"Stop Killing Afghans" protest in London in August 2021. Photo credit: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona

Afghan refugees flee to Europe following Taliban takeover

Half a million Afghans have been displaced with limited options amidst a humanitarian crisis and pandemic with limited places to go. 

Twenty years ago, the U.S. and its allies invaded Afghanistan. They aimed to topple the Taliban and Al-qaeda’s weapons of mass destruction in Iraq following the September 11 terrorist attacks said to be spearheaded by Osama Bin Laden. However, weapons of that magnitude were never found. Now, the Taliban have control after the U.S. pulled out its remaining troops in August.

The departure left the country in disarray, placing Afghans who worked with foreign occupation in danger. Since the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, Taliban insurgents have resurfaced and are ready to impose politicized extreme Islamism as witnessed in the 90s

In August, tens of thousands Afghans arrived at the Kabul capital ready to flee the country, while others took refuge in neighboring countries. Videos showcasing desperation and bomb attacks left many aghast considering a big percentage of residents cannot leave the country. Although the Taliban denies the claims, six airplanes carrying roughly 1000 American citizens and Afghan interpreters were held hostage at the Mazar-i-Sharif International Airport.

However, on September 9, 113 foreigners were flown out of Kabul, the first flight since the US military-led evacuations finished last month. While many have been evacuated, others are in limbo about their destination of refuge. For leaders in Europe, they are debating on their arrival.

Even as Europe decides, the United Nations stands firmly in its support of international law.

“All states – and this applies to countries both within and outside the region – must preserve the right to seek asylum for Afghans arriving through regular or spontaneous means,” said UNHCR spokesperson Shabia Mantoo during a speech at a press briefing in Geneva on August 20. 

Parallelly, some European countries are proposing asylum to Afghan refugees while others stand their ground in reinforcing more restrictive laws and borders. 

A main query regarding the situation asks, “How ready is Europe to accommodate even more Afghan immigrants based on their track record of dealing with historical refugee crises such as with Syria?”

How did we get here?

In 1989, the Soviet Union agreed to pull out of Afghanistan after a 10 year war against imperialism. “We felt so free,” a female diplomat and former Afghan politician told Aljazeera. “But a lot of bad things happened. It was the end of the journey of the Afghan people.”

What was perceived to be a new dawn expeditiously dimmed. The dream to establish a state founded on strict Sharia law birthed turmoil. Different factions waged war against each other, killing civilians to gain control. Amongst the factions, a group referred to as the Taliban believed to consist of Islamic religious students from Afghan refugee schools, emerged in Pakistan. 

The Taliban rose in the 1990’s with almost 90 percent control of Afghanistan by 1998. Civilians approved of how they governed—promoting peace and curbing corruption. However, there was a conflict of interest when Muslim fundamentalism was popularized. Hence, creating an era of terror.  

The U.S. withdrawal and the Taliban take over on August 31 marked the end of an alliance that committed decades of partnership inteded to fight terrorism. Withal, the conclusion paved the way for the outset of an all too familiar ambiance—displacement. A recent example of which is Syria. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 6.6 million Syrians have been forced to flee since 2011, another 6.7 million people remain internally displaced. 

Likewise, 2.7 million Afghans and 2.2 million South Sudanese are recorded to be involuntarily dispersed abroad. Resultantly, South Sudan took the lead position in Sub-Saharan Africa as the largest number of displaced peoples. However, during the last decade, the number of Afghan refugees dropped from 3.1 million to 2.7 million as they returned home from neighboring countries. But, with the recent Taliban’s siege of Afghanistan, the numbers have increased.

The European haves 

Afghanistan’s conflicts have produced displaced populations since the early 1980’s. Despite a recent dip in refugees in neighboring Iran and Pakistan, Afghans now look to places like Germany for escape. Over 124,000 people have already been evacuated from the country with France managing to evacuate 500 people by August 21.

“We are planning to build a unified coordinated effort to harmonize criteria for protection and also to cooperate with transit countries,” French President Emmanuel Macron affirmed the long-standing relationship with Afghanistan during an address to the nation.  

While declaring that “France will do its duty to continue to protect those who are most threatened,“ he explained that “Europe cannot take responsibility for the situation on its own. We need to ensure that we are protected from large-scale influx that can have detrimental effects.” 

Germany has quoted a 10,000 entry limit on Afghan refugees. While speaking to lawmakers in Bundestag, Angela Merkel said, “The end of the air bridge in a few days must not mean the end of efforts to protect Afghan helpers and help those Afghans who have been left in a bigger emergency with the takeover of the Taliban.” 

Subsequent to this address, speculations of how long the nation can uphold this pledge amidst the country’s forthcoming September 26 elections

The British government’s Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement scheme aims to allow 5,000 Afghans to settle in the UK for the first year, focusing on vulnerable populations like women and children. As well, they are prioritizing religious and other minorities in greatest danger of the Taliban. The UK has announced plans to accept 20,000 Afghan refugees over the long term.

The middle ground

Although Italy has also evacuated at least 500 people, Italian first-reception center official, Deborah Coniaro, is a bit skeptical about whether all of Italia is on board—namely, the right-wing, anti-immigration populist party. 

“[A]ll municipalities in Italy have agreed to accept and integrate the Afghan refugees. However, I am not certain but there are political parties such as Lega headed by Matteo Salvini that might object to this,” said Coniaro in conversation. 

Equitably, the current Lega leader commented, “Italy is not the refugee camp in the world, neighboring countries must be helped to welcome those who flee.”

The European have nots 

Moreover, not everyone is happy to help despite the benefits migrants may bring to their economies. For instance, Austria dismissed taking in any refugees. 

Equivalently, Greece has built a 40 km wall in fear of Afghan refugee influx because of its geographical position as one main entry point into Europe from Asia. On August 19, Afghan nationals protested in Athens requesting the Government to expedite the asylum process of the refugees. 

The wall “quick fix” appears to be a pragmatic conclusion for neighbouring countries correspondingly.

As the state hosting the largest number of immigrants as of June 2021, “Turkey can’t take in more refugees. Our concern is returning our existing migrants when the appropriate conditions are met,” lamented ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) Group Chair Naci Bostancı On August 12. He added, “A wall is being built when Afghan immigrants enter Turkey, they are sent back to the country they entered from.” He concluded. 

Implications

Turkey and other European countries like it are not ideal for migrants either. For a fact, few Afghan refugees settle well in the continent. Mohammed Shapu Safari considers himself one although many do not.

“So many Afghans are not well settled in Europe, especially Turkey, they cannot get jobs or proper documentation,” Safari expressed to Ark Republic. “There are many [migrants], the Government cannot support them all, ultimately in moments like this, peace is more important than democracy.”

Indeed, there are merits to Safari’s claims. While many enter Europe with the hope of getting better, a vast number of refugees never experience a happy ending. With no documentation, they cannot go to school and have a hard time finding work. Thus, life becomes a convoluted trial. Some work undocumented which often leads to exploitation.

According to the 2017 Syrian Refugee Livelihood Monitor, there are about 650,000 working Syrians registered or unregistered. However, the number of those with official work permits falls between 10 and 15 thousand. Additionally, 50 percent of Syrians were registered to be unemployed.

After the Syrian refugees settled in European countries, many tried to smuggle their way back when things didn’t work out. In a bus with over 50 Syrians trying to find their way back to their country, Zakariyah narrated his fair share of his European experience. “I haven’t achieved anything I thought I would. I can’t go back to Germany or any European country, we’re Muslims but they say we are terrorists,” he told the BBC. 

As the refugee situation escalates, the Government of Denmark provides financial assistance to go back home or be placed in a detention center. Despite this, some of the refugee settlements are not well-pleased by the situation.

“There is something wrong here in Denmark, we have people living here for 20 to 30 years, they do not speak Danish, they do not give anything back and come to claim welfare from day 1 and that is wrong,“ contended a citizen citing the deleterious economic effects of the refugee crisis.

As the region asserts its stand on the new migration policies, the impending Afghans` settlement in Europe stays an unwritten tale. Several European countries have demonstrated overwhelming strictness in acting as host countries to Afghan refugees based on recorded historical events. Unlike before, the numbers to be accepted appear to be exact or zero. A deep look into the refugees living conditions in Europe indicates a clear sign that the budget for the initially planned numbers exceeded the limit. 

Now the world waits to see the unfolding of promises by the European Union to fund neighbouring countries hosting Afghans; hence minimising the number of asylum seekers in Europe. All in all, a great deal of decisions will be made after the Taliban Government names the newly appointed head officials and establishes their ambiguous Governing approach.

Nyawira Mithayo is a Journalism graduate with an interest in Community activism.

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