ATHENS – While trying to fend off an onslaught of accusations that refugees and migrants are being pushed back, Greece has opened its arms and doors to some of them – from Ukraine.
The New Democracy government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis denied refugees and migrants coming through Turkey from their homelands in Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Africa are being repelled.
That comes at the same time that Mitsotakis said Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russian’s invasion are welcome and that some 30,000 of them could be absorbed and get state assistance.
But there are scores of thousands of others – mostly from Muslim or non-Christian countries – languishing in detention centers and camps, including on five Aegean islands near the coast of Turkey, which let human smugglers keep sending them.
That violates an essentially-suspended 2016 swap deal with the European Union under which Turkey is supposed to contain them and take back those deemed ineligble for asylum, including those who landed in Greece.
The news site POLITICO noted an apparent double stand in a feature on how those not from Ukraine are being kept out while Greece has opened its arms to those from Ukraine, a strongly Orthodox country too.
Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachis called Ukrainians “real refugees” and a New Democracy Member of Parliament, Dimitris Kairidis, told the site why they are welcome and others are not.
“We are not talking here about a massacre in a distant place somewhere in the depths of Africa with irreligious people, but about – to say it completely cynically, I know it sounds politically unorthodox, but unfortunately this is what counts — Christians, white people, Europeans, who are from us, who come from us,” he said.
There are some 150,000 ethnic Greeks in the besieged city of Mariupol and the site said that at Greece’s border with Bulgaria, officials have rapidly staffed up reception centers to greet the Ukrainians.
They hand out cell phone cards, snacks and meal to arrivals. The government is asking non-government organizations – some of which are being prosecuted for helping refugees and migrants from other countries – to help Ukrainians.
It’s a far different process for those coming from the Middle East and Africa, running away from war, strife and economic hardship and hoping to find a new life in the EU, which has closed its borders to them.
UP AGAINST THE WALL
When they reach Greece’s border, either by land from Turkey, or trying to reach Greek islands, they are shoved back, the report said, adding to claims from activists, human rights, groups, NGO’s and major media.
Those who do make it across can face criminal charges for smuggling. The NGOs assisting these migrants argue their work has similarly been criminalized, the site said – unless they’re helping Ukrainians.
Tourism Minister Vasilis Kikilias has even urged the NGOs helping refugees on the Aegean islands to shift their work to Ukraine, where people are “in dire need,” and not to help others.
“It’s not just criminalization of the right to request asylum, but outright intimidation,” said Dimitris Choulis, a lawyer representing Hanad Abdi Mohammad, a 28-year-old Somali facing a 146-year sentence for smuggling after arriving in 2020 aboard a dinghy carrying him, his pregnant wife and others, but not the smuggler, the report added.
Ukrainians enjoy visa-free travel to the EU, as well as a special dispensation giving them the immediate right to work and live within the bloc, denied to Syrians, Afghans, Somalis and others, while Greece said it’s helping them too.
“Any refugee who flees because there is war in his country, because there is an invasion, can be accommodated here, under conditions that ensure that he is provided with dignified accommodation and respect for his rights, if he meets the requirements and if the country can cope,” said spokesman Giannis Oikonomou.
The EU has provided money for Greece to add further bulwarks against refugees and the government also extended a wall along the border with Turkey near the Evros River, where tens of refugees and migrants have drowned trying to cross.
Choulis said, “Authorities tell Afghan asylum seekers, ‘Your city is bombarded, but you can move to a nearby city, where there is not so much bombing or you can go back to Turkey, it’s safe for you.”
He added: “We don’t tell the Ukrainians, ‘Lviv is still good for you, or Moldova or Poland is fine,’” he added, talking about a western Ukrainian city also being bombed and attacked.
Choulis, like others who spent years working with asylum seekers, said he’s not optimistic Ukrainian refugees’ plight will change the country’s attitude toward those racing away from violence and deprivation elsewhere.
“I’m afraid that soon,” he said, “when the lights go out and there’s a cease-fire, but the country is still in pieces, these people will still be coming and then Europe will put up fences for the Ukrainians.”