Is the world really opening to Afghan refugees?
Chaotic evacuations and failing asylum policies are again failing a people who have been failed by the world.
Over the past few weeks, the Taliban insurgent group has been gaining ground across Afghanistan in a power grab that can only be described as a catastrophe for ordinary Afghans. It culminated in the previously unimaginable recapture of Kabul, and images of the airport in chaos as hundreds of people people clung to the outside of an aircraft as it took off, hoping that it would be their last chance at survival.
It is being compared to the iconic image of the last helicopter out of Saigon, and many have opined that the US must grant refuge to Afghans the same way that Ronald Reagan once did to those fleeing South Vietnam. However, as Center For Strategic and International Studies Senior Fellow Natasha Hall pointed out, we now live in the era of “extreme vetting” and even without that these kinds of processes can take years, and aren’t designed for people who need to leave as soon as possible.
So what now?
As I write this, dozens of my colleagues who have worked in Afghanistan in the past are writing letters and filling out paperwork in hopes that it will get the local journalists, producers, fixers and journalists so essential to any international coverage of Afghanistan the visas they need to escape their country as it is once again, failed by the world.
(If you might know someone in urgent need of assistance, the Global Investigative Journalism Network has posted a list of organizations that are coordinating evacuations and the International Women’s Media Foundation is raising money to cover the costs of protecting and relocating brave female journalists. They can always use more donations).
Still, it is unclear how effective these efforts are on the ground. Multiple reports state that the evacuation efforts are chaotic, that it is unclear what people need to do to actually board a plane out. Even more disturbing are the increasing testimonies that as foreign correspondents and aid workers decide it is time to leave Afghanistan, some of the Afghan media workers who assisted them are being left behind. Particularly vulnerable are the contractors and freelance workers who are just as vulnerable but far less supported than those working with mainstream organizations.
The sudden, jarring spotlight on Afghanistan also making me think of the dozens of stories that I’ve heard over the years of Afghan refugees being denied asylum in Western countries. While many Afghans fled on the same boats that have carried Syrians, Iraqis, and many other people from across the world to countries in Europe like Germany and the Netherlands, it has almost always been more difficult for them to get asylum, earning them the dubious nickname of “second class asylum-seekers.”
As a result, Afghan refugees are more likely to live without papers, more likely to be arrested and deported to a country that up until a few days ago, was classified by the United Kingdom and several governments as bearing “no real risk of harm” to the general population. While six of these countries (Germany, France, the Netherlands, Finland, Norway, and Sweden, if you’re curious) have recently made a decision to suspend these deportations, a number of other countries—including Greece, Belgium and Austria—have not.
What about the people who fell through the cracks, who weren’t afforded the grace of suspended deportations and evacuation flights? Ordinary people who haven’t worked with major media organizations, who might not even have passports much less the paperwork to board these flights? The United Kingdom, alone, deported more than 15,000 Afghans since 2008 under the pretense that returning to Afghanistan would not be dangerous. Will the current crisis teach Western governments a lesson in what is and is not a threat, and use this as an opportunity to reform an ill-informed, and often discriminatory asylum system? Or will they simply continue to fail Afghanistan, again and again and again.