Mediterranean journeys in hope

Afghanistan's refugees: the politics of fear and hope

Afghans continue to hope for protection in Europe despite the launch of new campaigns to deter them from seeking sanctuary.

Fareeda Miah
17 May 2016

Afghans collect winter aid packages from UNHCR in 2015. Sayed Muhammad Shah for UNAMA News/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc)

In the past few months, Afghanistan’s refugees have returned to the headlines across the world. Europe brokered a deal that will see Greece returning refugees to Turkey; Australia received criticism for a A$6 million (£3 million) anti-asylum movie aired in Afghanistan; and the Afghan government remains uncertain in its ability to resettle a potential 80,000 Afghans deported from Europe. Government responses to Afghan refugees have been tackled through a narrow prism focused on a narrative of fear, which has eclipsed any opportunity for the politics of hope to find durable and dignified solutions for Afghanistan’s refugees.

Twenty-eight EU member states agreed to provide €6 billion (£4.7 billion) to fund the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Turkey. For every Syrian refugee resettled in Turkey, another Syrian will be resettled in the EU. In exchange, the Turkish government negotiated the visa liberalisation for up to 75 million Turkish citizens travelling to the EU as well as reigniting EU accession talks. What has been lost in this discussion, however, is the status of thousands of Afghans and other non-Syrian refugees shoring up on Europe’s borders.

Afghans made up the second largest group applying for asylum in the EU in 2015, and the EU-Turkey deal has left them in a precarious position. There has been ongoing debate on the legality of the returns and whether Turkey has the sufficient legal safeguards in place to meet EU standards for asylum assessment. Currently, Syrian refugees enjoy temporary protection, whereby they can live in the country and work and have free access to healthcare and education for their children. However, just after the deal passed Amnesty International reported that 30 Afghan asylum seekers were forcibly returned to Afghanistan from Turkey. Turkey has also stated that it will not change its domestic law to grant refugee status to Afghans and they continue to have very few legal rights. In February 2016, 25% of 57,000 refugees and migrants in Greece were from Afghanistan, but those deported back to Turkey cannot receive status and are subject to forcible deportations.

Voicing outrage to the deal, several international NGOs have refused to work with Brussels on transforming refugee centres on the Greek islands into detention centres for people due to be sent back to Turkey. UNHCR, IRC, Save the Children and other international NGOs have withdrawn services, and without their support the process loses both legitimacy and resources. The decision to outsource the crisis to Turkey is meant to send a message to human traffickers and deter refugees from entering the EU. This strategy of fear effectively pushes the reality of the crisis and global responsibility to frontline countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. If these countries are unable to meet the necessary human rights standards as well as the financial demands in hosting refugees, they face the very real risk of social unrest. This will only compel refugees to continue onto Europe, even as that path becomes more difficult and dangerous.

Anti-refugee propaganda at home

On the other side of the world, the Australian government has been criticised for spending up to A$6 million of tax payers’ money on an anti-asylum film that focuses on Afghans. The movie aired on Afghan TV and depicted the dangerous and treacherous journeys people make to only meet exploitative smugglers, deadly waters, and detention centres. The movie has received mixed reviews. The Australian government is not alone in using media campaigns to deter refugees from claiming asylum. In 2015, the German government launched a billboard campaign in Kabul to discourage Afghans fleeing to Europe. Other countries such as Austria, Denmark, and Norway have also launched campaigns against Afghan and Syrian refugees. 

The campaigns are justified as educational messaging that will save people from the pitfalls of human trafficking and the unfounded expectation of easy access to asylum and benefits in Europe. Whether it is movies, billboards, radio shows or YouTube adverts, deterrence messaging is grounded in governments’ fears of endless flows in refugees, and Afghans find themselves fighting harder to justify their asylum applications. Some governments, such as Germany's, have gone as far to claim Afghan refugees as frauds and ‘economic migrants’ who should be sent back to the parts of Afghanistan that are deemed safe.

This reductionist perspective, which positions all Afghan refugees as economic migrants, dangerously creates the false perception that Afghans, generally, are not in need of refuge. This feeds into growing anti-immigrant sentiments across Europe and wilfully ignores that Afghans from across the country are living under constant threat from anti-government forces. While not all Afghans may be facing direct threats from the Taliban, the overall security situation has not improved across the country; 2015 was the most deadly year for Afghan civilians since the UN began recording in 2009.

The Afghan government’s strategy is a mixture of hope and fear. The hopes are that young people can be convinced to stay and rebuild the country, and that the international community will not tire of contributing to increasing Afghanistan’s economic prosperity and stability. This push is undergirded by a second, fear-based campaign from the Refugees and Repatriations Ministry and the President. Launched across different social media platforms and supported by official speeches, this programme seeks to dissuade Afghans from leaving the country by sketching a life of desperation and destitution in Europe.

Neither strategy has curbed people leaving Afghanistan. Of the Afghans arriving in Greece in January 2015, 71% cited conflict and violence as the main reasons for leaving their country. Refugees that have voluntarily returned to Afghanistan and shared their stories of false expectations and disappointments have been co-opted under anti-asylum messaging. However, 2016 has seen the lowest number of returnees and Afghan refugees are outpacing those returning. With the Afghan government’s public rating steadily declining, particularly among youth, there is no evidence that anti-asylum messaging has deterred Afghans from fleeing the country or induced them to return to it.

Afghan strategies have focused on evoking a sense of patriotism that puts the onus on its citizens to ‘build’. Interestingly, this sentiment is now both buttressed and contested by a new campaign from the National Union of Afghanistan Workers. Its message suggests that Afghans should stay to keep the pressure on the government, “forc[ing] the government to answer” and to develop a clear strategy to end conflict and instability. This repositioning will, hopefully, bring a political discussion on instability, ineffective government, and post-conflict rebuilding to the forefront, as individual citizens cannot be blamed for leaving. Similarly, the international community continues to be prioritise border integrity over individual protection needs, and responsibility remains outsourced to countries with dubious protection standards.

Both the international community and Afghan government have succumbed to the politics of fear and dwarfed any hopes people have for seeking freedom from war, persecution, and poverty. As we drown in our fears, it is the hope of protection that Afghans, and all other refugees, to cling to as they risk their lives crossing the Aegean Sea and Indian Ocean.

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