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The Contradictions of Compassion

Ideally, Europeans who are currently welcoming Ukrainian refugees would show the same sympathy to Syrians, Afghans, and other victims of wars outside the continent. But human compassion is a rare enough commodity that we should be grateful whenever it appears.

NEW YORK – Almost 2.5 million Ukrainian refugees have fled to Poland since the Russian invasion began, and more than 350,000 have entered Hungary. But in 2015, when then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel allowed 1.1 million asylum seekers – about 40% of whom were Syrian – to enter Germany, Poland and Hungary firmly closed their borders to people escaping the carnage in the Middle East.

These divergent reactions have made some people, mostly “progressives,” very angry. Surely, they argue, using tear gas and water cannons to hold back Arab asylum seekers at the Hungarian border but welcoming Ukrainians with open arms amounts to racial bias, or even “white supremacy.”

All human lives are equally precious. From a moral point of view, there is no difference between a traumatized young man from Aleppo and a desperate mother from Kharkiv. But, for practical and psychological reasons, countries distinguish between refugees on the basis of culture, religion, language, and politics. This is especially true of countries with relatively homogeneous populations, like Poland today.