As the war in Ukraine triggers a mass exodus of refugees, countries have opened their doors wide to Ukrainians, offering a warm welcome that has historically been denied to other populations fleeing conflicts across the globe.
That contrast became more stark this week, when the Greek government was accused of shunning desperate Syrian asylum seekers, even as it strove to be hospitable to asylum seekers escaping violence in Ukraine.
HumanRights360, a Greek human rights organization, said in an interview on Thursday that a group of about 30 Syrian refugees, including several children, had been stranded for days on a small island in the Evros River, which separates Greece and Turkey. One of the children has gone missing, according to the group, while a pregnant woman had suffered bleeding. Thursday was their fifth day there, in subzero temperatures at night, the organization said.
Their plight marked a sharp contrast to Greece’s embrace of Ukrainian refugees since Russia’s invasion of the country. On Wednesday, President Katerina Sakellaropoulou of Greece visited Ukrainian children at a Ukrainian cultural center in Athens as the authorities scrambled to enroll hundreds of children in the Greek school system. She said the country had a “duty to show our active solidarity.”
At least two and a half million Ukrainians have fled their country in what the United Nations has called the fastest growing refugee crisis since World War II.
Greece’s migration minister, Notis Mitarachi, pointed to a “great difference” between displaced Ukrainians and asylum seekers from other countries on Wednesday.
“Ukrainian refugees are experiencing war in a country that borders the European Union,” he explained to the Greek Parliament, adding that many other migrants enter the bloc “illegally” and “7 out of 10 are deemed not to be refugees” by the government.
Some human rights advocates have pointed to a humanitarian double standard in which Europe prioritizes aiding white Christians over helping others fleeing war and strife.
“The wonderful outpouring of solidarity with Ukrainian refugees stands in stark contrast to the treatment of migrants and refugees from other parts of the world, most of them brown and Black,” Judith Sunderland, an associate director for Europe and Central Asia for Human Rights Watch said in an interview. “Europe is doing the right thing this time but this tremendous empathy and solidarity should stretch to everyone in need.”
Other European leaders have also described Ukrainian refugees as less of a threat and more deserving of help than others.
Denmark, which has some of the toughest anti-immigration legislation in Europe, passed a law on Wednesday that offers Ukrainian refugees expedited residency and work permits, giving them access to the education and health care systems. The law came as Syrian asylum seekers have been languishing for months in deportation centers in Denmark, after the country started revoking their residency permits in 2019.
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In 2016, as many refugees fled conflicts in the Middle East and Africa to Europe, Denmark passed a law requiring newly arrived asylum seekers to hand over valuables, including jewelry and gold, to help pay for their stay in the country. Ukrainian refugees are exempt from that law.
The Danish government has also made an agreement with local authorities aimed at integrating asylum seekers into Danish communities within four days of their being granted a temporary residency permit.
“It’s going to go very fast. Within a couple of weeks many Danes will have a new colleague, a new neighbor or a new classmate,” Mattias Tesfaye, Denmark’s immigration minister, said on Danish television.
The welcome given to Ukrainian refugees in countries like Greece, Denmark, Poland and Hungary, which have been openly hostile to refugees in the past, is a striking turnaround from the European refugee crisis in 2015 when an influx of more than one million refugees and migrants escaping war and conflict in the Middle East and Africa fanned an anti-immigrant backlash in Europe, and helped buttress far-right parties railing against the perceived threat of Islam.
Poland, whose ruling right-wing Law and Justice party, came to power at the height of Europe’s migrant crisis in 2015, after running a campaign that inspired choruses of “Poland for Poles,” has taken in the largest number of Ukrainian refugees. Hungary, whose hard-line prime minister, Viktor Orban, previously built a border fence on Hungarian-Serbian border to help keep out refugees, has also opened the country’s borders to Ukrainians.
The tiny island in the Evros River separating Greece and Turkey where the Syrians are stranded has been disputed by Turkey in the past, according to HumanRights360. The organization said the island is on Greek territory, and argued that Greece should take in the migrants. Following the reports about the stranded Syrian refugees, the Greek police said on Thursday that they had launched a search but had not found the migrants.