Blogbox | Afghanistan

The old story of Afghans left behind

By - 19.08.2021

When leaving war behind is harder than fighting it

As the Taliban entered the gates of Kabul and proclaimed its control from the Afghan presidential palace, the evacuation of U.S. embassy staff and many Western citizens began. This was not the case for ordinary Afghan citizens, for whom commercial flights got cancelled. 

Images of U.S. soldiers firing warning shots at crowds of Afghans trying to enter planes circulated through social media. Other videos showed people in despair clinging to U.S. Air Force planes and falling to their death as they took off.

Whilst the hijacking of U.S. commercial aircrafts at 9/11 launched the “war on terror” in Afghanistan, the U.S. aircrafts taking off from Kabul twenty years later marked a terror war for all Afghans left behind with no government and without any international support.

People have already started posting on how life is evolving under the Taliban’s control. A female journalist had to put on a full burqa to sneak through Taliban-controlled roads to avoid arrest, or at least, postpone it. Others reported on public executions by the Taliban of those who assisted the U.S. Army. Unmarried girls are now being forced to marry Taliban fighters. 

Although the Taliban vow peace, there is no doubt that those (tens of thousands) who worked alongside international personnel, as well as Shia Muslim communities (around 3.8 million), and women (around 14 million) — just to name a few — are facing reprisals under Taliban rule. These can take the form of destitution, arrest, sexual violence and summary execution. As a consequence, many among these groups are feeling the pressure to leave the country.

Old violence and migration 

Reading media reports on Afghanistan this may seem like a new terror in a far away land. However, what is happening to millions of Afghans is not so new nor so distant from Europe. 

For years, I have been hearing from numerous Afghans about (threats of) violence like what is being shared around the media these days. They were usually telling me about their stories at the EU’s doorsteps — Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina — and other EU’s external zones serving for the displacement and containment of Afghan migration — the Turkish-Iranian border.

Some of the makeshift shelters had signs reading “Afghanistan Army” and served to accommodate former frontline soldiers.

Between 2018 and 2019 I was volunteering in a makeshift camp located in the north-west of Bosnia-Herzegovina. With the help of Bosnian and international volunteers, the camp became a home for thousands of refugees and migrants. 

Some of the makeshift shelters had signs reading “Afghan Special Forces” and “Afghanistan Army.” They served to accommodate former frontline soldiers, CRU (the Elite Anti-Terrorism Unit of the Afghan police), interpreters and others personnel working for international forces (most commonly the U.S.) and the Afghan National Army. 

It was a surprise for me when Hameed, who lived in the Afghanistan Army tent, greeted me in my language, “Ahoj”. Hameed explained that he had worked with Czech soldiers as security staff in Kabul.

Their stories of leaving Afghanistan were similar; the Taliban threatened them for their cooperation with whom they considered occupiers, called the men traitors, sent them death threats and in many cases tried to kill them. 

One of them was Ali, a sporty man in his late twenties who spoke perfect English due to his daily work for six years with the U.S. Army. As Ali explained, “when the Taliban started threatening me, I had to leave as I had no special protection.” 

“The U.S. commander for whom I worked told me to wait at least two years to get a visa to America. The process was too slow and I had no time. So, I left by myself,” Ali remembered.

Ali, as other Afghans, mostly had no option other than to flee the country without authorization and be labelled an “illegal migrant,” relying on smugglers in exchange of high fees — an approach as old as war migration in Afghanistan since the 1980s. Yet, the EU border closures from 2015, accompanied by border externalization to non-EU states in the Western Balkans and the Middle East gave rise to push-backs and mass deportations.

Afghans came to the Croatian-Bosnian border with the belief that they could apply for asylum once standing on EU soil, in line with the Dublin Regulation. This law determines that the country where an asylum seeker first enters the EU is responsible to process the asylum application. Yet, to enter EU soil one must first “play the game,” as refugees call the attempts to cross into Croatia. 

However, the games mostly end up in push-backs; refugees are forced back over a border, often with the use of violence.

The former military staff from Afghanistan I met usually told me of being forced by EU (Croatian) police forces to lean on their knees and being placed head on the ground. Sometimes it included a police officer stepping on a person’s head until it was bleeding. They also recalled being severely beaten by batons, threatened with guns and having their phones with the evidence of their refugee story smashed. Almost without exception they were prevented from accessing asylum procedures and were pushed back to Bosnia.

Why do Afghans flee to Europe?

But “why do Afghans end up in the Balkans and try to enter the EU instead of staying in neighboring countries?” This is a common question in public discussions as people worry that Afghans only want to economically enrich themselves in Europe rather than seek safety. 

This idea also goes in line with the European Commission’s policy aiming to delegate responsibility over border and migration management to non-EU states. The goal is to halt migration to the EU through diplomatic and financial bargaining. The EU-Turkey Deal would be a prime example of this.

However, most Afghan refugees in fact seek shelter in the neighboring Iran (780,000) and Pakistan (1,400,000). Yet, Pakistan is known to provide sanctuary for Taliban fighters and Iran has been accused of providing covert aid to the Taliban; Tehran also hailed the group’s victory as “a chance for peace”.

Turkey — the next country — only grants asylum to European citizens and temporary protection to Syrian refugees. Afghans are left to ask for international protection and then wait for a third country to resettle. 

However, my current research on migration at Turkey’s eastern border shows that most Afghans end up stuck in the country for five to ten years with no European state — nor the U.S. — willing to resettle them. Fearing that Afghans would overstay, Turkey recently toughened up its migration and border policies, either deporting Afghans or pushing them back to Iran.

The externalization of Afghan migration 

Non-EU states stretching from the Western Balkans to Turkey — serving as the EU’s external borders — have been left to absorb for years the failed policies of leaving nobody behind and a dysfunctional system of international protection. This means that Afghans who do not get the possibility to be evacuated from their country have no other option than to move irregularly to flee the Taliban. 

Many end up stranded in the EU’s wider neighborhood for months or years, experience violence when playing the games and have to navigate push-backs. Some never complete their journeys to safety.

Whilst Western policy narratives commonly portray Western Balkans as Europe’s periphery — states with fragile economies and questionable rule of law — their local authorities and residents tend to hold responsibility over migration management on the ground. 

For example, Albania, Kosovo and North Macedonia showed willingness to temporarily house Afghan refugees. Tremendous gestures of solidarity by Bosnian citizens providing shelter, food and clothes to refugees in their country since 2018 also demonstrate this.

European leaders will create another political disaster if they respond with continuing deportations or containment in makeshift camps.

Responses by Western and European states do not significantly change even though the threat of terror is ever-present in Afghanistan. Some countries, among others Germany, Canada, the U.S. and the UK, have pledged to evacuate small numbers of Afghans who are at risk due to their close and enduring collaboration. In addition, more than 70 countries worldwide, including EU members, called on all parties in Afghanistan to respect and facilitate the departure of Afghans who wish to leave. 

Yet, the question remains where will Western leaders allow Afghans to seek sanctuary.

The U.S. story in Afghanistan has been called a huge political disaster. U.S. and European leaders are now about to determine whether another political disaster will follow. That will be the only result if they respond to Afghan migration with continuing deportations (as proposed by Austria), or containment in makeshift camps across the Middle East and Western Balkans as it has been until today.

The overwhelming amount of messages from Afghans sharing their fears that I received and saw across social media during the last few days show that a few evacuation flights will do little to rescue everyone in danger. More gestures of solidarity by the West will be necessary to work on legal and safe migratory channels, and most importantly, to prevent any human rights violations of those fleeing.

Feature photo: Courtesy of Saffiulah, a university student from Afghanistan stranded in Kabul.