In this edition of INSIDERS, Euronews’ current affairs magazine with an in-depth look at the critical events shaping our world, we take a look at an unsung refugee crisis that is on the verge of explosion.
Afghanistan has been rocked by war and unrest for at least three decades. And the US-led coalition that battled Taliban fighters and al- Qaeda between 2001 and 2014 has not managed to completely quell the violence.
No wonder that Afghans continue to leave their country by the hundreds of thousands. In 2015 and so far this year they were in the top three nationalities of asylum seekers in Europe.
But because Afghanistan is considered “post-conflict” very few Afghans are granted asylum. Rather, they rot in refugee camps, some choose to go home, while others are sometimes expelled.
Our first report takes us to Kabul. US-led forces stayed in Afghanistan for 13 years assisted and supported by thousands of Afghans, now branded as traitors by the Taliban rebellion. Sandra Calligaro met with former translators for the French army. And you will see in her report that Kabul is far from safe.
Left in the Lurch
Many Afghan nationals worked with the international forces in Kabul and elsewhere following the September 11 attacks in New York.
A number of different interpreters who worked with the French Army and a communications specialist who wishes to stay in Afghanistan had tales to tell about their time helping the alliance.
Haroon is 25. He spent four years as a translator for the French army. After a process that will have lasted a year in total, he just received protection from France.
He was expected to make the move in the days following filming.
“I’ll always remember my time working with the soldiers. The memories will stay with me,” Haroon told us.
‘We would have been dead’
But with the sense of camaraderie came danger. He came under fire one day, when accompanying a convoy delivering supplies to a French base.
“For a minute there I thought we were dead because the insurgents were in a precise position on the mountain and we were at the bottom,” he recounted.
“It was really dangerous and everyone was shouting, which scared me a bit. Thankfully we retaliated. We accelerated as we continued the journey and the Afghan Army came to help us. And after that, it was all OK. Otherwise we would have been dead.”
Despite how it may seem, the conflict did not stop with the withdrawal of French forces in 2014. The Taliban rebellion continues and Haroon is considered a traitor.
‘I’m proud to have helped’
“I’m proud to have helped the French military. My responsibility was to work, to help, to cooperate with the French soldiers, NATO and everything else. I’m proud and I don’t regret it.”
But there is a price to pay for this young man. He now has to flee. Before leaving, he celebrates the end of Ramadan with his family.
His uncle, Abdul Kabir, agreed that Afghanistan had “become too dangerous for Haroon to stay.”
“I don’t have any other choice. My life is at risk. If Afghanistan returns to peace one day, I’ll be able to come back to help rebuild it. But, I don’t know when that will be.”
Today, Haroon is leaving his family and Afghanistan for the first time. He’s heading to France, where a new life awaits him.
But on the other side of town, Najib is not as lucky. He was working for Omid FM, Radio “Hope,” which was set up by the French Army in the conflict-torn Kapisa Province.
‘We’ll kill you’
Threatened a number of times by the Taliban, he lives a reclusive life with his wife and two children in the Afghan capital. He says he feels like a “prisoner in Kabul” and moves around as discreetly as possible.
“They would tell us ‘you’re all disloyal and if we find and capture you, we’ll kill you. We’ll either decapitate you, or burn you alive.’ They’d call the radio station and tell us that they knew our voices and faces, that they knew where to find us, that we’d never escape them,” he explained.
Najib is far from being the only one in this situation. Of 300 former interpreters who approached the French Embassy in 2015, only 100 have been able to leave with their families. Others have had their residency visa requests rejected by France.
Najib met his former French interpreter friends in a house in a highly secure area of the Afghan capital. They, too, feel threatened. They feel wronged.
“We want to speak out against this rejection, to have the reasons for it explained to us,” Nassir insisted.
“What were the criteria? What did those who’ve left have, that we don’t? It’s unfair. We went on missions, to village meetings, we were side-by-side with the French forces and we’re clearly identified as such now.”
He showed us a photo.
“That comes from the website of the French Ministry of Defence. I’m there, in the photo. It’s written that I was on the mission in Tagab, in Kapisa Province. And here are several letters of congratulation from officials.
“We feel like the French forces left some of their troops here. They told us we were full-fledged members of the French Army. It’s not fair that they left behind some of their forces.”
In France, a group of lawyers is taking legal action to help Najib and his former colleagues. They are waiting patiently, hoping the situation will work out in their favour and they’ll be able to get visas.
Many Afghans worked with and supported the international forces. Their presence also provided a windfall in one of the poorest countries in the world, as Mati outlined.
“If you want to live in Kabul, have a good life, live an average life, so you have to have a good work. And good work with good income is mostly possible with the foreigners and the international community,” he said.
‘We need to work on our country’
Mati works at the Institut français. He narrowly escaped death in a suicide bombing, which killed two people and wounded 15 in December 2014. Yet, he doesn’t want to lose hope.
“If we tell ourselves that today there was an attack and tomorrow there will be another one, we have to leave the city, or leave the country, so we can’t do that because we need to work on our country.
“I think as an Afghan, I have to be committed to continue to work and be optimistic for the future.”
Despite Mati’s optimism, the country has seen an upsurge in violence since international forces began withdrawing in 2014.
Just days after we met him, more than 80 people were killed and 230 injured in an attack on a peaceful protest in Kabul. ISIL claimed responsibility.
Last year, more than 11,000 civilians were killed or wounded in Afghanistan. The peace and stability that was to be the result of the 13-year presence of the international coalition still seems a long way off.
Since our report, Kabul has been rocked by two other bloody attacks, not to mention the ongoing Taliban rebellion elsewhere in the country.
Our next report takes us to Greece, where some 200,000 Afghan migrants arrived or transited through last year and 40,000 so far this year. Of all migrants actually getting asylum 50% are Syrian, and only 5% Afghan. They are clearly not a priority for Europe.
The false promise of asylum
It was once a bustling airport outside Athens, a gleaming sign of an optimistic new century filled with vacationers eyeing departure boards. Today it is a makeshift camp for thousands of refugees with nowhere to go.
Our reporter Preethi Nallu went to Elliniko, a former international airport with a neighbouring sports complex built for the 2004 Olympics. The abandoned buildings are now home to some 4,000 Afghan asylum seekers.
On one recent evening, Afghans held a vigil there to mourn the loss of a fellow refugee. The young man was repatriated to his hometown in Afghanistan – only to be killed by local Taliban fighters.
Despite Afghanistan’s “post-conflict” status, bloody unrest continues to grip the country, and Afghans remain among the top three nationalities seeking asylum in Europe.
But under European asylum rules, they have few options other than voluntary repatriation. Those who arrived after the EU’s controversial migration deal with Ankara are set to be returned to Turkey.
Taza, a widowed mother of six, first fled from Afghanistan to Iran.
“The Taliban were going from house to house, taking women and girls and acting dishonourably towards them,” she recounts modestly.
After nearly a decade in Iran, she and her family came to Greece in April, hoping for a brighter future in Europe.
However, because of various bureaucratic hurdles, Taza has not been able to apply for asylum. Penniless and with several mouths to feed, she has decided to repatriate to Afghanistan, for lack of better options. But the move terrifies her.
“You can’t live in Afghanistan, there’s war, all the time. The kids are scared, I’m scared, I have no legal guardian or anyone to depend on for a living,” she says.
Taza’s family has been told that the voluntary return program set up by the International Organization for Migration would take them back to Kabul. But they worry about returning to their hometown in the northern Baghlan Province, where the “Taliban rebellion is raging”:
Taza’s oldest son fears he could be the target of a vendetta if he goes back there. “My heart’s pounding over whether I’ll make it back there, and whether I’ll get killed,” he says.
The questions haunting many asylum seekers in Greece are simple, yet impossible to answer. Will the borders open? Will they be granted asylum? How can they return home after being away for so long, with no support?
The threat of deportation
Yusuf, also from Afghanistan, has spent the past 13 years trying to make a life for himself in Athens. But his claim for asylum has been systematically rejected. He doesn’t understand why: he has learned to speak Greek, has worked in the country for years, and made Greek friends.
Yusuf risks deportation. A scenario he did not imagine when he left Afghanistan after NATO forces came in 2003.
At least 110,000 people have been killed in the Afghanistan war since 2001, according to a recent study by Brown University.
“I very much would like to have a family because I’m 42 years old. The years are passing and I don’t want to miss out on that opportunity. But first of all I want to have papers, to be legal,” says Yusuf.
He awaits a final hearing on his asylum application, and fears he might be forced back to a home that no longer exists.
“There’s no way I can go back to Afghanistan. Why? Because it’s utterly lawless. Rules only exist for those people inside the parliament, who are in charge, who are protected by weapons and armored cars. The rest of us are not able to live there in safety.”
Sounding the Alarm
It seems the next refugee crisis is almost upon us, and it will be Afghans flooding west to escape danger. But is Europe prepared? Does it have a plan? Will Afghans move up the list of priority cases for consideration? Sophie Claudet speaks to two men at the heart of the situation.
Sophie Claudet, euronews:
“The number of Afghan asylum seekers quadrupled in 2015 compared to the year before and we know that violence is on the rise in the country, so should we not be expecting a surge of Afghans trying to get to Europe in the coming months, or coming years?”
Director of International Operations, Medicins du Monde, Jean-Francois Corty:
“What we do know is that there are several factors that will continue to push Afghans out of several regions, because of resumed fighting. Several provinces or districts have been retaken by the Taliban recently, and there has been an upswing in assassinations and bombings with heavy loss of life. So instability is on the increase while the international community insists there is no longer a war situation in Afghanistan.
There are also other places where there is heavy pressure on the Afghans, I think notably about certain tribal zones in Pakistan where hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees are trying to survive in a highly unstable area.
The reverse exodus of Pakistan's Afghan refugees – BBC News https://t.co/YiZD9YBTG2— 艾未未 Ai Weiwei (@aiww) 28 août 2016
There are also hundreds of thousands, maybe a million Afghan refugees in Iran, and we know many of them are recent arrivals fleeing the surge in violence. We also know these families, also arriving in Turkey and Greece, are coming because they, especially their men, have been put under pressure from the Iranians to go and fight for them in Syria against ISIL.
So this means the Afghans are coming under strain from a number of directions, and we should expect them to want to leave places where they are stigmatised and in danger. This trauma will continue as long as there’s fighting.”
UN International Organisation for Migration Regional Director Eugenio Ambrosi:
“It’s hard to offer any hard numbers, but we know this is going to be a question, a problem for Europe that is going to continue, and it is only going to get bigger, much bigger, especially if the instability in the affected countries continues.”
“Afghans are absolutely at the bottom of the list when it comes to Europe’s granting asylum applications. Is Europe going to change this policy because fighting has returned to Afghanistan?”
“Today what needs to be discussed and questioned is
the idea of returning people to Afghanistan voluntarily in the right conditions. This is what Europe wants, and is promoting. But this idea of voluntary return is a nonsense, because today there are many Afghans living in terrible conditions, in camps or refugee hotspots in Greece, who have been there for months with their children, who have no future. In these conditions they see no other choice than to go home because they have no future where they are.
Europe must increase its capacity to protect these Afghans.”
“Mr Ambrosi, about those voluntary repatriations, in Greece the International Organisation for Migration is handling the repatriations, and we met some families in our report who had chosen this option, so how would you like to respond to Mr Corty? Are these repatriations really voluntary?”
“I agree that Europe has a responsibility to expand its protection of Afghans, and for other nationalities that, for the moment, are not considered a priority. It is clear that there is differential treatment, that Syrian asylum seekers get a different hearing to Eritreans, Afghans, or other countries.
The reality is there are people who are coming to us asking for help to go back home. Voluntary returns have be done carefully, we don’t just send people anywhere in Afghanistan, We take into account security threats or any other risks very seriously.
But nonetheless there are many situations where the Afghan refugee will decide to abandon the process of migrating to Europe.”