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For Ukraine, Greece erects migration system not always offered to others

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ATHENS — Greece, Europe’s longtime landing pad for migrants, is now operating two welcoming systems.

One is the system being established for Ukrainian refugees flowing in from the north. 

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. The government is even encouraging NGOs in Greece to shift their resources toward Ukraine. Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi called Ukrainians “real refugees.”

The other is the system for those arriving from the Middle East and Africa.

Along the country’s maritime borders and land connection to Turkey, migrants leaving behind war in Syria or Taliban rule in Afghanistan have been turned away — often illegally, according to human rights workers and the U.N. Refugee Agency, but not according to a recent Greek government probe. Those who do make it across can face criminal charges for smuggling. The NGOs assisting these migrants argue their work has similarly been criminalized.

“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 their original smuggler, Mohammad said. 

Of course, the situation is not an exact comparison. 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. Afghans, Syrians, Somalis and others do not automatically have similar legal rights. And the Greek government says the country has always done and will continue to do its duty, pointing out that it was at the forefront of the migration surge in 2015, when many EU nations were wary of taking in refugees.

Still, the current situation in Greece illustrates the bifurcated approach unfolding across much of Europe: Ukrainians are being ushered in with supportive rhetoric, while other refugees are still quietly subject to an EU system that prioritizes keeping refugees out of the bloc and still has no settled agreement on how to distribute arrivals.

One Greek lawmaker who supports his government’s migration policies bluntly explained the distinction. 

“Τo say it cynically, 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,” said Dimitris Kairidis, a member of the ruling New Democracy party.

The government denies these differences do not lead to discrimination in its asylum policies.

“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 with this,” said spokesman Giannis Oikonomou at a briefing earlier this week.

Fortress Europe

Greece in recent years has become known across Europe for its hardened immigration stance.

With the EU’s aid, hundreds of millions of euros were spent establishing a security-focused migration system — new compounds ringed with barbed wire replaced unsanitary tent cities; new surveillance equipment was purchased to detect migrants arriving in rickety boats. Greece also extended a fence lining the country’s Turkish border. 

The center-right New Democracy party pushed the approach after coming to power in 2019, vowing not to allow a repeat of the 2015 migrant surge, which saw hundreds of thousands of people enter Europe through the Aegean islands off mainland Greece. 

When Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in 2021, the country actively discouraged Afghan citizens from coming to Greece without prior permission (it did, however, swiftly accept hundreds of Afghan women from Kabul’s now-deposed civil society). 

NGO workers say migrants who have arrived in Greece in recent years are often subject to overly harsh criminal punishments. 

In the same prison where Mohammad waits while he appeals his sentence, Afghan asylum seekers Amir Zahiri and Akif Rasuli are also facing 50-year prison sentences for smuggling. Like Mohammad, they both say their smuggler bailed before the Greek coast guard spotted their dinghy. They are both appealing the sentences. 

Choulis, the lawyer, said this approach is Greece’s new norm. In 2019, Choulis said, over 1,900 people were put in prison on smuggling charges. And once in prison, lawyers say it is much more difficult, if not impossible, for asylum seekers to get passports or travel documents. 

Even those who successfully apply for asylum are often rejected with what Choulis described as discriminatory rationales.

“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 said.

“We don’t tell the Ukrainians, ‘Lviv is still good for you, or Moldova or Poland is fine,’” he added, referencing the western Ukrainian city that has escaped the fiercest Russian shelling.

Then there are the aid groups working with these asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa. 

The government has imposed new registration rules for NGOs operating in the country, which Amnesty International argued has created “burdensome and intrusive requirements … which make it virtually impossible for certain NGOs to comply.” It also introduced a new law making it illegal for charities to undertake sea rescues unless they work closely with the coast guard or the coast guard is absent from the area and approves the operation.

“We are taking control of migration from the NGOs,” Mitarachi, the migration minister, said of the new legislation. 

These laws are not just empty words. Between 2016 and 2018, Greek authorities charged roughly two dozen aid workers with espionage over their role in helping migrants arriving in the country. And prominent NGO Josoor also appears to be under the spotlight. According to local media reports, Greek authorities are probing the organization, which assists migrants and monitors violence at the Turkish border. 

Josoor says it isn’t active in Greece and has never rescued migrants at sea, yet Josoor co-founder Natalie Gruber said the group can’t access its case file to see the exact potential charges. And Gruber said the group is facing a second investigation concerning allegations that it paid migrants money to lie about being illegally turned away (people have the right to apply for asylum in the EU).

“There are also many details in the case that make you paranoid, as there are things that you could only have if you had access in my WhatsApp,” Gruber said, citing details leaked to the media. “At first, every time I was called to help, I was thinking, ‘Does he really need help, or is he a spy?’”

Gruber said these probes have cost Josoor funding and driven almost every search-and-rescue organization out of Greece. 

“Nobody dares meeting arrivals anymore, you risk ending up in prison,” she said.

Greece’s government doesn’t comment on ongoing investigations.

Open Europe, uneasy Europe

It’s a different scene in northern Greece. 

Along the country’s border with Bulgaria, Ukrainians are arriving to open arms. Greek authorities have renovated an old building into a proper reception center that operates 24/7. A camp nearby has opened and is ready to host them as long as needed. Greek officials are quick to express support.

“Greece stands ready to receive refugees from Ukraine,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said after an EU leaders’ gathering earlier this month.

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.” 

While the system may look dichotomous, human rights workers caution countries often initially open their arms to migrants when violence erupts, only to later stiffen as the conflict drags on and arrivals mount. 

Eleni Takou, co-founder and deputy director of HumanRights360 recalled the praise Greece received in 2015 for its magnanimous approach to Syrian refugees.

“Then people got tired,” she said. “Cynically, people think they will leave soon. When they realize that these people will stay, then the attitude shifts.”

Aid workers say the outpouring of sympathy for Ukrainians undermines the government’s arguments that the country simply can’t support many migrants from the Middle East and Africa. 

Still, Choulis, like others who have spent years working with asylum seekers, is not optimistic that 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.”

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