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]


Opening the Doors of Fortress Europe

In European history 2015 will be remembered as the year we revealed our incapacity of dealing with the biggest migrant crisis of the last 70 years.

For a continent that as early as 1950 drew up the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, and in 2000 restated those values with the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, last months’ events are a blatant contradiction. A perfect case – as if the world needed another one – of verbal commitmentconcrete action gap.

Since January 2015, 350,000 asylum seekers reached Europe’s shores and more than 2,600 died trying to. And though, we still lack a sustainable and realistic strategy and there are still people and States that would rather close Europe’s door and look the other way, until migrants find another place to bother with their tragic stories and with their unwanted asylum applications.

The emotional involvement each of us may or may not feel in front of people forced to leave their roots by events they can’t control, forced to undergo desperate journeys in conditions that would inspire Primo Levi’s verses on the mortification of human dignity, and who are risking everything to find refuge in our countries, is a private matter I won’t dig into. But those who wish to raise higher walls around Europe’s borders might be interested to know that hosting migrants can bring benefits to us too. Economic, social and political.

No one will fall from the seat reading that Europe’s population is constantly ageing. According to the EU Commission official data, by 2025 more than 20% of Europeans will be over 65.

We Europeans are always proud when referring to our continent as old Europe, but being old Europeans is another matter – and one that should worry us. All European States, in fact, are now in the tough situation in which the number of retired workers to pay pensions to is exceeding the number of active workers who should cover those expenses. A ratio, this one, that threatens the stability of our societies, the labor market’s functioning, and that made necessary reforms such as raising the retirement age and cutting pensions.

But a hope of reversing the problem exists, and it is here that migrants come to help us. Migrants, in fact, are generally in their 20s, 30s and 40s – which means in the most active period of their life. If hosted in our countries, they could become part of the labor force – something they generally aspire to, as the majority of them reach Europe with families to take care of – and thus help our societies to bring the burden of an ageing population.

It might seem too easy to be realistic, but this is what has been going on for decades in the United States: Americans are getting older as we are, but thanks to the constant flow of migrants – who conversely tend to be young and to have more children – the labor market there is in better shape than in Europe.

The other positive contribution migrants can give to our job market has to do with job offer and demand.

In European countries, in fact, with more and more youngsters studying and getting their university degrees, competition for qualified jobs in the cities is dramatically increasing – while the number of people with manual skills or looking for traditional professions in rural areas is decreasing.

It is here that migrants come again to save us. It is true that there are many cases of migrants who have college degrees and years of qualified work experience behind them. But it is also true that the majority of them are people who come from countries where education is still a privilege of few, where manual skills are the most widespread, and non-qualified jobs the ones in which people have more chances to build their expertise on. Most migrants, thus – coming from regions whose labor markets have given them skills that in this moment we are lacking – could help us to address the offer-demand gap that many traditional fields are suffering from.

At this point, though, many Europeans argue that with migrants coming and job offer increasing, wages will drop. True. But we shouldn’t either forget that, with offer increasing, competition among workers is stimulated – and workers who have to compete to obtain and maintain a job tend to work harder and better. Secondly, a country where more people work, earn, and pay taxes has more money to invest in public services – so that the slight decrease in personal wages would be compensated for by the access to better services that make it possible for families to save money. In fact, if thanks to higher public funds state hospitals provide everyone with cures and public schools give all children a solid education, then families do not need to go to private clinics or to look for costly private schools.

But immigration can also bring socio-cultural benefits to our countries.

It is human history itself that shows us how it has always been contacts between different peoples that enabled development at any level. Contacts between Alexander’s Empire and the Indian subcontinent, between the Romans and the Chinese, between Arabs and Europeans and the most recent ones between developed and poorer countries are just few of the milestones that mark that path of human development that since its start has been made of intercultural contacts and exchanges. So that a society where more groups live together tends to be a richer one – where there is an exchange of ideas, skills, knowledge, traditions, and where kids grow up in an inclusive environment that will turn them into tomorrow’s liberal and open-minded adults. Those kind of adults that an increasingly interconnected world and increasingly multicultural societies desperately need.

On the political level, then, learning to live in contact with other cultures and peoples helps us to better read the world around us, its crisis, its problems, and to better understand how we can play a positive role in it. And this understanding can lead to the elaboration of a more coherent and considerate foreign policy (something a region such as the Middle East hasn’t always seen us do). Moreover, immigration gives us the opportunity to deepen bilateral links with the countries of origin of migrants – links that can impact positively on our economies, trade relations, and diplomacy (just think of the role played by Mexican and Irish migrants to foster the special relationship that exists between Washington and Ciudad de Mexico and between Washington and Dublin).

Coexistence is undoubtedly far from easy, but closing our door only incentives illegal immigration (as people who are fleeing wars and famines won’t easily let go the dream of reaching our continent); makes harder coexistence with those migrants who already live in Europe, as they now feel outraged by our dealing with the migrant crisis; and portrays among the international community a negative image of the European Union that doesn’t reflect the values we built our common identity on.

Instead of closing our door and making fortress Europe an unreachable place that only a small European elite can live in, we should make it a model of inclusion, defense of human rights, and a place everyone can have the chance to call home as long as disposed to actively contribute to its growth.

But of course, to do that in a way that doesn’t end up being a burden on a few countries only (those like Italy and Greece that are the first to be reached, and those like Germany and Sweden where most migrants go to) a single European strategy is necessary. The best direction is that – proposed and supported by some politicians led by Angela Merkel – of abandoning the Dublin Regulation and adopting instead a quota scheme to distribute migrants on the EU territory according to their country of origin, to their eventual family needs, and to the social and economic characteristics of our countries. The same relocation scheme should then be applied within each country to avoid internal discrepancies and the emergence of ghettoized areas.

But we can do this only if we understand that immigration – if addressed coherently, jointly, on the basis of humanitarian principles and practical considerations – can bring us benefits. And the problem is that while the number of refugees increases, too many European leaders still have to realize that a common scheme is the only way to address this challenging and inevitable new chapter of Europe’s history.