.

Whether Ukraine will be part of the EU is therefore a political decision. Crucially, it is a decision that, still for now, is dependent another actor whose proximity to EUropean geopolitics is also usually misjudged: US military power. In this regard, it is telling to remember that the third most common nationality of asylum seekers in the EU comes from Iraq, a country wrecked by two decades of a US occupation endorsed by several EU Member States and thus, unsurprisingly, the breeding ground of refugees and Islamic terrorism targeting EUrope. Although these geopolitical phenomena occupy the utmost priority in the EUropean debate on security, their roots in both EU foreign policy—and in its meek alignment with US global military imperialism—often goes unmentioned. It is thus worth keeping in mind that, even though it lies across the Atlantic Ocean, the US remains the most important military force in EUrope, for it possesses the largest NATO army and hence it remains an indispensable guarantor of EUropean security. The US is such an important geopolitical player for EUropean security that its escalation of the war with Russia through the provision of military support to Ukraine may cause EUrope to sleepwalk into a nuclear war with Russia—even though such US military strategy may pursue few other strategic interests than those of the arms-congress-media industrial complex, which profits from the monumental devastation inflicted by US invasions, proxy wars, overall arms purchases and the sort of armed conflict that pushes large populations to seek asylum in the EU and elsewhere.


In this article, we have contended that arguments of geographical proximity amount to scientific ignorance at best and geopolitical mystification at worst. The attempt to rationalise obvious discrimination as geographical common-sense dismisses the obvious cause of a phenomenon in favour of a convenient intellectualisation that stays within the boundaries of a politically acceptable discourse in which racism and practices of apartheid are considered taboo. We thus make a plea to employ scientific language and name things by their name, which requires not only moral integrity but scientific rigor. This effort is what is required to challenge the foundations of what we are supposed to believe are the official reasons behind a deadly EU bordering regime based on an apartheid that benefits those who are privileged enough to travel freely and comfortably (e.g., as consumers or workers)  yet simultaneously criminalises, illegalises, and dooms other human beings that it construes and treats as marginal ‘human waste’.