After days of hiding in the basement of her home, Sofia Malinovskaya has finally managed to get to safety. Airstrikes and fighting near her home in the Eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv forced her to leave Ukraine.
“A friend and I drove away,” Malinovskaya said. “It took us four days to get to the border. There were so many cars and the traffic jams were crazy. We covered 170 kilometers (106 miles) in seven hours.
🗞️ Subscribe now: get Express Premium to access the best election reports and analysis 🗞️
They left via Slovakia because border traffic had not been very heavy there. Volunteers helped Sofia travel to Krakow, Poland, then to Warsaw and from there to the Greek city of Thessaloniki.
Although she is now safe, she said she felt she had no prospects. “I feel very lost. You realize that you have no place to come back to, because my town is almost destroyed. There is not a building left without any destruction. You don’t know what to do next and you don’t know how to continue 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 who lives here and I could stay with her,” she said.
She added, however, that she was unaware that Greece had been criticized for years for pushbacks and a lack of protection for migrants and asylum seekers.
Help without paperwork
More than 10,000 people crossed the border on Wednesday, according to Vadym Sabluk, consul general of Ukraine in Thessaloniki.
“The Greek government has kindly agreed to let all Ukrainians fleeing the war come to Greek territory,” he said.
Ukrainians with biometric passports could enter the country immediately. For those who identify themselves with other documents, such as a birth certificate, a center has been set up at Promachonas, the Greek-Bulgarian border post, where refugees are given documents to be completed 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, from March 28, an online pre-registration platform to receive documents in the Greek Government’s Temporary Protected Status will be launched,” Sabluk said, adding that the status can remain valid for up to three years.
Sabluk, who has been working non-stop since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, said he was 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 accommodate Ukrainians,” he said.
Russians living in Greece are also showing solidarity, Sabluk added. “The Russians come and ask for forgiveness and they work hand in hand with our volunteers,” he said.
Good refugee, bad refugee
Inside Thessaloniki’s City Hall, Ukrainians, Russians and Greeks worked together to assemble parcels of food, clothing and medicine to send to Ukraine. But on the streets of Athens, more than 400 police have been busy with Operation Skupa (“broom”), carrying out checks on asylum seekers and detaining anyone who cannot prove their identity.
“I’m scared to go out at all,” says a young Afghan, adding that he doesn’t know where he will go when the camp where he lives closes in May.
His asylum application was rejected twice, he said. In Kabul, his hometown, he worked as an interpreter for international media, and he fears the Taliban will carry out his death threats if he returns to Afghanistan.
The Afghan’s attempt to file a new asylum application failed. For hours he tried, if necessary, to register via the Skype messaging service, but he never succeeded. He must now go, at his own expense, to the district of Evros, located at the other end of the country, to submit his application to a reception centre.
He said his time in Greece left him with little confidence in the Greek authorities. He mentions having witnessed police violence and illegal deportations while trying to cross the border between Turkey and Greece.
The Afghan said comparing the treatment of Ukrainian refugees to his own situation angers him. “They are new arrivals and they have to follow the same procedure as all other refugees,” he said.
The war in Ukraine is the main topic of discussion in the camp where he lives, he said, adding that the situation there was bad enough without seeing how others received preferential treatment.
Documented violations of the law
Human rights activists have long denounced the Greek government’s treatment of refugees. However, the government claims that Turkey is a safe third country and therefore people are not entitled to international protection in the EU.
Addressing parliament, Greece’s Minister of Migration and Asylum, Notis Mitarakis, recently called refugees from Ukraine “real refugees”. Meanwhile, top politicians have declared asylum seekers from the Middle East or Africa to be “illegal immigrants”, according to Greek media.
Neda Noraie-Kia, an expert on European migration policy at the Heinrich Böll Foundation, affiliated with Germany’s Green Party, said she disapproves of the Greek government’s unequal treatment of refugees. A rather bleak picture 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 is important that the EU responds to documented breaches of the law,” she told DW.
Nevertheless, it is also important that Ukrainian refugees receive protection in Greece without red tape, she added.
“It proves, after all, that solidarity is possible,” Noraie-Kia said, adding that such solidarity must also extend to those seeking protection.
Many people, including Afghan asylum seekers, have been waiting too long for an asylum hearing, trapped in a legal gray area for years.
“Protection from war and persecution is not an act of mercy,” Noraie-Kia said. “We in the EU are not isolated in this world. When authoritarian regimes oppress their citizens, we cannot turn a blind eye. We must take our responsibilities.
This article was originally published in German