Refugees from Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, and Syria have long faced dismal living conditions while struggling to access asylum procedures and essential services in Greece. According to NGOs and human rights groups, Greece’s reception of Ukrainians escaping Russia’s invasion shows another way is possible – if only there was the political will.
The number of Ukrainians in Greece is relatively small compared to countries such as Poland and Germany, which host around one million and 1.5 to two million Ukrainians respectively. Overall, there are an estimated 6.4 million refugees from Ukraine across Europe, more than 90 percent of whom are women and children.
Around 72,000 Ukrainians have entered Greece since Russia began its offensive at the end of February, and more than 18,000 have applied for protection under a never-before-used EU Temporary Protection Directive (TPD) that gives people escaping the fighting the right to live, work, and access essential services in EU member states for up to two years.
The reception of Ukrainians has been “astonishingly positive”, Kleio Nikolopoulou, an advocacy officer and lawyer for the Greek Council for Refugees, told The New Humanitarian. However, she added, it is “so frustrating” that this system isn’t available to other refugees.
Ukrainians – who Greece’s Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi referred to as “real refugees” in March – are able to enter Greece without a visa, and the Greek government has created an easy-to-use online platform for them to make appointments to register for protection status. Once registered, they are given social security and tax numbers that allow them to access the labour market, healthcare, and housing and food support, according to a recent report by the Greek Council for Refugees, Oxfam International, and Save the Children.
In comparison, around 7,000 asylum seekers and migrants have entered Greece by crossing the Aegean Sea or the land border between Greece and Turkey so far this year. The number is a far cry from the one million people – mostly Syrian refugees – who crossed from Turkey to Greece in 2015 and 2016, and the tens of thousands who entered annually in subsequent years.
Since March 2020, those numbers have dropped significantly as Greek authorities have systematically pushed asylum seekers and migrants back from the country’s land and sea border – a practice that is illegal under international law. The pushbacks have been widely documented by journalists, human rights groups, and digital investigators. But the Greek government denies they are taking place.
For those who do make it into the country, asylum procedures are “almost impossible to access”, with too few asylum centres accepting claims, and – until recently – a non-functioning online appointment platform, according to Nikolopoulou.
As a result, many people end up undocumented despite trying to apply for protection. This leaves them cut off from essential services such as healthcare and accommodation, as well as the labour market. And even people who do register as asylum seekers and receive refugee status face a bleak situation: The Greek government has been cutting back housing and financial support for refugees since 2019, leaving thousands of people facing destitution and homelessness.
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According to Nikolopoulou, the Greek government has long blamed the shortcomings of the country’s asylum and migration reception system on technical issues and a lack of capacity. But the swift establishment of a more dignified system for Ukrainians has undermined that narrative, she said.
“[They] don’t want people [from Asia and Africa] to actually enter the country,” Nikolopoulou said. “It is so frustrating to see how differently [Ukrainians and non-Ukrainians] are being handled.”
Greece’s Ministry of Migration did not respond to questions submitted prior to publication. A spokesperson contacted by phone directed The New Humanitarian to public statements on the ministry’s press page that did not answer any specific questions.
Different systems, different experiences
Many Ukrainians who have come to Greece already had family and friends in the country, or came because – unlike some other EU countries – Greece has allowed those who left Ukraine during the two months before the start of Russian offensive in February to apply for protection, according to the Greek Council for Refugees, Oxfam International, and Save the Children report.
Maria Smahlii, 24, from Kyiv, arrived in Athens on 20 February for a holiday with her boyfriend. Four days later, they watched in shock and disbelief from afar as the war broke out.
Smahlii and her boyfriend soon applied for temporary protection, a process she said was “quite easy”. But being in Greece, she also realised the procedures were easier for her than for people escaping conflicts in other parts of the world.
“It’s like a privilege because not every refugee from other countries has these important [tax and social security] numbers,” she told The New Humanitarian. “And that’s a disaster, actually, because like this you can’t survive.”
Olena Soinikova, 43, from Zaporizhzhia in southeastern Ukraine, said she and her family also came to Greece because they left Ukraine before 24 February. She added that she feels Ukrainians have “more freedom” than other refugees, and not having access to the labour market would be extremely difficult. “We need to work,” she said.
“It’s like a privilege because not every refugee from other countries has these important tax and social security numbers.”
In contrast, the asylum system for those fleeing other countries has left many undocumented and vulnerable. Euphemille, a 35-year-old asylum seeker from Gabon who asked to go by her first name only, fled an abusive partner in her country, and arrived on the Greek island of Samos in 2017. Her first asylum application was rejected in June 2021. Over a year later, she is still struggling to register her new claim.
Euphemille was pregnant when she reached Greece and was soon transferred from Samos to the mainland. While she receives childcare and housing support from charitable organisations, Euphemille said it is “very difficult” to get by without governmental support or a social security number, which she can’t access without a registered claim.
In the meantime, she’s afraid of getting caught up in police raids, which regularly take place in the neighbourhood where she lives in Athens. The raids are ostensibly meant to reduce crime, but reportedly disproportionately target migrants and people of colour. “When the police are everywhere, I never go out,” Euphemille said. “It’s better to stay in the house with my children.”
According to Nikolopoulou, many people without papers are arrested and end up detained for months. Several Afghans and Syrians that the Greek Council for Refugees represented spent up to nine months in detention without a trial. “It seems like they have just been forgotten by the authorities,” Nikolopoulou said. “Most of them are released after an intervention is made by a lawyer. So, we see that it doesn’t serve any purpose.”
Divergent journeys, divergent reception
The fact that Ukrainians are able to enter Greece safely through legal routes to apply for protection is another glaring contrast, according to rights advocates. Increasing these avenues for refugees and asylum seekers from other parts of the world is something NGOs have spent years campaigning for, according to Martha Roussou, senior advocacy coordinator for the International Rescue Committee in Greece.
“[Ukrainians] did not have to rely on smugglers; they did not take dangerous routes to safety, at least outside of Ukraine,” she said.
“Being able to come to Europe by expanding safe and legal routes, and being able to seek protection, should be our number one priority.”
Many Ukrainians have suffered traumas associated with the conflict in their country, but they have largely “escaped the trauma of the journey that IRC mental health staff witness on the ground… with other nationalities”, Roussou added.
Europe and Greece’s opening of safe routes for Ukrainians should be emulated for other nationalities, according to Roussou. "Being able to come to Europe by expanding safe and legal routes, and being able to seek protection, should be our number one priority," she said.
Currently, refugees and asylum seekers have little choice but to take irregular routes to Europe and are frequently subjected to various forms of exploitation and physical and sexual abuse during their journeys, as well as violence and abuse by state security forces at borders.
The boat journey Parwarneh Afshari, 35, took from the Turkish coast to the Greek island of Lesvos in July 2017 is a memory that still brings her to tears. Afshari fled persecution in Iran, but said that she had never felt as afraid as she did that night.
Afshari tried to back out of the crossing when she saw the small dinghy that was supposed to carry her and the dozens of people waiting on the beach in Turkey. Instead of letting her leave, Afshari said a smuggler threatened her with a gun, saying he would kill her if she did not get on the boat. “I cannot explain my feelings… [I was] afraid,” she said.
Afshari has since received refugee status in Greece, and told The New Humanitarian she is comfortable living in Athens but is still processing her past experiences. “Now, I must cry for my life,” she said.
Beyond the journey, reception and accommodation conditions for Ukrainians and non-Ukrainians is another area where there is a wide divergence in treatment. Almost 17,000 refugees currently live in Greek camps, with NGOs reporting that a tiny handful are from Ukraine.
“[Camp management] started to clean all the camp and started to clean the rooms, and fix stuff if something was broken. It was the first time [I’d seen this],” Mohammad Shohada, a 32-year-old from Syria’s Idlib, told The New Humanitarian of his camp’s response to the arrival of Ukrainian refugees earlier this year.
Shohada has been living in Serres camp near the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki with his five-year-old son since 2021. Several families were moved out of his part of the camp into another, more poorly maintained area when Ukrainians started arriving in the country, he said.
While a small number of Ukrainian refugees are reportedly housed in camps such as Serres, their access to financial aid is not dependent on residing in a government structure – as it is for other refugees. This makes it easier for many Ukrainians to live in rental accommodation or with family and friends.
Shohada, whose statement was backed up by an NGO that asked to not be named in order to maintain its relations with the Greek authorities, said there are around 10 Ukrainian families in Serres camp, and that those families were provided with new blankets and ovens, which had not been provided to the existing residents.
Despite the differing treatment, Shohada still empathises with those fleeing Ukraine. “They are still refugees,” he said. “They are still losing their country.”
“Europe’s remarkable response to people fleeing Ukraine shows that it is perfectly possible for Greece and other EU countries to roll out a dignified reception system for all asylum seekers, irrespective of where they are from or how they arrive in Europe,” Roussou said. “We have the capacity to welcome refugees in a coordinated, fair, and humane way when we want to – when there is political will.”
Among the recommendations made by the Greek Council for Refugees, Oxfam International, and Save the Children in their recent report is for the registration system for asylum applications in Greece to be replaced “with an alternative modelled on the online platform established for Ukrainian refugees”.
“We have the capacity to welcome refugees in a coordinated, fair, and humane way when we want to – when there is political will.”
Roussou supports this approach, and stated that the approach to reception and integration embodied by the TPD is proven to have better outcomes. “The IRC’s experience in supporting refugees across Europe has highlighted that early integration benefits both refugees and host communities alike,” she said.
While the hope of safely returning to their home countries has faded for many refugees who have come to the EU in recent years, for Smahlii and many other Ukrainians, thoughts of returning to their country – rather than of integrating into new communities – are still at the forefront of their minds.
“We are not planning to stay here and to build our new life here,” Smahlii said. “[At the same time], it’s really hard to imagine that the war ends. If it ends soon, that means it doesn’t end as we want.”
Edited by Eric Reidy.