Bristol’s mayor has said the city stands ready to welcome refugees fleeing the war following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and is calling on the government to provide the funds needed to help this happen.
Marvin Rees told a council meeting on Thursday that Russian president Vladimir Putin should be investigated for war crimes. He said the invasion an “atrocity”, but that he distinguished between the Russian people and its leader.
He also highlighted racism both against people of Asian and African descent being blocked from escaping the country and by journalists covering the invasion on the basis that they relate more to “European people with blonde hair and blue eyes” than those from places like Syria or Yemen, a quote Rees incorrectly attributed to a journalist.
The mayor told Bristol City Council cabinet: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the people who are experiencing trauma, tragedy, death, loss, displacement right now.
“We as a city stand ready to support the people of Ukraine in whatever way we can. Very early doors we made clear that in line with us being a City of Sanctuary we want to step up but we need to do that with government resources as well.
“Whether we are talking about Syrians, unaccompanied children in the Calais camps, Afghans, we are a city that wants to welcome people as a place of hope and sanctuary, but we have been very clear to government that this needs to come with support.
“What we can’t do is bring people here and not support them properly or adequately. That is not a good situation for them.”
Bristol ‘stepping up’ with offers of support
He said the people of Bristol had “stepped up” with offers of support and that the connectivity between residents and Ukrainians was “surprisingly immediate”.
Rees said he had spoken previously in support of his friend Alexei Navalny, the jailed Russian opposition campaigner, who the mayor studied with and lived next door to at Yale, who “Putin’s cohort tried to poison and murder”.
The mayor told the City Hall meeting: “We have been very clear in our condemnation of Putin’s actions.
“We want to make clear that we are distinguishing between Putin and the Russian people. We think about the many thousands who are protesting, thousands who have been arrested over the years.
“So we absolutely stand four square against the atrocity and we welcome any moves to investigate Putin for war crimes.
“But I would also ask us to make sure that when we are standing for these principles of openness and justice we do it across the piece and I cannot unsee what I’ve seen or unhear what I’ve heard.”
“When we see incidents of racism being meted out on people of Asian and African heritage trying to flee Ukraine, that needs to stop, and we need everyone – leadership in Ukraine and international bodies supporting refugees – to be clear that that is not okay.
“This is an issue for Ukrainian leadership and for the bordering countries who are taking people from Ukraine to make sure they are taking people equally, and it’s an issue for us in other European countries who will be ultimate destination countries.
“We cannot have a system working around crises such as this that are two-tier.”
‘Racial bias from journalists covering the crisis’
The mayor continued: “I dare say, this is very sensitive as well, there has been quite an exposure first run by The Independent on the way journalists have covered this crisis and the clear exposure of racial bias in the way some journalists have been talking about the suffering of people and what they expect of countries in different continents – words of different levels of civilisation and expressing their stronger emotional connection or greater connection because, as one person put it, ‘they are blonde haired and blue eyed’.
“That is a challenge for us all and it’s very important we are consistent in our stand on the kind of values we want for the world, whether we are in politics, in white society, members of the public or those people who stand up to be commentators on what’s going on in the world.”
The mayor was referring to comments made not by a journalist but by Ukraine’s former deputy general prosecutor David Sakvarelidze who received widespread criticism on social media for saying while being interviewed live on BBC News: “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blonde hair and blue eyes being killed every day with Putin’s missiles and his helicopters and his rockets.”
NBC News correspondent Kelly Cobiella was criticised on social media for airing views carrying “racist undertones”, according to The Independent.
She reportedly said in a broadcast in Poland: “Just to put it bluntly, these are not refugees from Syria, these are refugees from neighbouring Ukraine… these are Christian, they’re white, they’re very similar.”
Al Jazeera issued an apology after English presenter Peter Dobbie described Ukrainians fleeing the country as “prosperous, middle-class people” who “are not obviously refugees trying to get away from areas in the Middle East that are still in a big state of war, these are not people trying to get away from areas in North Africa, they look like any European family that you would live next door to”.
The channel called the comments “inappropriate, insensitive and irresponsible”.