Refugees Welcome (Except For Afghans)

By Shala Gafary

The powers that be clearly have a major case of cognitive dissonance when it comes to Afghanistan. Day by day, the Taliban grow increasingly bold in their attacks and are projected to gain more ground. ISIS terrorizes peaceful protests in Kabul. Pro-government forces are also to blame for killing innocents. Even the heavily-fortified American University of Afghanistan was not safe from a militant attack this summer. Neither are medical personnel. Add to that US drone strikes that aim to eliminate radical elements, but too often result in civilian deaths.

It is a terrible cocktail of death, terror, and hopelessness. The UN has reported that more than 11,000 civilians were killed or injured last year, making it the worst year for Afghans since 2001. And it could actually be higher than that. So far, 2016 has been no different. Another suicide bomber attacked on Wednesday.

Adding to the instability, an unprecedented level of Afghan refugees are currently being returned from Pakistan. Of the 2.5 million Afghan refugees living there, some 600,000 are expected to be returned to Afghanistan by the end of the year, many against their will. Undocumented Afghans who have returned report being extorted and beaten by Pakistani police. Humanitarian groups warn that without aid, those who are returned are at risk of starvation and vulnerable to freezing temperatures this winter. Meanwhile, in Iran, the lives of another 2 million Afghans continue to be unbearable. They are physically and verbally abused at school, if they can even jump the bureaucratic hurdles and afford the tuition fees to attend. They are exploited in the labor market. And those who are undocumented are sent to notorious prisons and coerced into fighting in Syria with the Revolutionary Guard.

Knowing all of this, one would think that at the EU-sponsored donors meeting in Brussels the focus would be on protecting Afghans in Afghanistan and trying to minimize the number of human casualties in a seemingly-endless series of wars that over 40 years has cost millions of lives, displaced millions others, and has created one of the largest refugee populations in the world.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case. In 2015, Afghans made up the second largest population of refugees seeking asylum in Europe. These are the lucky ones who escaped and have a chance of a life without explosions and beheadings. But while much of the world’s sympathy lies with refugee movement, it seems that Afghans aren’t really what they meant by ‘refugee.’

Last week, the government of Afghanistan agreed to accept an unlimited number of rejected asylum seekers from Europe. There are even plans to build a new airport to accept the anticipated wave of arrivals. While European officials claim that the humanitarian and military aid is not contingent on the Afghan government accepting these rejected asylum seekers, a leaked document indicates otherwise. In other words, agree that your country is safe enough to return to and that there is no threat to your security. And if you don’t, there will be a threat to your security.

It is the sickest kind of Catch-22.

Here in Athens, news of the agreement spread quickly and the anxiety is palpable. The feeling among Afghan refugees that the effect of nearing three generations of endless war on their safety and security is not being taken into account was already mainstream. Our suffering isn’t acknowledged. Our deaths don’t matter. The terrorism that has killed our families, destroyed our towns and cities, and ruined our prospects of any peace or hope for a safe future, is accepted by the world. No vigils or Facebook flags. No one bats an eye when yet another explosion goes off in Kabul.


A vigil in central Athens on 24 July following ISIS attacks on peaceful protesters in Kabul. Photo by the author.

But this time it’s a different kind of betrayal. Everyone here has risked their life many times over to make it this far. They witnessed smugglers rape and disappear the vulnerable. They were shot at with live ammo. They watched the Mediterranean swallow people whole — a scene described this exact way to me many times, and each time I’m struck by it. They sold everything they had. They cannot go back. It isn’t safe.

Afghanistan is now considered “post-conflict,” they say, but why should those who survived the bombs, mines, stonings, and drones be punished for staying behind. They were the ones who stepped up to rebuild their country. They were interpreters for the Americans, the British, and other western forces. They were teachers, carpenters, prison guards, lawyers, and even assisted in intelligence. Changes to the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program made them ineligible for legal immigration. Still other NATO countries offered no such relief for them in the first place.

These men, among others, are now here in Greece and have found the reception for Afghans has been anything but “welcome.” As a category of nationals, they are outside the UNHCR relocation scheme, which means that unlike other refugee populations, their future in Europe is not guaranteed. While they wait for their asylum claims to be processed, they also do not qualify or are not high priority for placement at hotels. This is the case even for most vulnerable persons among them such as pregnant or unaccompanied women, the elderly, and persons with serious medical conditions and the disabled.

But it doesn’t end there. When the borders had closed and long-term camps were created, they were passed over for placement at the best camps with air-conditioned containers and toilets. Instead, nearly all Afghan refugees on the mainland spent the sweltering Greek summer in camping tents, using filthy port-a-potties, on dirt flooring among snakes and scorpions. At Elliniko camp, which exclusively houses Afghans, the site of the former Athens airport and 2004 Olympic stadiums, a young boy was killed, nearly all residents suffered from health issues, and conditions were ‘unfit for humans.’

This discrimination is felt even in unofficial residences created and reaffirmed by those in solidarity with the refugee movement. Afghan families are vastly underrepresented in anarchist squats, the makeshift housing residences in former schools, office buildings, and hotels. This feeling of being less-than continues when interacting with NGOs and even volunteers, who Afghans feel prefer to work with and spend their funds on Syrians. Sure, Greece is no paradise for any refugee. But Afghans are systematically kept from accessing the very few pieces of highly placed vegetables.

And so: et tu Brute? The very conference that was meant to show the international community’s concern for the condition of Afghans and commitment to their future has come with strings long enough to be hanged by. What happens from here? How many more years of instability and deaths will it to make the world finally say: Afghans welcome?

Shala Gafary is an Afghan-American attorney, New Yorker, and Blossom Hill Fellow working on legal issues affecting refugees in Greece. This piece originally appeared on ExtraNewsfeed.

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