For Ukraine, Greece is building a migration system that is not always offered to others – POLITICO

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ATHENS – Greece, Europe’s long-standing landing point for migrants, now operates two reception systems.

One of them is the system being put in place for Ukrainian refugees pouring in from the north.

On the Greece-Bulgaria border, officials quickly set up reception centers to greet Ukrainians fleeing Russian bombs. They hand out mobile phone cards, snacks and a warm meal to those who arrive. The government even encourages NGOs in Greece to shift their resources to Ukraine. Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi called the Ukrainians “real refugees”.

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

Along the country’s sea borders and land connection with Turkey, migrants who have left the war in Syria or Taliban rule in Afghanistan have been turned away — often illegally, according to human rights activists and the UN refugee agency, but not according to a recent Greek government investigation. Anyone who manages to do so faces criminal charges of smuggling. The NGOs supporting these migrants argue that their work has also been criminalized.

“It’s not just criminalizing the right to seek asylum, it’s outright intimidation,” said Dimitris Choulis, a lawyer representing Hanad Abdi Mohammad, a 28-year-old Somali who faces a 146-year prison sentence for smuggling after he was arrested Arrived aboard a dinghy in 2020. They were 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 permit from Brussels giving them immediate rights 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, noting that it was at the forefront of the migratory surge in 2015 when many EU nations balked at 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 tacitly subjected to an EU system that prioritizes keeping refugees out of the bloc and which is still not settled Agreement on the distribution of accesses.

A Greek MP who supports his government’s migration policy bluntly explained the difference.

“To be cynical, we’re not talking about a massacre in a distant place somewhere in the depths of Africa by irreligious people, but – to be cynical, I know it sounds politically unorthodox, but unfortunately that’s what counts – Christians, whites, Europeans, who are from us, who come from us”, called Dimitris Kairidis, member of the ruling New Democracy party.

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

“Any refugee who flees because there is war in his country, because there is an invasion, can be housed here, under conditions that guarantee him dignified accommodation and respect for his rights – if he meets the requirements – and if the Das Land can handle it,” spokesman Giannis Oikonomou said at a briefing earlier this week.

Fortress Europe

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

With help from the EU, hundreds of millions of euros have been spent to build a security-focused migration system – new facilities surrounded by barbed wire replaced unsanitary tent cities; New surveillance equipment has been purchased to spot migrants arriving in rickety boats. Greece also extended a fence along the country’s Turkish border.

The centre-right New Democracy party pushed the approach after coming to power in 2019 and vowed not to allow a repeat of the 2015 migrant push that saw hundreds of thousands of people enter Europe via 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 authorization (however, it quickly took in hundreds of Afghan women from Kabul’s now-defunct civil society).

NGO officials say migrants who have arrived in Greece in recent years often face excessively harsh penalties.

In the same prison where Mohammad is waiting while he appeals his sentence, Afghan asylum seekers Amir Zahiri and Akif Rasuli also face 50 years in prison for smuggling. Like Mohammad, both say their smuggler was rescued before the Greek Coast Guard discovered their dinghy. Both are appealing the verdicts.

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

Even those who successfully apply for asylum are often turned down on what Choulis called discriminatory grounds.

“Authorities tell Afghan asylum seekers: ‘Your city is being bombed, but you can move to a nearby city where there aren’t that many bombs, or you can go back to Turkey, it’s safe for you,'” he said.

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

Then there are the support groups that work with these asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa.

The government has introduced new registration rules for NGOs operating in the country, the Amnesty International argued has “created onerous and intrusive requirements … making it virtually impossible for certain NGOs to comply”. A new law was also introduced prohibiting charities from conducting sea rescues unless they work closely with the Coast Guard or the Coast Guard is not in the area and authorizes the operation.

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

These laws are not just empty words. Between 2016 and 2018, Greek authorities charged around two dozen aid workers with espionage over their role in helping migrants arriving in the country. The prominent NGO Josoor also seems to be in the spotlight. According to local media reports, Greek authorities are investigating the organization that supports migrants and monitors violence at the Turkish border.

Josoor says It is not active in Greece and has never rescued migrants at sea, but Josoor co-founder Natalie Gruber said the group cannot access its case file to see the exact possible charges. And Gruber said the group faces a second probe over allegations it paid migrants money to lie about being illegally turned away (people have the right to seek 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 to my WhatsApp,” Gruber said, citing details released to the media. “In the beginning, every time I was called for help, I thought, ‘Does he really need help, or is he a spy?'”

Gruber said these investigations cost Josoor funding and drove nearly every search and rescue organization out of Greece.

“Nobody dares to meet newcomers anymore, you risk ending up in prison,” she said.

The Greek government has not commented on the ongoing investigation.

Open Europe, troubled Europe

Things are different in northern Greece.

Along the country’s border with Bulgaria, Ukrainians arrive with open arms. The Greek authorities have converted an old building into a real reception center that operates 24 hours a day. A camp nearby has been opened and is ready to accommodate them for as long as needed. Greek officials are quick to express their support.

“Greece is ready to accept refugees from Ukraine,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said after an EU meeting earlier this month.

Tourism Minister Vasilis Kikilias even has pushed the NGOs helping refugees in the Aegean islands relocate their work to Ukraine, where people are “in dire need”.

Although the system may seem dichotomous, human rights activists warn that countries often first open their arms to migrants when violence erupts, only to stiffen later as conflict drags on and the number of new arrivals increases.

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

“Then people got tired,” she says. “Cynically, people think they’re going to leave soon. When you realize that these people are going to stay, that attitude changes.”

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

Still, like others who have worked with asylum seekers for years, Choulis is not optimistic that the plight of Ukraine’s refugees will change the country’s attitude towards those fleeing violence and deprivation elsewhere.

“I’m afraid that soon,” he said, “when the lights go out and there is a ceasefire, but the country is still in ruins, these people will still come and then Europe will erect fences for the Ukrainians. ” For Ukraine, Greece is building a migration system that is not always offered to others - POLITICO

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