Throughout Europe, including Greece, governments are welcoming millions of refugees from Ukraine when for years they have been erecting barriers to stop refugees from other parts of the world. It is not a surprise that many commentators talk of hypocrisy and double standards.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen spoke for many European leaders when she proclaimed, “Everyone who has to flee Putin’s bombs will be welcomed with open arms.”
Ukrainians enjoy visa-free travel to the EU, as well as a special dispensation from Brussels giving them the immediate right to work and live within the bloc.
Greece which has recently been accused of tightening its borders to the east by even employing the unlawful tactic of pushbacks has enthusiastically endorsed the EU’s decision to welcome and accommodate refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine.
Ukraine’s refugees are “real refugees”
At Greece’s border with Bulgaria, officials have rapidly staffed up reception centers to greet the Ukrainians escaping Russian bombs. They hand out cell phone cards, snacks and a warm meal to arrivals.
Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarakis called Ukrainians “real refugees.” What he was trying to say was that the people fleeing devastating conflict and persecution in Afghanistan, Syria, and other countries who are coming to Greece are not.
The latter, the minister claims, are “irregular migrants” because they come via Turkey, and should seek asylum there, as it is the first country they reach.
A few European politicians have also stressed that Ukrainian refugees are qualitatively superior by virtue of their race and religion to those from countries in Latin America, Asia, Africa and Oceania – collectively known as the Global South.
“These people are Europeans,” Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov said, referring to Ukrainians.
“These people are intelligent,” Petkov explained. “They are educated people. … This is not the refugee wave we have been used to, people we were not sure about their identity, people with unclear pasts, who could have been even terrorists.”
Human Rights Watch responded to the refugee issue by saying: “Greece is right to show solidarity with refugees fleeing Ukraine. But this moment should prompt a fundamental shift in Greece’s approach to dealing with people fleeing similar conflicts in other parts of the world and an end to Greece’s violent and abusive border policies that put refugees in harm’s way.”
Greece, Europe, and the refugee crisis in the mid-2010s
The Ukrainian crisis is not the first refugee crisis that Europe has experienced. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the 2011 Arab Uprisings in the Middle East led to an increase in the numbers of refugees trying to enter Europe, mainly through Greece, Italy, and Spain.
By the middle of the decade, hundreds of thousands of refugees arrived in Greece which was at the time in the midst of an unprecedented financial crisis.
Greece was struggling to cope with the influx. The European Union implemented an Emergency Relocation Mechanism to help countries like Greece grapple with the refugee crisis. Under this plan, nearly 100,000 asylum seekers would be relocated to various EU member states (66,400 from Greece and 39,600 from Italy).
As of August 29, 2017, only 27,228 persons had been relocated – 28% of the 66,400 from Greece and 20% of the 39,600 from Italy.
Refugees of color meet hostility
EU solidarity with Greece and Italy proved insufficient. Refugees and migrants tried to storm the border with North Macedonia for a route toward Europe. Many made it across where they were met by batons, stun grenades, and tear gas from the Serbian, North Macedonian and Hungarian authorities.
More recently in 2021, several hundred Afghan, Syrian, Iraqi and other asylum-seekers were stranded in forests and marshlands along the Poland-Belarus border, without shelter, food or water in freezing temperatures and facing regular violence by Polish and Belarusian border guards.
There were at least a dozen deaths, including of children. European countries were refusing to open the border.
Europe’s response to these refugees of color has been overwhelmingly hostile.
Tazreena Sajjad, a scholar of refugees and forcible displacement at the American University School of International Service recently said that “the European Union’s response to Ukrainian refugees a stark contrast with the treatment of the international students, African and Asian migrants and the untold number of refugees and asylum-seekers of color from Syria, Afghanistan and Bangladesh also fleeing Ukraine.
“As scholars of race and racism in Europe have explained, and reports on race relations confirm, the European response is also consistent with the racism, Afrophobia and Islamophobia that have historically defined EU’s immigration system.”
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