BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Hundreds of thousands are heading to neighboring countries — Ukrainian refugees holding children in one arm, possessions 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. disturbed and hurtful. .
LOOK: Fighting continues in Ukraine as hundreds of thousands flee
“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 we’ve been used to, people whose identities we weren’t sure of, people with unclear pasts, who might even have been terrorists…”
“In other words,” he added, “there is no longer a single European country 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 described a sense of deja vu as he followed events in Ukraine. He had also taken 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.
The change in tone of 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. In the second, this week, he addressed Ukrainians.
Some journalists are also criticized for their descriptions of Ukrainian refugees. “They are prosperous middle-class people,” said an Al Jazeera English TV presenter. “These are clearly not refugees trying to flee from parts of the Middle East…to North Africa. They look like any European family you would live with next door.
The channel issued an apology saying the comments were insensitive and irresponsible.
CBS News apologized after one of its correspondents said the conflict in Kiev was “not like Iraq or Afghanistan which have seen conflict rage for decades.” It is a relatively civilized, relatively European city.
As more people rushed to flee Ukraine, there were several reports of non-white residents, including Nigerians, Indians and Lebanese, being stranded at borders. Unlike Ukrainians, many non-Europeans need visas to enter neighboring countries. Embassies around the world were scrambling to help their citizens get through.
Videos shared on social media under the hashtag #AfricansinUkraine reportedly showed African students prevented from boarding trains from Ukraine, to make room for Ukrainians.
The African Union in Nairobi said on Monday that everyone has the right to cross international borders to flee conflict. The continental body said “reports that Africans face unacceptable dissimilar treatment would be outrageously racist and in breach of international law”.
He urged all countries to “show the same empathy and support for all people fleeing war, regardless of their racial identity”.
Poland’s UN ambassador Krzysztof Szczerski told the General Assembly on Monday that claims of discrimination based on race or religion at the Polish border are “a complete lie and a terrible insult to us”.
“Nationals of all countries who have suffered Russian aggression or whose lives are in danger can seek refuge in my country,” he said.
Szczerski said people of some 125 nationalities were admitted to Poland on Monday morning from Ukraine, including Ukrainians, Uzbeks, Nigerians, Indians, Moroccans, Pakistanis, Afghans, Belarusians, Algerians and many others. In total, he said, 300,000 people arrived during the crisis.
When more than a million people entered Europe in 2015, support for refugees fleeing wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan was relatively high at first. 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” (“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 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, earning them the nickname “Fortress Europe”.
Just last week, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees denounced “violence and serious human rights violations” across European borders, specifically pointing the finger at Greece.
Hundreds of people, mostly from Iraq and Syria but also from Africa, were stranded in a no man’s land between Poland and Belarus last year as the EU accused Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of luring thousands of foreigners to its borders in retaliation for 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 fire for paying 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.
READ MORE: Analysis: Where are the Afghan refugees going?
Jeff Crisp, former head of policy, development and evaluation at UNHCR, agreed that race and religion influence the treatment of refugees.
“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 past decade, suddenly came up with a much more positive response,” he said. 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 echoed Orban’s thinking, saying they want to protect Poland’s identity as a Christian nation and ensure its security.
These arguments have not 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.
In Poland, Ruchir Kataria, an Indian volunteer, told the AP on Sunday that his compatriots were stuck on the Ukrainian side of the border crossing in 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.
Vanessa Gera in Warsaw, Poland; Justin Spike in Budapest, Hungary; Jennifer Peltz from the United Nations and Anna Cara from Nairobi, Kenya, contributed to this report.