Europe welcomes refugees from Ukraine; those from the Middle East, Africa not so lucky

They march through neighboring countries by the hundreds of thousands – refugees from Ukraine holding children in one arm, belongings in the other. And they are warmly welcomed by the leaders of countries like Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Moldova and Romania.

But while the hospitality was applauded, it also highlighted stark differences in the treatment of migrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa, particularly Syrians who arrived in 2015. have troubled and deeply harmful.

“These are not the refugees we are used to…these people are Europeans,” Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov told reporters earlier this week of the Ukrainians. “These people are smart, they are educated people. … It’s not the wave of refugees that we were used to, people whose identities we weren’t sure of, people with hazy pasts, who could even have been terrorists…”

“In other words,” he added, “there is not a single European country left that is afraid of the current wave of refugees.”

Syrian journalist Okba Mohammad says the statement “mixes racism and Islamophobia”.

Mohammad fled his hometown of Daraa in 2018. He now lives in Spain and, together with other Syrian refugees, founded the first bilingual magazine in Arabic and Spanish. He said he was not surprised by the remarks from Petkov and others.

Mohammad described a sense of deja vu as he followed events in Ukraine. Like thousands of Ukrainians, he also had to take shelter underground to protect himself from Russian bombs. He also struggled to board a crowded bus to flee his town. He was also separated from his family at the border.

“A refugee is a refugee, whether European, African or Asian,” Mohammad said.

When it comes to Ukraine, the shift in tone from some of Europe’s most extreme anti-migration leaders has been striking – from “We’re not going to let anyone in” to “We’re letting everyone in”.

These comments were made just three months apart by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. In the first, in December, he addressed migrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa seeking to enter Europe via Hungary. In the second, this week, he addressed Ukrainians.

And it’s not just politicians. Some journalists are also criticized for the way they report and portray Ukrainian refugees. “They are prosperous middle-class people,” said an Al Jazeera English television presenter. “These are obviously not refugees trying to get away from areas of the Middle East…to North Africa. They look like any European family you would live next to.”

The channel issued an apology saying the comments were insensitive and irresponsible.

CBS News also apologized after a correspondent said the conflict in Kiev was “not like Iraq or Afghanistan which have seen conflict rage for decades. It is a city relatively civilized, relatively European”.

When more than a million people entered Europe in 2015, support for refugees fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan was much greater. Of course, there have also been moments of hostility – such as when a Hungarian cameraman was filmed kicking and possibly tripping migrants along the country’s border with Serbia. .

Yet at the time, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said “Wir schaffen das” or “We can do it”, and the Swedish Prime Minister urged citizens to “open their hearts” to refugees.

Volunteers gathered on Greek beaches to rescue exhausted families crossing on flimsy boats from Turkey. In Germany, they were greeted with applause at train and bus stations.

But the warm welcome quickly ended after EU countries disagreed on how to share responsibilities, with the main pushback coming from central and eastern European countries such as Hungary and Poland. . One by one, governments across Europe have tightened migration and asylum policies, doubling down on border surveillance, earning them the nickname “Fortress Europe”.

Just last week, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees denounced the increase in “violence and serious human rights violations” across European borders, specifically pointing the finger at Greece. .

And last year hundreds of people, mostly from Iraq and Syria but also from Africa, found themselves stranded in a no man’s land between Poland and Belarus as the EU blamed Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of attracting thousands of foreigners to its borders in retaliation for the sanctions. At the time, Poland was blocking access to aid groups and journalists. More than 15 people froze to death.

Meanwhile, in the Mediterranean, the European Union has come under heavy criticism for funding Libya to intercept migrants trying to reach its shores, helping to send them back to abusive – and often deadly – ​​detention centres.

“There is no way to avoid questions about the racism deeply embedded in European migration policies when we see how different the reactions of national governments and European elites are towards people who try to leave. ‘reach Europe,” Lena Karamanidou, an independent migration and asylum researcher in Greece, wrote on Twitter.

Jeff Crisp, former head of policy, development and evaluation at UNHCR, agreed that race and religion influence the treatment of refugees. Like many, he was struck by the double standard.

“Countries that had been really negative on the refugee issue and made it very difficult for the EU to develop a coherent refugee policy over the last decade, suddenly came up with a much more positive response,” noted crisp.

Much of Orban’s opposition to migration is based on his belief that to “preserve cultural homogeneity and ethnic homogeneity”, Hungary should not accept refugees from different cultures and religions.

Members of Poland’s ruling conservative nationalist party have also consistently echoed Orban’s thinking on migration to protect Poland’s identity as a Christian nation and ensure its security, they say, arguing that large Muslim populations could increase the risk of terrorist threats.

But none of these arguments have been applied to their Ukrainian neighbors, with whom they share historical and cultural ties. Parts of today’s Ukraine were once also parts of Poland and Hungary. Over a million Ukrainians live and work in Poland and hundreds of thousands more are scattered across Europe. Some 150,000 ethnic Hungarians also live in western Ukraine, many of whom have Hungarian passports.

“It’s not completely abnormal for people to feel more comfortable with people who come from where they live, who speak the (similar) language or have a (similar) culture,” Crisp said.

But as more people rushed to flee as Russia advanced, there were several reports of non-white residents of Ukraine, including Nigerians, Indians and Lebanese, being stranded at the border with Poland. . Unlike Ukrainians, many non-Europeans need visas to enter neighboring countries. Embassies around the world were scrambling to help their citizens struggling to navigate the chaotic border crossings out of Ukraine.

Videos shared on social media and posted under the hashtag #AfricansinUkraine reportedly showed African students prevented from boarding trains from Ukraine – to make room for Ukrainians.

In Poland, Ruchir Kataria, an Indian volunteer, told The Associated Press on Sunday that his compatriots were stuck on the Ukrainian side of the border crossing leading to Medyka, Poland. In Ukraine, they were first told to go to Romania hundreds of kilometers away, he said, after already walking long distances to the border, without eating for three days. Finally, on Monday, they succeeded.

The UN Refugee Agency urged “host countries (to) continue to welcome all those fleeing conflict and insecurity, regardless of nationality and race”.