Almost anyone would agree that war is horrifying and peaceful countries should do their best to help its victims. The widespread eagerness to welcome fleeing Ukrainians after Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded their country last February is a heartening example of such aid. But behind that altruism lies an ugly truth: most of the countries embracing Ukrainians are simultaneously persecuting equally desperate refugees from elsewhere.
Such unequal mercy would be no surprise from nations like Ukraine’s neighbors Hungary and Poland, controlled by nationalist parties that have rarely welcomed anyone not white and Christian. However, the same thing is happening in Western Europe, the United Kingdom, Australia, and here in the United States, the very democracies sworn to protect those fleeing war and persecution and that, in the case of America, sometimes turned those people into refugees in the first place. Our Global War on Terror alone has displaced an estimated 37 million people since we invaded Afghanistan in 2001.
One of the worst examples of this unequal mercy is taking place in Greece, a major gateway to Western Europe for anyone fleeing the Middle East or Africa. Between February and mid-April of this year, some 21,000 Ukrainians made it to Greece — more in three months than the total number of asylum seekers who entered the country in all of 2021. There, the Ukrainians were instantly granted temporary protection status, giving them access to medical care and jobs, subsidized housing and food allowances, schooling for their children, and Greek language classes for adults.
This is an admirable example of how all people who flee danger and war should be welcomed. But I’ve been visiting Greece for years now to research my new book, “Map of Hope and Sorrow: Stories of Refugees Trapped in Greece,” and I know a lot of refugees there who have found no such generosity. Most are Syrian, Afghan, or Iraqi, but some are Kurdish or Palestinian, while others come from African countries, including Cameroon, Eritrea, Gambia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and the Republic of Congo.
They, too, escaped war, violence, and other kinds of persecution. In fact, the Syrians, just like the Ukrainians, fled Putin’s bombs when he was helping Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, hold onto power. Yet, unlike the Ukrainians, these refugees are forced to languish for years in inhumane, slum-like camps, while their children are denied schooling. They are routinely turned away from hospitals, doctors, or dentists, and are all too often treated with disrespect, even hatred, by landlords, employers, and regular citizens. That hurts. As my friend and co-author, the Syrian writer and refugee Eyad Awwadawnan, whom I first met in Greece, put it, “I think the world should do all it can for Ukrainian refugees, but we are getting a clear message from the Greek government that we are worth less than they are.”
DOOMED TO HELPLESS
During my visits to Greece between 2018 and 2022, I witnessed many examples of its appalling treatment of refugees. At one point, in a camp on the Northern Aegean island of Samos, I found more than 3,000 people living in shipping containers or tents in and around an old military base, surrounded by piles of garbage swarming with rats. They had no potable water, the few toilets were broken, the food mostly inedible, and there was no security for women, children, LGBTQ+ people, or anyone else particularly vulnerable to bullying, assault, or rape. Thousands more asylum seekers were similarly trapped on other islands with nowhere to go and nothing to do, while yet others were locked up in Greek prisons for merely exercising their right to seek asylum. In our book, Eyad and I describe the way people are arrested and imprisoned simply for steering their boats to Greece, or for coming from the wrong country.
The Syrians, just like the Ukrainians, fled Putin’s bombs when he was helping Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, hold onto power. Yet, unlike the Ukrainians, these refugees are forced to languish for years in inhumane, slum-like camps, while their children are denied schooling.
Since its New Democracy government took power in 2019, well into the anti-immigrant, Muslim-bashing administration of Donald Trump here in the United States, the Greek government has been ratcheting up its mistreatment of Middle Eastern and African refugees even further. One of its first acts was to evict everyone granted asylum from subsidized housing or camps, while also withdrawing all financial aid. In this way, they were flung into a homeless, jobless void — that is, into forced helplessness. Winning asylum is supposed to mean winning international protected status as a refugee, but in Greece it now means the opposite — getting no protection at all.
Then, in June 2021, just before the Taliban took over Afghanistan, the Greek Minister of Migration, Notis Mitarachi, announced that all new arrivals from Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Somalia, and Syria would be denied the chance to apply for asylum and deported to Turkey, which he deemed a “safe third country,” a legal term for a safe haven for asylum seekers. Yet as human rights groups have made clear, Turkey is anything but safe for those in flight from war or persecution. Not only does Turkey refuse to recognize Syrians as refugees, but it never signed onto the part of the UN 1951 Refugee Rights declaration banning refoulement, the term used for returning refugees to a country where they may be subjected to persecution. This means that Turkey can legally send refugees back to the nations they fled, no matter what dangers await them there.
Last Apr. 16, 2022, Greece upped its persecution even further by closing the housing it offers vulnerable people, such as victims of torture, trafficking, and rape, and sending them to live in camps where there is no security at all.
None of these policies apply to Ukrainians.
At sea, matters are even worse. The Greek authorities and Frontex, Europe’s border and coast guard agency, have been pushing refugees back out to sea instead of rescuing them. They have left families and children abandoned on flimsy rafts or inflatable boats, or on tiny islands without shelter or food. During the pandemic, Greece and Frontex treated some 40,000 refugees this way, causing at least 2,000 to drown — abuse that’s been well-documented by human rights groups. Yet Greece’s immigration minister has denied that any of this is happening.
No less shocking is the way Greece has criminalized the rescue of refugees at sea. Volunteers who go out to search for and rescue the capsized boats of desperate immigrants are being arrested and charged with human trafficking. Sara Mardini, a Syrian professional swimmer portrayed in Netflix’s new movie “The Swimmers,” is one of these. If convicted, she faces 20 years in prison.
Hard as it may be to grasp the idea of making it illegal to rescue drowning people, Greece is far from alone in engaging in such behavior. Just this month, Italy, Malta, and Cyprus banded together with that country to call for the European Union (EU) to take measures against civilian sea rescuers. Of course, the train drivers and airplane pilots who brought Ukrainians into the rest of Europe are never similarly targeted.
The Greek government has justified all this unequal mercy with chilling language, declaring Ukrainians “real refugees” and everyone else an “illegal migrant.” In just that spirit, last month, Greek authorities forced Afghans in a camp outside Athens to cede their housing to Ukrainians and instead live in filthy and derelict shipping containers.
That government has long claimed that it is not at fault for treating refugees so badly because it lacks the money and personnel to handle so many of them. But the minute those 21,000 Ukrainians arrived, the same officials suddenly found themselves able to help after all.
Greece is not entirely to blame for such violations of international law, because many of them are underwritten by the EU, which has been pumping money into the country to keep refugees out of Western Europe since 2016. Recently, for example, the EU paid $152 million to the Greek government to build five remote prisons for asylum seekers. I saw the prototype for them on the island of Samos: Camp Zervou, a collection of white metal shipping containers on a bare patch of land in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by a double layer of hurricane fences topped with barbed wire and surveilled by closed-circuit cameras. It is hot, bare, and hideous. Such prisons will not, of course, hold Ukrainians.
BREAKING HEARTS AND LAWS
Greece is hardly the only country meting out all this unequal treatment. The persecution of non-white refugees seems to be on the rise not just in countries with far-right governments, but in those previously known for their liberality. Along with this persecution, of course, goes the same sort of racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric Donald Trump (not to speak of the Republican Party as a whole) continues to use about those crossing our own border.
Take the United Kingdom, for example. The new Conservative Party Prime Minister Rishi Sunak just offered France $74 million to increase its border security by 40% with the goal of arresting more “illegal migrants” and smugglers to stop them from crossing the English Channel. (An asylum seeker, by the way, is not an “illegal migrant.” The right to cross borders to seek asylum is enshrined in the 1951 Refugee Convention.) That same $74 million could have been put toward legal and humanitarian services for asylum seekers, helping them find safe ways to apply for protection in either France or the United Kingdom, and so depriving smugglers of business without throwing those refugees into even further danger.
Within France itself, while President Emmanuel Macron quarrels with the British over who is to blame for the rising number of refugees trying to cross the Channel, Jordan Bardella, the new leader of the country’s increasingly popular far-right party, has rested his entire platform on closing France’s borders to “drastically limit” immigration. He has made it clear that he’s talking about Muslims and Africans, not immigrants like his own Italian parents.
Meanwhile, in Italy, Giorgia Maloni, the new right-wing prime minister, has just issued a decree forbidding male refugees from getting off rescue boats or setting even one foot on Italian soil. Similarly, Sweden, once a bastion of progressive ideas, elected a new government this past September that cut its refugee quota from 5,000 people a year to 900, citing the white supremacist trope that non-white, non-Christian refugees will otherwise “replace” traditional Swedes.
I could go on: France, Greece, Italy, Malta, and Spain are fighting over who will (or won’t) take stranded boats of refugees, pushing those desperate seagoers from shore to shore like so much litter. The Danes are sending Syrians back to Syria, even after they’ve lived in Denmark for years. Australia is incarcerating asylum seekers under horrifying conditions in detention centers and on isolated islands. And Britain has locked thousands of refugees in warehouses, passed laws denying them basic services like health care and housing, and tried to implement a policy of forcibly deporting some of them to Rwanda.
Here in the US, we’re not doing much better. True, President Biden has managed to curtail some of the worst of Trump’s anti-immigrant policies, undoing the former president’s Muslim ban and raising the number of refugees allowed into the country every year, but his efforts have been inconsistent. Just this October, shortly before the Democrats barely held onto the Senate in the midterm elections, he expanded the Trumpian Title 42 border policy to include Venezuelans, who, only a week or so earlier, were being welcomed into the country. That policy uses Covid fears to force asylum seekers to stay in dangerous, sometimes deadly camps in Mexico, while rendering it virtually impossible for them to even apply for, let alone win, asylum in the US (Biden originally promised to do away with Title 42 altogether, but the Supreme Court blocked his effort. After declaring that he would continue the fight, he now appears to have reversed course.)
Ukrainians are, however, exempted from this Mexican purgatory as a way of “recognizing the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine” (to quote the Department of Homeland Security). Some Afghans are similarly exempt, but only those who worked with the US during our devastating 20-year war in their country. Everyone else is kept waiting for months or even years for their asylum decisions, many of them in detention, regardless of the humanitarian crises they also fled.
All the unequal mercies described here are not only breaking hearts, but laws. A little history: In 1948, Eleanor Roosevelt and the newly formed United Nations created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in reaction to the shocks of the Holocaust and the mistreatment of Jews seeking asylum. Three years later, the UN held a convention in Geneva to create a bill of refugee rights, which were ratified into law by 149 nations, including Australia, Britain, Canada, Greece, most of the rest of Europe, and the United States. (Some countries didn’t sign on until 1967.) The idea was to protect the dignity and freedom of human beings everywhere, while never again spurning refugees in the way that had sent so many Jews back to their deaths.
The Geneva Convention defined refugees as people forced to flee their countries because of “a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group” and who “cannot return home or [are] afraid to do so.” It gave them the right to international protection from discrimination and persecution; the right to housing, schooling, and the chance to work for a living; the right not to be criminalized for simply seeking asylum; and, most importantly, the right not to be subjected to refoulement — and be returned to the countries they had fled.
Thanks, in part, to that convention, when people are driven to flee their countries, they head for the safety and dignity they believe they will find in the West, a belief we are now betraying. To rectify this, the EU’s governing arm, the European Commission, must insist that Europe’s unequal treatment of refugees be replaced with humane, accessible processes that apply consistently to all asylum seekers, regardless of where they come from. The same should be done in Australia, Britain, and the United States. After all, the way we treat refugees today speaks volumes not only about how humanitarian we are, but about how we are likely to act in the future when climate change forces ever more people to flee their homes just to stay alive.
On the other hand, should we continue to favor white Christian refugees over everyone else, we will not only shred the promises and values enshrined in our democracies, but fertilize the poison of white supremacy already festering in the very heart of the West.
Helen Benedict, co-author with Eyad Awwadawnan of Map of Hope and Sorrow: Stories of Refugees Trapped in Greece, has been writing about refugees for more than a decade. A recipient of the 2021 PEN Jean Stein Grant for Literary Oral History and the Ida B. Wells Award for Bravery in Journalism, she has also written 13 books of fiction and nonfiction. She is a professor of journalism at Columbia University.
This piece was originally published in TomDispatch.