Greece eases ‘tough’ migration policy for Ukrainians

Athens (AFP) – For more than two years, Greece’s conservative government has prided itself on applying a “tough but fair” policy towards thousands of asylum seekers trying to cross the EU’s southeastern border.

But for Ukrainian refugees fleeing the Russian invasion, the reception has been radically different – ​​and long-time migrants were the first to notice it.

Shahran, 16, is one of about 100 Afghans who were recently ordered to leave their accommodation in a camp in Serres, northern Greece, to make room for Ukrainian refugees.

“When the Ukrainians started arriving, we were told to leave the house we were living in and they took us to another area of ​​the camp, to a very dirty container. Why?” he told AFP.

Immigration Minister Notis Mitarachi came under fire last month after calling Ukrainians “real refugees”.

The conservative Greek government, in power since 2019, has stepped up patrols on the border with Turkey intended to crack down on asylum seekers.

It cut benefits for recognized refugees from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia, many of whom have struggled to assimilate in Greece for years.

Closed camps have been set up on Greek islands with EU funds, and asylum seeker support groups have been heavily regulated.

On the other hand, a few weeks after the start of the conflict, Athens issued temporary residence permits to Ukrainian refugees, who will be able to stay and work in the country for a year.

The government has also promised jobs, noting that there are more than 140,000 jobs available in the agricultural sector and some 50,000 in tourism.

More than 18,000 Ukrainians have fled to Greece so far, compared to 32,600 asylum seekers staying in camps across the country.

“Clear Separation”

“There is a clear separation between Ukrainian refugees and asylum seekers from other countries who have been there for several years, or who continue to arrive from neighboring Turkey,” said education officer Pepi Papadimitriou. at the Ritsona camp near Athens, where mainly Afghans live. families live.

For example, dozens of children from Ritsona have not been to school since arriving in Greece three and a half years ago, she notes.

Two camps in Serres have been reserved for Ukrainian refugees in the north, near their point of arrival at the border with Bulgaria.

In 2018, in the same area, dozens of parents boycotted a local school when it was reported that 11 Yazidi children were attending classes there. Protests against the arrival of additional asylum seekers in the camps have also been registered in the north of the country.

Some Ukrainian families have already sent their children back to school in Greece Louisa GOULIAMAKIAFP

And a third camp at Elefsina, near Athens, is being renovated for the same purpose, says camp manager Despina Baha.

Irene, a 39-year-old woman from Vinnytsia, has been living in one of the Serres camps with her two children for two weeks. She is “impressed by the hospitality of the Greeks”, she says.

“We are starting to have a normal life again. The children are going to school and already have friends,” she told AFP.

Veronika Boholiubska left her city of Odessa in southwestern Ukraine with her daughter and grandchildren in early March.

She had spent almost a month in a camp in Uzhhorod, on the border between Ukraine and Slovakia, before deciding to leave alone to find a “safe country, like Greece” and prepare for the arrival of the rest of her family. his family.

“We traveled for three days, in Romania and Bulgaria there were lots of refugees, then I saw on Facebook that Greece was taking in refugees and that access was free,” says the 50-year-old, who arrived at the camp. ‘Elefsina with three small bags.

‘Dual Standard’

For Stella Nanou, head of communication at the Greek section of the UNHCR, “the solidarity shown by the EU towards Ukrainian refugees must serve as an example for all refugee crises” and show that the EU can “have a organized approach to asylum”.

Human Rights Watch refugee and migrant rights director Bill Frelick this week pitted Greece’s response to the Ukraine crisis against the country’s alleged practice of illegally deporting migrants at its borders.

Rights activists say Athens has treated non-Ukrainian refugees much harsher
Rights activists say Athens has treated non-Ukrainian refugees much harsher Sakis MITROLIDIS AFP

“At a time when Greece is welcoming Ukrainians as ‘real refugees’, it is carrying out cruel pushbacks against Afghans and others fleeing war and similar violence,” Frelick said in a report by the group.

“The double standard makes a mockery of the so-called shared European values ​​of equality, rule of law and human dignity.”

Greece has always denied that its security forces engage in unlawful pushbacks.

Last week, its national transparency authority said a four-month investigation opened in November had found no evidence of such practices.