A silence that was deafening. A religious identity that became a turn-off. A nation that shut doors on innocent children. This is Europe for Muslim refugees of the Arab world.
As Europe goes into overdrive to welcome war-ravaged Ukrainians, Muslim refugees in the Arab world are asking uncomfortable questions to the US and the west.
Over 12 million Syrians have been uprooted by war, critics ranging from Hariri to activists and cartoonists contrast the Western reaction to the refugee crisis triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with the way Europe sought to hold back Syrian and other refugees in 2015.
Some recalled images of refugees walking for days in harsh weather, or losing lives in perilous sea crossings as they tried to breach Europe’s borders.
Images of Alyan Kurdi’s body lying on the shore with face down is still afresh among the people. Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy drowned on September 2, 2015, in the Mediterranean Sea along with his mother and brother. Alan and his family were Syrian refugees trying to reach Europe from Turkey amid the European refugee crisis.
On Monday, four days after Russia launched its attack, the European Union said at least 400,000 refugees had entered the bloc from Ukraine, which has land borders with four EU states.
Millions more are expected and the EU is preparing measures that would offer temporary residence permits as well as access to employment and social welfare – a swift opening of its doors at odds with its response to wars in Syria and elsewhere.
By early 2021, 10 years after Syria’s conflict erupted, EU states had taken in 1 million Syrian refugees and asylum seekers, of which Germany alone took more than half. Most of them arrived before a 2016 deal in which the EU paid billions of euros for Turkey to continue hosting 3.7 million Syrians.
This time the welcome has been immediate.
“We have here not the refugee wave which we are accustomed to and we do not know what to do with – people with an unclear past,” Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Kiril Petkov said, describing Ukrainians as intelligent, educated, and highly qualified.
“These are Europeans whose airport has been just bombed, who are under fire,” he said. Bulgaria has said it will help everyone coming from Ukraine, where there are about 250,000 ethnic Bulgarians.
Last year 3,800 Syrians sought protection in Bulgaria and 1,850 were granted refugee or humanitarian status. Syrians say most refugees only pass through Bulgaria to wealthier EU states.
Poland’s government, which came under heavy international criticism last year for pushing back against a wave of immigrants crossing over from Belarus, mostly from the Middle East and Africa, has welcomed those fleeing the Ukraine war.
In Hungary, which built a barrier along its southern border to prevent a repeat of the 2015 influx of people from the Middle East and Asia, the arrival of refugees from neighboring Ukraine has triggered an outpouring of support and offers of transport, short-term accommodation, clothes, and food.
Hungary and Poland both say that refugees from the Middle East who arrive at their borders have already crossed other safe countries which have a duty to provide shelter.
Hungary’s Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto defended the different approaches. “I must reject drawing comparisons between those fleeing war and those trying to get into the country illegally,” he told a United Nations meeting in Geneva.
The welcome has been eased by the fact that Ukraine is home to a large ethnic Hungarian community.
Ties like those have led some Western journalists to suggest that the humanitarian disaster in Ukraine is different from crises in Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan because Europeans could relate more closely to the victims.