AMMAN/ SIDON, LEBANON: Syrian refugee Ahmad al-Hariri, who fled the war in his country for neighboring Lebanon 10 years ago, spent the last decade hoping in vain to escape to a new life in Europe.
Watching European nations open their arms to hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians in less than a week, the father of three can’t help but compare their fates.
“We are wondering, why were Ukrainians welcome in all countries while we, Syrian refugees, are still in tents and remain under the snow, facing death, and no one is looking to us?” he told Reuters in a refugee centre where 25 families are sheltered on the edge of the Mediterranean city of Sidon.
In the Arab world, where 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.
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 to crises in Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan, because Europeans could relate more closely to the victims.
Their comments sparked a wave of condemnation on social media, accusing the West of bias. Clips of the reports were widely circulated and heavily criticised across the region.
For instance, a television reporter on U.S. network CBS described Kyiv as a “relatively civilised, relatively European” city, in contrast to other war zones. Others said Ukraine was different because those fleeing were middle class or watched Netflix.
The CBS reporter Charlie D’Agata apologised, saying he had been trying to convey the scale of the conflict. CBS did not immediately respond to a request for further comment.
Nadim Houry, executive director of the Arab Reform Initiative, said parts of the media coverage were disturbing and revealed “ignorance about refugees from other parts of the world who also have the same aspirations as Ukrainians”.
Houry and other critics also say some governments are showing double standards on the issue of volunteers who want to fight in Ukraine against Russian forces.
Britain’s foreign minister Liz Truss on Sunday backed President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s appeal for people to join an international force to fight Russian troops. “Absolutely. If people want to support that struggle, I would support them doing that,” she told BBC television.
In contrast, British police warned Britons travelling to Syria to help the rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad eight years ago that they could be arrested on their return, saying they may pose a security risk to the UK.
The foreign office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Truss’s remarks. Defence minister Ben Wallace said the situation was different to fighters who joined groups like Islamic State in Syria, but that the government would discourage people from going to Ukraine.
While their sense of abandonment has been heightened by the Ukrainians’ welcome in eastern Europe, several refugees in north Syria, Lebanon and in Jordan told Reuters responsibility for their plight lay with authorities closer to home.
Some say Arab countries should have done more to support the military struggle against Assad, which grew out of widespread popular protests against the president in 2011, and helped the refugees more. Apart from Syria’s neighbours Jordan and Lebanon, Arab countries have taken in few of the war’s displaced people.
“We do not blame European countries, we blame Arab countries,” said Ali Khlaif, living in a tented camp near the northwestern Syrian town of Azaz. “European countries welcome those from their people. We blame our Arab brethren, not the rest.”