So the other day I ended up in a heated debate with my Turkish teacher. In Turkish. Which felt quite disabling. I was reading a news article about refugees and smugglers, when she commented that she was angry with Afghans coming here and trying to reach Europe, as there is according to her no security problems in Afghanistan, and thus the people who leave the country are purely economic migrants – often already rather wealthy. She agreed that they should have the right to move, and that maybe a small proportion of them are in need of protection, however, Afghans should respect that there are more urgent crisis going on (Syria and Iraq) and that they should therefore wait in their country, and not take the ‘spots’ and resources from people in greater need. And so on.
Even though I can kind of see where she’s coming from, I disagreed quite a lot. Frustrated with my inability to properly communicate, I went home and researched about Afghanistan for 10 hours or so (because I’m just not capable of prioritizing my time). I ended up not sending it to her, because it’s taking too much time to translate it to Turkish xD But since it’s here, I thought I’d share it with you. It’s a random mixture of facts, news, emotions and opinions, with a variety of reliable to less reliable sources and you’re reading it at your own risk 🙂
I’m actually not going to write an introduction to Afghanistan, because I’m sure that you know more than I do (this was intended for my teacher, if you don’t agree then google knows more than I do anyways). However, I wish to highlight some events and facts that makes me consider the country within a severe armed conflict, which we could denominate war. This lays the foundation for why I think that Afghans seeking refuge should not be considered economic migrants by default.
American drones dropped 251 bombs in Afghanistan in January and February 2016 (which is 3 times more than last year) – although Obama decided to end combat mission in the country a year ago. Why? Because ISIS, with their Khorasan branch, is gaining more territorial control in the country. About 340 people have been killed in these airstrikes. The ISIS branch in Afghanistan, whose link to the group in Syria and Iraq is unclear, is recruiting followers in 25 of the nation’s 34 provinces brings more horror and a new dimension to the country.
The ISIS in Afghanistan include members of foreign origin, for example Chechnya and Uzbekistan, according to the villagers, though the UN investigators have reported that ISIS fighters from Iraq and Syria have also come to Afghanistan. ISIS and the Taliban have also declared war on each other, accounting for a number of casualties. After ISIS winning fierce battles with the Taliban in a southeastern village, where also a number of civilians fell victim, houses of suspected Taliban supporters were burned, men were abducted from mosques and several of them tortured and executed through painful means.
Villagers report of how ISIS is forcing families to send at least one of two sons to join their forces, and families with daughters to provide wives for the newly recruited fighters, if they don’t want to be beheaded. In most cases, both perpetrators and victims were Pashtuns, which might explain the current lack of mass-rape as we have seen committed in amongst others Iraq. Nevertheless, the treatment has not been mild. “They pulled out my brother’s teeth before they forced him to sit on the bombs”, says one of the tribal elders. Villages were forced to join the Wahhabism, whereas they had previously mainly practiced the Hanafi strain. Schools were shut down, electricity lines torn and cellphone towers destroyed.
Nevertheless, the Taliban insurgency poses a bigger threat in bigger parts of Afghanistan as they seem to be stronger than ever since 2001 – which is when the Taliban rule of the country ended. During the first month of 2016, there were at least 4 bombing attacks with more than 85 casualties by the Taliban in Kabul – a city deemed safe according to Swedish authorities (though of course not safe enough for Swedes to travel to). The victims were mainly civilians, including children, media personnel, but also police officers. During the past month, Taliban have gained increase geographic power as army forces have pulled out of several cities following months of deadly battles. Historically, the Taliban have in general been more active during the summer months, which might lead to the suspicion that the situation will worsen later this year. The combats have increased since most foreign troops left the country in 2014, and in response to this troubling trend, Obama has decided to keep about 5’500 troops in Afghanistan, as opposed to the initial decision.
Diversity of actors
The situation is also complicated as many actors are present in the area. We have the ISIS and the Taliban, as previously mentioned, but also Pakistan’s efforts to target militant extremism within their border had the consequence of pushing more militants across the border to Afghanistan. Furthermore, the diversity of ethnicities as well as branches of Islam causes tension outside of armed groups, and we have seen a history with discrimination and unorganized violence as well. Since many years back, Kuchi nomads and primarily Hazara’s have annual clashes with many casualties. Many of the refugees are of Hazara ethnicity, and they tell of violence from several actors and perpetrators.
During last year, we saw a number of events where passengers were forced off busses by gunmen after being forced to show identification documents. Several of these passengers, who were mainly of Shiite minority, were then executed, amongst others through beheadings, which created countrywide – and even international – protests among the Hazara population. Also my social media feed was filled with pictures of a 9 year old girl named Shukria, I don’t know if you’ve read about her. Her family had returned from Pakistan, where they had been refugees, to Afghanistan in 2012, to work their land again. Her father, who walks on crutches, says: “She was the smartest girl in her class. When I hurt my leg, Shukria told me she was going to become a doctor and fix it”. Instead, he had to take farewell of her with her head roughly stitched to her neck. Some leaders in Afghanistan say that there were over a dozen attacks towards the Hazara minority in Afghanistan during some 10 months of time, and the perpetrators are not always identified.
Iran and Pakistan
More than 2 million Afghans are living in Iran and Pakistan, and a number of them also leave to Europe due to violence and discrimination towards these minorities in the other countries. Iran is also recruiting Afghans – especially those adhering to Shia Islam – to fight for Assad in Syria. This is done to a large part through threats and coercion. This would of course not be a problem if the people affected could consider going back to Afghanistan, but many of them do not see this as an option.
There were 11’002 civilian casualties in 2015, mostly due to the increased ground fighting between Taliban and security forces and complex suicide attacks, UNAMA (United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan) explain in their 2015 Annual Report on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict. These civilian casualties are the highest recorded since 2009, when recording started. The casualties were mainly (62%) caused by anti-government elements, especially the Taliban. During the same period, Afghan security forces suffered from more than 12’000 casualties. The UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) in their 2015 mid-year report also reported of a 50% increase in internal displacement over 18 months as conflicts intensified. Another worrying trend is the increase in recruitment of child soldiers by armed groups. The Taliban uses madrasas to provide military training to teenage children, who are then deployed in combat.
War or not?
Uppsala Conflict Data Program is a rather renowned resource within peace and conflict studies. According to them (as of 2014), there was by 2014 an ongoing war in Afghanistan, with the highest level of violence since the invasion started in 2001 (see table 1). And as mentioned, 2015 was worse than 2014 in regards of casualties, according to UNAMA.
Table 1: Estimation of fatalities in the war against Taleban (and Hizb-I Islami-yi Afghanistan) in Afghanistan during 2001-2014
Indeed, Afghanistan might be less unsafe than Syria and Iraq; it ranks on 160th place out of 162 on the Global Peace Index; with 3,427 points compared to 3,444 of Iraq and 3,645 of Syria (the higher points, the worse). Main factors causing these differences: Afghanistan has less security personnel and police compared to both other countries, more of UN peace keeping funding goes to Syria, where more heavy weapons – and violent demonstrations – can also be found. On the other hand, Afghanistan suffers a greater political instability, have a greater number of internal conflicts fought and spends more money on the military. Iraq suffers the most impact from terrorism, Afghanistan second. We can see that these three countries received the same score for political terror, intensity of conflict and deaths from internal conflict.
Right to Asylum
Now, moving on to asylum seekers. The right to apply for asylum and protection from persecution is described in international laws and conventions. The shape of the current system could be much more safe and efficient. Nevertheless, the asylum process exists in order to distinguish people who need protection from people who don’t need protection. In other words, if someone is granted asylum or subsidiary protection with the benefits that this entails, that person had a reason to flee according to International or domestic law.
The stance of Europe
Germany has indeed explained that asylum seekers from Afghanistan are economic migrants, and not in need of protection. They are also angry with Afghans for fleeing the country. Germany, Macedonia and several European countries have taken measures to decrease the number of asylum seeking Afghans. At the end of last year, the Macedonian border was only open for Afghans, Iraqis and Syrians. Now, Afghans are also off the list. The European Council on Foreign Relations writes that the push by Germany and EU countries to depict Afghan migration as an economic problem is a part of a “broader desire among European policy makers to put Afghanistan behind them”. Whereas the country is “far from truly secure”.
To stay undocumented
If the asylum application is rejected, the person can choose to stay in the country without permission. These living conditions are extremely harsh – they don’t take resources from someone else, as they don’t receive any support. I worked with undocumented migrants in Sweden for about 3 years; we used to hand out food to these undocumented people, and asylum seekers. We would collect left-over food from stores; expired food, old bread, sad vegetables… If they had chosen to return to their countries of origin, the Swedish migration agency would have provided them with transportation, and maybe even some financial support. Instead, they chose to stay in Sweden. Almost three years ago, we implemented a new law granting undocumented migrants subsidized ‘health care that cannot wait’, and children the right to go to school. Before that, they didn’t even have these rights. Most people still don’t know about these rights.
Of course, they do not receive any economical support, and they don’t have the right to legal work. A friend of mine was 17 years when I met him. He was offered a ‘black’ job at a pizzeria. No insurance or guarantees, and he would earn about 4% of my salary. Apart from the lack of services, and job opportunities, they live in constant fear of being discovered and sent back, as well as threats from anti-migration groups. In spite of the difficult situation in Europe and in spite of the dangerous route, they choose to come and they choose to stay. How bad was the socioeconomic situation in their country, I wonder? Or is it because of safety reasons that they came?
The unfriendly discourse
The phenomena of setting vulnerable groups against each other is quite common; for example in Sweden, there are always people arguing that we need to take care of the homeless, the old and the poor Swedish citizens before we start to help refugees and other migrants, with the main argument that we have a set budget, a set quantum of money and resources that can be spent on caring for other humans. That might be true, I have never studied economy, but from what I heard, the profits of big private companies, banks and similar greatly exceeds whatever costs migration might have. Nevertheless, they are not addressed in this zero-sum calculation. The main problem thus does not lay in a conflict of migrants against disadvantaged local population; it’s rather about the systemic level management.
In my opinion, being angry with the ones who are fleeing is misdirected. Blaming them for insufficient support for other refugees in need is to set two vulnerable groups against each other. If we say “an Afghan is living in a house where a Syrian could have lived”, why don’t we say “a Swedish person”, or “a Chinese person”, or “an American” is living in that house, where the Syrian refugee could’ve received shelter? Furthermore, is there a set limit of shelters that can be offered, and these will be distributed as a zero-sum-game? If an Afghan wins, a Syrian loses. No options. Life is dangerous when we play zero-sum games. We all become enemies when we play zero-sum games. Meanwhile, someone further up in the hierarchy, someone above the game, someone benefiting from status quo, is laughing at us and enjoying their privileges. I know that the situation in Syria is extraordinary, but for me, it would make more sense to tell the people in Sweden to buy one less bag of potato crisps per week and thus afford for one more refugee to continue their life in Sweden, than to tell people in Afghanistan to stay. On a structural level, this might be true. But I find it hard to put the blame on the individual – especially of such a country as Afghanistan. I could also scold my friend for buying a bag of crisps instead of donating for UNHCR in Lebanon to help Syrian refugees.
To judge suffering
I agree, that one should be considerate about people in worse situations. But at the same time, it’s too easy for us to judge. “I don’t think you should make such a fuss about you being sexually harassed, at least you were not killed”? People have different perceptions, tolerances and knowledge. When I was reading the articles and reports on violence in Afghanistan, I imagined that I would be the one living there. Had I not fled, if it had been me? Had I not fled, if it was my family abducted in the bus, tortured, beheaded? Had I not fled if my son would be forced to join ISIS, and my daughter would be married to one of their soldiers? Had I not fled, if the government of my country continuously lose ground to terror organizations, if I’m starting to doubt that they will remain in power for much longer? I don’t know, maybe I wouldn’t. Maybe I would’ve thought “wait a minute, my fear and suffering is probably not as grand as of the people in Syria, if I try to find a safer life for myself, maybe one person in Syria is deprived of this opportunity”. Probably not. But what I know is, that I don’t want us to judge the ones who flee.
Now, chances are that a number of Afghans don’t flee because they face an immediate risk of death. The socioeconomic situation in the country is indeed very bad – I encountered a number of articles supporting that during my reading session as well. Even if that is the case, I do think that they have the right to leave. They have the right to apply for asylum, even if they are rejected. Of course I’m not saying that you should do something just because you can; a legal right is not always morally right, but being angry with them is like kicking someone who is already lying down, while privileged people, for example Europeans, hold the same benefits and many more, and use them without a second thought. Who are we to judge how desperate a mother should feel for not being able to feed their child, or a child for not seeing a future after decades of war?
Wealth and poverty
We should once again remember that refugee status has little to do with who is rich and who is poor – economic wealth has little to do with the need of protection, although I admittedly sympathize more with the poor than with the rich. I often think of refugees as poor people, which is definitely not true. On Lesvos, three kind young Afghan men told me: “Don’t help us, don’t pity us. We have money, we’re well educated. We might not have showered for 5 days, but we are not helpless”. And then they gave me a box of dried figs from Iran. I also met many young Moroccan boys on the island, and I would ask myself: “Why are you fleeing? There is no war in Morocco!” And that’s what the authorities also thought, henceforth, the boys were rather badly treated, often not given blankets, food and similar – also by volunteers. We all thought that they were in less need than Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans. They should’ve stayed in Morocco. But at the end of the day, when they are cold and hungry, do they not deserve help and support as much as anyone else? We are not here to compare one person’s suffering to someone else’s. They don’t need our judgement and anger. We, who have money in our bank accounts, who would return to a warm bed by night, have no right to judge them, have no right to tell them to stay in poverty. In my opinion.
Safety and perceptions
Maybe you’re right – maybe, a large percentage of Afghan refugees don’t come from the circumstances that I’ve mentioned before. Some people will say that Afghanistan is safe. I haven’t heard anyone saying that Syria is safe, but as mentioned I have probably a dozen friends trying to convince me to come to Iraq. “It is safe,” one of them promises, while others are screaming that I’m out of my mind if I even considers it. And another one invites me to Libya – “Jessica, if something bad could happen, I would never ask you to come here!” he exclaims. From someone else, I hear that the only one smiling in Libya are the cookies with faces. I don’t think any of them is wrong, or lying. They just have different perceptions of reality. And that’s also human.
The power in words
So, many Afghans – as well as people of other nationalities – might come here ”unnecessarily”. Even if that would be the case, I would kindly like to ask you to be careful with generalizing terms. I understand that you would probably never say that to their face and I feel reassured that you would never treat them like any less of a human being, but I believe that words are still too powerful. As for myself, I might relate unhealthily and abnormally much to the people I meet, but when you say that you’re angry with Afghans who seek a better life in Europe, you’re angry with the child who tried to kill himself when he learned about the rejection of his asylum application. You’re angry with the pregnant women and the two other persons who drowned while trying to enter Macedonia the other day. You’re angry with my friend who would show me the scars on his body and tell me about the bombs that fell when he was a child. And it pains me too.
It pains me, because I know that they are already facing numerous challenges and a lot of hate. Although I have not yet been in Afghanistan, I have heard about difficult times there. Of course, that is a question of belief and disbelief. Sometimes, stories are contradictory. But from the dangerous road and the pain they live through here and along the way, I choose largely to believe. And they are already treated as unwanted. People are angry with them. Hateful. Violent. I don’t want this to happen to them. I’m not claiming that Afghans are in more , or less, need than anyone else, I just want them to be treated respectfully and with dignity. If people think that Afghans shouldn’t be here, that they don’t deserve protection, that they are only selfish and aiming to take advantage of systems designed to protect others, then I can imagine that the treatment of them will be worse. If someone hears “Afghans shouldn’t come here”, then it does sound like it includes everyone from Afghanistan, also the proportion that you recognized might be in need of protection. In fact, the statement is hard to interpret in any other way. And, as mentioned before, it’s already hard for us humans to not generalize, even to statements that are not generalizing.
But to sum it up, my personal believe is that the security situation in Afghanistan is bad enough to be classified as “war”. Furthermore, even if a big proportion of the people leaving the country do not flee due to war, I don’t believe that they carry the blame for difficulties that war refugees face. On top of this, I wish to call for a careful usage of language as it is a powerful tool in shaping thoughts and values. Generalization, anger and blame on a specific ethnic group – especially an already underprivileged such, often constitute the seeds of the alienation, segregation, discrimination and even violence that we see today.
Most people in the world are looking for better opportunities, and migration comes as a natural part of it. Maybe, the war in Syria should make everyone stop and wait. But that won’t happen. If we want to be angry, then maybe we should be angry with everyone. I’m not saying that it’s wrong. In fact, it might be right. Personally, European politicians and decision makers have become the target of my anger, as I believe that they hold more power and responsibility than an individual crossing through the Aegean Sea in a tiny inflatable boat.
- UNHCR 2015 Mid-year trends – January 2016
- The New York Times, “New York Steps up Airstrikes Again as ISIS Gains Territory in Afghanistan” – 18/03/2016
- The Washington Post “Europe Wants to Deport Afghan Migrants but Kabul Is Reluctant to Accept Them” – 19/03/2016
- Newsweek, “Afghan Forces Withdraw Two Helmand Districts amid Taliban Pressure” – 23/02/2016
- Breitbart, “UN: Afghan Civilian Suffer Record 11,002 Casualties in 2015” – 16/02/16
- United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan: Annual Report 2015
- Doctors Without Borders, “Stability and Human Security in Afghanistan” – 04/01/16
- Security Council Report – 2015 September Forecast
- Security Council Report – 2016 March Forecast
- Washington Post, “A New Age of Brutality: How Islamic State Rose up in One Afghan Province” – 13/10/2015
- Deutsche Welle, “Ethnic Hazaras Kidnaped in Afghanistan” – 21/11/2015
- Washington Post, “Beheading of Third Grade Girl Was Just the Spark for Afghan Minority Group” – 28/12/2015
- Uppsala Conflict Data Program: Afghanistan
- Vision of Humanity: Global Peace Index 2015
- Human Rights Watch, “Iran Sending Thousands of Afghans to Fight in Syria” – 29/01/2016
- Human Rights Watch, “Pakistan: Stop Forced Returns of Afghans” – 21/02/2015