Anti-war protesters in Thessaloniki have been showing their support for Ukrainians | Photo: Florian Schmitz/DW
Anti-war protesters in Thessaloniki have been showing their support for Ukrainians | Photo: Florian Schmitz/DW

Thousands of Ukrainian refugees have entered Greece, where they enjoy international protection. For non-Ukrainian refugees, however, the situation remains tense and frustrating.

After days of hiding in the basement of her house, Sofiia Malinovskaya finally made it to safety. Airstrikes and fighting near her home in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv forced her to leave Ukraine. 

"A friend and I left by car," Malinovskaya said. "It took us four days just to get to the border. There were just so many cars, and the traffic jam was crazy. We moved 170 kilometers (106 miles) in seven hours."

They left via Slovakia because border traffic there had not been very busy. Volunteers helped Sofiia get to Krakow, Poland, then on to Warsaw and, from there, to the Greek city of Thessaloniki.

Sofiia Malinovskaya fled from Kharkiv to Thessaloniki | Photo: Florian Schmitz/DW
Sofiia Malinovskaya fled from Kharkiv to Thessaloniki | Photo: Florian Schmitz/DW


Although she is now safe, she said she feels she has no prospects. "I feel very lost. You realize that you don't have the place to get back, because my city is almost destroyed. There isn't a building left without any destruction. You don't know what to do next and you don't know how to keep living a normal life after that," she said.

Malinovskaya came to Thessaloniki because she knew she would have a place to live. "I have a close friend living here, and I could stay with her," she said. 

She added, however, that she did not know that Greece has been criticized for years for pushbacks and lack of protection of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Ukrainians have been fleeing to various neighboring countries | Credit: DW
Ukrainians have been fleeing to various neighboring countries | Credit: DW

Aid without red tape

More than 10,000 people crossed the border as of Wednesday, according to Vadym Sabluk, Ukraine's consul general in Thessaloniki.

"The Greek government kindly agreed to let all Ukrainians who escape from the war come to the Greek territory," he said.

Ukrainians carrying biometric passports could immediately enter the country. For those identifying themselves with other documents, such as a birth certificate, a center has been set up at Promachonas, the Greek-Bulgarian border checkpoint, where refugees are given paperwork to fill out by the police. They could then submit the document to the nearest immigration authority and be officially registered.

"According to the Ministry of Migration and Asylum, starting from March 28, an online platform for pre-registration for receiving documents in the status of temporary protection of Greek government will be launched," Sabluk said, adding that the status can remain valid for up to three years. 

Sabluk, who has been working nonstop since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, said he has been overwhelmed by the willingness of Greek authorities and citizens to help his compatriots.

"Many people come to the consulate and offer their own apartments, houses and rooms in order to welcome Ukrainian people," he said.

Volunteers have been bundling up aid packages for Ukraine | Photo: Florian Schmitz/DW
Volunteers have been bundling up aid packages for Ukraine | Photo: Florian Schmitz/DW


Russians living in Greece are showing solidarity as well, Sabluk added. "The Russians are coming and begging pardon and they work shoulder-to-shoulder with our volunteers," he said.

Good refugee, bad refugee

Inside Thessaloniki's city hall, Ukrainians, Russians and Greeks have been working together to assemble packages of food, clothing and medicines to be sent to Ukraine. But out on the streets of Athens, more then 400 police officers have been busy with Operation Skupa ("broom"), carrying out checks on asylum-seekers and detaining anyone who can't prove their identity.

"I'm afraid to go out at all," said a young Afghan, adding that he does not know where he will go when the camp where he lives shuts down in May.

His application for asylum was rejected twice, he said. In Kabul, his hometown, he worked as an interpreter for international media outlets, and he fears the Taliban will make good on threats to kill him if he returns to Afghanistan.

The Afghan's attempt to submit a new asylum application was unsuccessful. For hours he tried, as required, to register via the Skype messenger service, but he never got through. Now he has to travel, at his own expense, to the district of Evros, situated at the other end of the country, to submit his application at a reception center.

He said his time in Greece has left him with little trust in Greek authorities. He mentions witnessing police violence and illegal deportations while trying to cross the border from Turkey to Greece.

The Afghan said comparing the treatment of Ukrainian refugees with his own situation makes him angry. "They're new arrivals and should go through the same procedure as all the other refugees," he said.

The war in Ukraine is the main topic of discussion at the camp where he lives, he said, adding that the situation there was difficult enough without seeing how others have received preferential treatment.

Documented breaches of law

Human rights activists have long denounced the Greek government's treatment of refugees. The government, however, claims that Turkey is a safe third country and that, therefore, people had no right to international protection in the EU.

Speaking to the parliament, Greek Migration and Asylum Minister Notis Mitarakis recently labeled the refugees from Ukraine "real refugees." Meanwhile, leading politicians have said asylum-seekers from the Middle East or Africa are "illegal immigrants," according to Greek media.

Neda Noraie-Kia, of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Thessaloniki, disapproves of Greece's unequal treatment of refugees | Photo: Florian Schmitz/DW
Neda Noraie-Kia, of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Thessaloniki, disapproves of Greece's unequal treatment of refugees | Photo: Florian Schmitz/DW


Neda Noraie-Kia, an expert in European migration policy at the Heinrich Böll Foundation, which is affiliated with the German Green Party, said she disapproves of the Greek government's unequal treatment of refugees. A rather somber picture has emerged regarding refugee protection in Greece, she said: Illegal deportations, lack of basic provisions, lack of integration efforts — the list of accusations is long.

"It's important that the EU responds to documented breaches of law," she told DW.

Nonetheless, it is also important that refugees from Ukraine receive protection in Greece without red tape, she added.

"This proves, after all, that solidarity is possible," said Noraie-Kia, adding that such solidarity also has to be extended to others who seek protection.

Many people, including asylum-seekers from Afghanistan, have been waiting too long for an asylum hearing, trapped in a legal gray area for years.

"Protection against war and persecution is not an act of mercy,"said Noraie-Kia. "We in the EU are not isolated in this world. When authoritarian regimes oppress their citizens, we can't close our eyes. We must take responsibility."

This article was originally published in German

Author: Florian Schmitz

First published: March 27, 2022

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