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Q&A: The EU’s ‘racist’ refugee system, and how to fix it

‘It’s nothing new, but now we have to change it.’

Tareq Alaows pictured in Berlin. The former Damascus law student made history last year when he became the first Syrian refugee to run for a seat in the German parliament. Lena-Lotte Agger/TNH
Tareq Alaows pictured in Berlin. The former Damascus law student made history last year when he became the first Syrian refugee to run for a seat in the German parliament.

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In the five months since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine at the end of February, around 890,000 Ukrainians have sought refuge in Germany. That is almost identical to the number of people from Syria, Afghanistan, and elsewhere who applied for asylum in Germany in 2015, at the height of the European refugee crisis.

Europe’s response in 2022, however, has been vastly different from that of 2015. That is a good thing for the Ukrainian refugees who have been largely welcomed today, but it has also cast doubt on many of the arguments the EU has used to justify implementing policies to restrict migration from the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, and elsewhere, says Tareq Alaows, the first Syrian refugee to seek a seat in the German parliament. 

“The past five months show us that anything is possible if there is political will to put in place humane asylum and migration policies,” he told The New Humanitarian in a recent conversation. “It’s great that this has changed now for Ukrainians, but we have to see how we can make this change… for all refugees.”

Alaows’ background in civil society activism and human rights advocacy stretches back to his time as a law student in the Syrian capital, Damascus. Since entering Germany himself as a refugee in 2015, he has been an outspoken advocate for refugee rights, campaigning for better refugee reception conditions and co-founding Seebrücke, a movement that supports NGO efforts to rescue asylum seekers and migrants in the Mediterranean Sea.

Last year Alaows, 33, ran for the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, hoping to become the first Syrian refugee elected to the legislative body. He ended his candidacy after facing a racist backlash and receiving personal threats on his life.

When the Russian invasion of Ukraine began earlier this year, like thousands of people across the EU, Alaows gathered donated items and headed to the Poland-Ukraine border to see what he could do to help. Following reports of discriminatory treatment by border guards in Ukraine and Poland, the civil society group he travelled with particularly sought to help people of colour, people with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQI+ community find safety in the EU.

Overall, at around 3.7 million, the number of Ukrainians who have applied for protection in EU member states so far this year dwarfs the 1.3 million people who applied for asylum in the EU in 2015.

For Ukrainians, the EU has kept its borders open and enacted a never-before-used Temporary Protection Directive (TPD), giving people access to essential services and the right to live and work in EU countries of their choosing for up to three years.

Read more → Ukraine: Snapshots of a refugee crisis in flux

Not so for others. In 2015, the EU and its member states argued that they didn’t have the capacity to receive and host so many asylum seekers and migrants and sought to reduce the number of people reaching Europe by restricting migration routes toward the continent; empowering the Libyan Coast Guard to intercept people at sea; cracking down on NGOs and volunteers providing humanitarian support; and pushing people back from the bloc’s borders.

The New Humanitarian sat down with Alaows to discuss the EU’s differing treatment of Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian refugees, the need to change the current two-tiered approach to asylum and migration, and, as he put it, “why we couldn’t treat all refugees the way we treated Ukrainians.”

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

The New Humanitarian: How does the response to the arrival of Ukrainian refugees in Germany in the past four or five months compare with the response to the arrival of Syrian and other refugees in 2015?

Tareq Alaows: It is great to see that everyone is showing solidarity with the people coming from Ukraine. When the invasion started, many people went to the border – not just from Germany, but from all of Europe – to try to help people by transporting them and helping them find accommodation in private flats. It’s very important to have this solidarity, because it opens a door in “Fortress Europe”.

There was also a lot of solidarity in 2015. Many German civil society organisations have tried to support refugees over the years. But at the same time, the arrival of refugees in 2015 led to a rise in right-wing extremism in Germany. There were demands to close the borders. Right-wing extremist groups were calling for refugees to be shot on the borders.

At the same time, people at the centre of the political spectrum were discussing putting a limit on the number of refugees and migrants who were coming, and talking about how to close down the routes people were taking to come here. This was not coming from the right-wing. It was coming from the centre. 

This time we are not hearing the same calls and discussions. It hasn’t started yet. I’m asking myself if it will start in the coming months, but we haven’t heard it yet. Everyone is just talking about helping Ukrainians. But at the same time [that] politicians in various EU countries are saying we should leave the borders open for Ukrainians, they are also saying we don’t want to receive any Muslim refugees in our countries. 

The New Humanitarian: What does the response to Ukraine say about Europe’s capacity to receive refugees?

Alaows: The past five months show us that anything is possible if there is political will to put in place humane asylum and migration policies. All of the arguments about capacity and the need to limit migration were not real arguments. There was just no political will to help people coming to Europe’s borders. It’s great that this has changed now for Ukrainians, but we have to see how we can make this change in our migration politics, in the asylum system, and in our laws for all refugees.

For non-Ukrainian refugees, we are still talking about the possibility of them being able to access their rights at the EU’s borders – we are talking about them having the ability to seek asylum. Too often, they don’t have that possibility. People trying to cross the border from Belarus to Poland, for example, aren’t able to access their right to seek asylum. The Poland-Belarus border is so close to the Poland-Ukraine border. On one border you have soldiers trying to help kids. On the other border you have soldiers pushing people back to Belarus – and they are the same soldiers. This is an example of the racist asylum and migration politics that the EU has had for years. It’s nothing new, but now we have to change it. 

You also see the different treatment and racist comments about Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) from Ukraine. European countries have made it easier for Ukrainian refugees to access their rights by enacting the Temporary Protection Directive, but BIPOC people from Ukraine are having a hard time getting the same status. Immigration authorities in the EU are checking to see if they have meaningful connections with Ukraine. 

I know people who have lived in Ukraine for 15 years and didn’t get permanent residency yet, which would qualify them for temporary protection in the EU. Instead, they have been told by immigration authorities that they are supposed to go back to their country of origin. They are not connected with their country of origin. They are connected with Ukraine because they lived there for a very long time and had to flee because of the war. 

What you are doing is making two classes of refugees: Ukrainians in the first class, and the other refugees – all of them – in the second class. 

The New Humanitarian: Is there space in German society to have a conversation about the different ways Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian refugees have been treated, or do people think now is not the time because there is currently a need to support Ukraine? 

Alaows: The past four or five months were not the right time to have this conversation because we needed to support the Ukrainians who were arriving here. But now the number of people arriving is decreasing, and it’s time to reflect on our racist migration and asylum system. It’s time to ask why we couldn’t treat all refugees the way we treated Ukrainians. 

I can understand that people in Germany are emotionally connected with Ukraine because it’s a nearby country. But we are not talking about emotions here: We are talking about human rights and the law. So I can understand that individual people want to support Ukrainians and not other refugees. That’s their choice, and they have to reflect on why and where it comes from. 

On a political level, there is no place for emotions and there is no place for fear. Politics based on fear is not good politics. Our migration and asylum policies are based on basic human rights. We just have to apply them. We have to treat every person the same, and the past five months have shown us that it is possible to have humane migration and asylum policies. 

At the same time, it is important to emphasise that Ukrainians are not responsible for the different treatment they receive compared to other refugees. That is the responsibility of our racist system. Ukrainians were forced to leave their country and come to other countries in Europe because of Russian aggression. Our racist system made these two classes of refugees, and we have to talk about it. 

The New Humanitarian: Looking to the future, what challenges do you see for Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian refugees in Germany?

Alaows: There are many challenges. I’m also not saying that everything is great and wonderful for Ukrainians. Germany has a very bureaucratic system, even for people who are applying for TPD. We could make it much easier by having a more flexible and better coordinated bureaucracy. 

At the same time, the difference in treatment is clear to refugees from other countries, and it’s frustrating them. Many people I’ve spoken to have asked why the TPD wasn’t applied in 2015 for people from Afghanistan and Syria when it was clear that there were wars in Syria and Afghanistan. As a civil society activist, I don’t know how to answer this. I was one of the people who arrived in Germany in 2015, and I ask myself the same question. 

It’s great to have the TPD now. The task now is to put more pressure [on politicians] to make sure that this way of receiving people is extended to refugees from other countries. With the climate crisis and people on the move all over the world, the number of refugees arriving in Europe will not decrease in the future. It will probably increase. After 2015, the previous German government thought they had closed the borders and dismantled the system they had set up to receive refugees. Now, we’ve had to rebuild that system, and we will need it again. I hope the new government does not destroy it after the current crisis. 

Edited by Andrew Gully.

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