The wave of Afghan refugees infringing against Europe’s unwelcoming shores

 

How the EU should frame a new approach to Afghan asylum seekers starting from a better understanding of Afghanistan’s history and Afghanistan’s diaspora

 

In the century-long history of migration crises that have interested the European continent, 2015 marked the latest turning-point: in that year alone, as reported by the European Parliament and the UNHCR, over a million refugees attempted their way to Europe in search of better lives, of more opportunities, or simply of a chance at survival. With the war in Syria sowing ever more destruction; with the situation in Afghanistan deteriorating under the Taliban resurgence; and with the security in Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa threatened by brutal jihadist terrorism and bitter civil wars, an increasing number of people found themselves with no better –and no other- option than risking everything they still had to flee the desperateness of their countries and reach the security of the European Union.

Among those flows of refugees that suddenly reversed upon Europe’s borders, according to the UNHCR Afghans were (and remained throughout 2016 and in early 2017) the second largest group after the Syrians. In 2015, about 200,000 Afghans –who according to the interviews conducted by the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) were mainly young men travelling alone along the land gateway known as Balkan route that goes from Turkey to Europe via the Aegean Sea and Greece- were amongst those seeking a new beginning in the “old continent”.

However, faced with a sudden and ever increasing number of asylum seekers, the “old continent” that had sparked so many hopes in so many people did not prove able to stand up to the salvific mission that History was entrusting upon it. At the transnational level, the EU failed to pursue the coordination among its member states that should be at the basis of its decision-making and policy-making: EU member states –each driven by its own internal concerns and political considerations- failed to reach an agreement for an equal and fair distribution among them of migration quotas that could give a new home to the refugees while preserving the internal equilibriums of hosting countries and the stability of hosting societies.

As a consequence of this failure at the EU level, European countries and governments had to address the problem at the national level, where they found themselves exposed to a two-pronged challenge: on the one hand, the requirement for all signatories of the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees not to return refugees to a country where their life and freedom are threatened; on the other hand, the anti-immigration protests coming from European populist, nationalist, and right-wing parties and from ever wider fringes of the public opinion. In most countries, in fact, a climate of suspicion towards migrants took root and sparked fears about migrants depriving the locals of jobs. These fears at the national level compelled EU governments to take restrictive measures towards migration, such as tighter border controls and the setting of daily quotas. In September 2015, Germany increased its controls along the border with Austria and soon afterwards Hungary started sealing and fencing its border with Serbia and Croatia. Similar measures were also taken by Slovenia and restrictive policies on border controls were enforced by France, Switzerland, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Norway.

On the background of the incapacity of coordinated action at the EU level and of the growing opposition to immigration at the national level, the situation worsened further with the agreement ratified in March 2016 between Brussels and Istanbul. According to the deal, all new irregular migrants crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Greece would be returned to Turkey, that in turn would receive financial support from the EU. In this way, the agreement brought about the closure of the Balkan route and thousands of migrants saw their situation becoming ever more desperate and uncertain. In particular, Afghan migrants who had been largely reliant on the Balkan corridor were amongst the worst hit: as reported by the AAN, thousands of them got stuck in the makeshift refugee camps of the Balkan states and Turkey and entered a stalemate made unbearable by the coming of winter. Moreover, their prospects of a future improvement were crashed by the voices of several European leaders claiming that Afghanistan has “safe areas” and that therefore Afghan migrants cannot be equated with Syrians, Iraqis, and Libyans.

The truth is that Afghanistan is in a situation as complex and tough as that of Syria, Iraq, and Libya, but being it geographically further from Europe’s borders it is less of a concern to Europe’s politicians and less of an object of sympathy to Europe’s media and Europe’s public opinion. As a consequence of this general disregard for the plight of Afghans who are perceived as being too far from us for their situation to shake our humanity, the EU signed a re-admission agreement with Kabul (known as Joint Way Forward) whose aim is to return to Afghanistan those Afghans asylum seekers who are not recognized the refugee status. As reported by the AAN, after the agreement was reached last October, 580 Afghans were sent back to their country of origin and many more forced deportations are likely to be observed this year.

The measures implemented towards Afghan asylum seekers by the European Union result from a general disregard and disinformation over the current situation in Afghanistan and over the intricate and painful history of the Afghan diaspora. Promoting a better knowledge of them is therefore essential to encourage the EU to frame more appropriate policies towards Afghan refugees.

 The different waves that have characterized the Afghan diaspora are inextricably linked to the different chapters of the country’s modern history, and it is by looking at the latter that we can understand the flows of Afghan refugees throughout time.  In the modern history of Afghanistan, 1979 represented a major turning-point: after the Saur Revolution that had overthrown King Daoud Khan, the USSR’s Red Army intervened to establish and maintain a government that would be a de facto satellite of Moscow. What ensued from the Russian invasion of the country and from the Russian manipulation of its political dynamics was a ten-year conflict that saw the USSR fighting against the Afghan mujahidin. During the conflict, a first wave of Afghans began to abandon the country and to settle in the neighbouring countries of Pakistan and Iran. As reported by the UNHCR, between 1979 and 1989, about 2.6 million Afghans crossed the border to Iran and 1.5 million Afghans fled eastwards to Pakistan.

In 1989, the Soviet Union –by then on the brink of implosion- left Afghanistan and its withdrawal encouraged most Afghan refugees to return to their country. However, the situation was again reversed after 1992, when a new chapter in the history of Afghanistan and its diaspora began. In that year, the fragmentation among the mujahidin front led to a civil war among the different factions of mujahidin and the country was once again suck into bloodshed and destruction. In the framework of these events, a second wave of Afghan refugees emerged and spilled over Pakistan and Iran as it had before. This time, though, Afghans were particularly unwelcomed in the hosting countries and the Afghan diaspora began to take on bleak and desperate shades. The situation, then, worsen further after 1995, when the recently-emerged but rapidly-spreading Taliban movement managed to bring several regions under its control until occupying Kabul in 1996. With the ascent of the Taliban and the religious extremism embodied by them, the wave of refugees –especially of non-Pashtun and non-Sunni Afghans- rose again, to the point that the UNHCR reports a net migration rate of -6.5/1000 over the period 1995-2000.

This Taliban-caused wave of emigration stopped in 2001, when the US-led invasion led to the removal of the Taliban Emirate. In the renewed climate of confidence that spread after the defeat of the Taliban, a large wave of voluntary repatriation interested Afghanistan: assisted by the UNHCR, 2.7 million of Afghan refugees returned from the camps where they had been hosted in Pakistan and an additional 800,000 returned from Iran. However, the climate of confidence that encouraged this wave did not last much. After 2005, as the war between the international forces and the insurgent groups within Afghanistan embittered, a new wave of Afghan refugees left the country. Peculiar of this post-2005 wave is that asylum seekers began to seek refuge not only in Pakistan and Iran -where Afghans were generally treated as second-class citizens- but also in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe – where hopes of a better life were higher.

As mentioned at the beginning, after 2015 –with the Taliban regaining considerable terrain following the decrease in the number of US and NATO forces deployed in Afghanistan- this tendency has been strengthening and Europe has increasingly become the aspired destination for the hundreds of thousands of Afghans whom the lack of security is driving away from their homeland.

Interviews to the families of Afghan refugees conducted by the AAN have in fact shown how the main drivers behind this latest wave of immigrants are security concerns. Even if some Afghans come to Europe for economic reasons, most of them do so to escape war and terrorist threats. Therefore, they qualify as refugees under international law and they should be recognized as such by the EU.

TWith respect to Afghan asylum seekers, the EU should adopt an approach that is more reflective of the values on which it claims to be founded and frame policies that stem from a sound knowledge of the recent history of Afghanistan’s refugees and of Afghanistan itself. As reported by SIGAR’s latest quarterly report, Afghanistan continues to be one of the most unstable countries worldwide, where war and terrorism are daily reality, and this is something of which the EU must be aware and cognizant. In front of Afghanistan’s tough reality, in fact, denying to Afghans the status of refugees and claiming the existence of safe areas within the country to where they can return means denying the truth. On the contrary, the EU should recognize the tough plight in which the Afghan people verse and use its channels of intra-EU cooperation not to create mechanisms that send back Afghans asylum seekers but mechanisms capable of hosting them and giving them the safe haven that they are entitled to and that they came to us to find.

 

[Photo: Radio TNN]

The ignored war of the Middle East

 

Assessing the reasons why the world’s major powers pay little attention to what goes on on the Yemeni front

 

In the Middle Eastern geostrategic dynamics and in the international media establishment a dangerous phenomenon is steadily consolidating: while everyone’s attention is focused on crucial battlefields such as Mosul and Aleppo, Yemen continues to be the theatre of a forgotten –or rather ignored- civil war.

But why is it so? Why is a civil war that in just two years has caused one of the worst humanitarian emergencies of our time so little spoken of?

The reasons are essentially two.

 

First of all, there is the complexity of the Yemeni war that makes it difficult to give a clear reading of the conflict, to reach a true understanding of its political and sectarian causes, of its evolving dynamics, of its array of actors and interests, and of its regional impact.

Yemen’s conflict -broken out in 2014 when the Houthi rebels of the north forced President Hadi to leave the country and seek exile in Saudi Arabia- is indeed particularly challenging to be understood in all its dimensions because it lacks the black-and-white contraposition that characterizes other regional conflicts. Since its outbreak, the war has been defined by a wide multidimensionality: it is a Yemeni internal confrontation between the Houthi/Saleh front and Hadi; it is a regional proxy war between Saudi Arabia (with its GCC allies) and Iran; and it is a sectarian conflict between Shia and Sunni forces. Therefore, understanding the war in Yemen requires understanding these many intricate and at times overlapping levels of conflict, but since applying different keys of reading to a single theatre is not an easy task (neither for policymakers nor for analysts) this has contributed to Yemen’s marginalization in the global public debate.

 

Nevertheless, there is another, more explicatory, and more worrying reason why the world is paying so little attention to Yemen: unlike what we have been witnessing in places of the Levant such as Syria and Iraq, major international powers such as the US, the EU and Russia are simply little interested in Yemen and in Yemeni affairs. And this is so for three main reasons.

 

Since its emergence out of the unification of North and South Yemen in 1990, the Yemeni Republic has been one of the poorest countries of the entire Arab region.

According to the last report of the World Bank, even prior to the conflict Yemen was facing widespread poverty and economic stagnation: despite enjoying a crucial position with respect to the Mandeb Strait -which is the  fourth most important passage for international oil trade- Yemen always had to face economic difficulties because of the government’s poor management of resources and infrastructures; because of a widespread corruption curbing any entrepreneurial ambition; because of a dramatic and unsustainable population growth; and because of an economy that, unlike that of the other Gulf states, relied mainly on agricultural production rather than on oil export. Due to these economic weaknesses and vulnerabilities Yemen never attracted significant amounts of FDIs, which means that today there is no major world power with crucial and direct economic interests in Yemen to be protected.

Conversely, in countries such as Iraq and Syria, Western powers and Russia have cultivated economic and commercial interests since the late XIX century and the need to protect these interests is today one of the major reasons behind their direct involvement in those countries’ crises and behind the attention they pay to everything that happens in there.

 

Apart from economic considerations, though, there is also another factor that comes to explain the little interest foreign powers have in Yemen and it has to do with geo-strategy. In terms of geo-strategic considerations in fact, Yemen –with its position in the southern-westernmost tip of the Arabian Peninsula- has never been considered as a crucial player by foreign powers. Countries deeply involved in the region such as Britain and the US, in fact, have traditionally founded their involvement in the area on alliances with other more influential and more powerful countries. The only interest that foreign powers have in Yemen is that of avoiding the situations that might change the existing balance of power and create instability in the Gulf- and it is in the framework of this logic that the decision of the US and Britain to support the Saudi-led coalition needs to be placed.

Conversely, in the cases of Syria and Iraq foreign actors such as Washington, London, Brussels and Moscow have many and long-time geo-strategic interests because of those countries’ position in the heart of the Levant and because of their physical vicinity to the borders of Europe and Russia.

 

In addition to this, the issue of geographic position is also relevant to understand the final reason why foreign powers are little interested in Yemen and totally focused on Syria and Iraq instead.

Due to Yemen’s already mentioned position in the southernmost tip of the Arabic Peninsula, the war that has been tearing the country apart since Fall 2014 does not constitute a direct threat to the security of major foreign powers. Indeed, despite the number of refugees created by the conflict is dramatically high, most of them have fled to countries of the neighbouring region such as Djibouti, Somaliland, Oman and Saudi Arabia.

Conversely, the refugees created by the wars in Syria and Iraq have mostly attempted to seek asylum in Western countries – above all Europe, but also the US and Canada – which are more easily reachable for them than for poorer Yemenis.  These flows of refugees have put a burden on the capacity of Western countries to deal with increasingly multicultural, multi-ethnic, and multi-religious societies and have created security concerns that contribute to explain why the US, the UK and the EU focus so much on Syria and Iraq while ignoring Yemen.

 

On the background of this general lack of interest, it does not surprise that when Hadi last week refused the latest UN proposal for a peace negotiation few have paid attention to it.

And yet this is a huge mistake on part of the international community. Humanitarian considerations (the number of dead, displaced people and refugees caused by the war in Yemen cannot but deeply touch our human sensibility) and security calculations (the instability and power vacuum of Yemen has inflamed sectarian tensions that could easily spread to other regional countries and has played the game of terrorist groups such as AQAP that have seen their influence grow) call for the international community to use its influence over the Saudis in order to favour the reaching of an agreement capable of bringing about the inclusive government Yemen is desperately needing.

 

It’s time for the international community to start caring about Yemen.

 

 

[Picture rights: Reuters]