Global migration policy has started to move in a more humane direction in response to the invasion of Ukraine. While many states are welcoming displaced Ukrainians, this is a far cry from how those states typically treat refugees. Activists and scholars have lamented the lack of similar response to people displaced from south Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. The uneven global response to migration on display sets a chilling precedent for the displacement that is likely to come with the climate crisis.
Race plays a defining role in how states think about their borders and who gets let in. In the 19th century, racial politics shaped the formation of international law – including how we understand concepts like sovereignty – and legitimized exclusionary policies whose impacts reverberate today. We can see the impact of race on the way in which refugee policy was developed. Drawing on research by T Alexander Aleinikoff, philosopher Serena Parekh of Northeastern University explains that refugee flows were primarily east to west (rather than south to north) in the first half of the 20th century. During this period, resettlement was the standard way of helping refugees. When refugee flows from non-European countries increased (from the global south to global north), states changed their policy: instead of resettlement, voluntary repatriation was preferred.