‘We have lost everything’

For Afghans forced to leave their country and flee to Europe there is no place called home, writes Ritu Mahendru.

A family from Afghanistan walk next to fence to cross into Pakistan at the Friendship Gate crossing point, in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border town of Chaman, Pakistan September 6, 2021. REUTERS/Abdul Khaliq Achakza

When Leida* left her home in Kabul last month, a plethora of struggles were unleashed that she hadn’t anticipated. It started with the dangerous journey to the airport during which she had to cross the sewage canal and brave Taliban checkpoints with her one-year-old daughter and now unemployed husband. When the Taliban took over Afghanistan the family were among thousands of people likely to be their targets, due to his job.

‘We have lost everything,’ Leida told New Internationalist. ‘I was in the canal water for hours that had human faeces and animal remains – it was very dirty. We dropped our bag of food.

‘I waited for three days at the airport before the bomb exploded at the Abbey Gate. When we finally got on to the military plane, which had a capacity of 100 people, there were over 200 people there. There was no place to sit. We stood for nearly 11 hours with my daughter. They refused to give us food and water because there was only one toilet, which no one could use. When we did get a bottle of water, the soldiers threw the bottles on our heads. I don’t know why they couldn’t just be kind to us.’

Leida and her family eventually arrived in a European country. They may be safe from the Taliban for now but the future is incredibly uncertain.

‘I am lucky but we are still nervous and scared,’ Leida told me over the phone. ‘We have no idea where we will go next. My husband is worried about the future, his job, looking after us. I was a Master’s student of International Relations in Afghanistan. I am not sure if my university will take my thesis defence online because now there is another regime – not the previous one with internet, calmness and teachers. 

‘My hard work, our home, everything is destroyed. We are concerned about our future. Are we going to have a job? This is confusing for us.’

Thousands of Afghans are seeking safety in Europe, North America and elsewhere. While the Taliban, known for its brutal enforcement of radical Islamic law, announced after its take over of Afghanistan that it will not persecute anyone who has worked with the government or international agencies, recent reports claim that ‘The Taliban has mobilized a special unit, called Al Isha, to hunt down Afghans who helped US and allied forces – and it’s using US equipment and data to do it.’ There are frequent verified reports emerging from Afghanistan about women being removed from official positions and asked to stay at home. The Taliban made similar promises 25 years ago while they were in control of Afghanistan, only to prohibit women from education and employment, enforcing burqas (full covering from head to toe) under the guise of Sharia Law.

In this unwieldy country where many have been left behind to an uncertain fate, the future for many Afghans looks bleak. Amidst concerns that Afghanistan can once again become a more secure sanctuary for terrorists and organized crime groups, a narrative is taking hold that we are likely to see a mass exodus of Afghan refugees in Europe. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, warned that up to half a million Afghans could flee the country by the end of the year.

To avoid repeating the chaotic influx of refugees and migrants in 2015, mainly from Syria, EU leaders are keen to find a quick solution. However, EU politicians remain divided repeating similar messages of the past that ‘refugees aren’t welcome here’. Although Turkey helped contain the 2015 crisis with the EU backing by taking in millions of fleeing Syrians, the country is adamant that it won’t host any more refugees. Greece has come out more strongly by building a 40 kilometre fence and surveillance system on its border with Turkey.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša, have staunchly and stubbornly maintained their opposition to hosting any Afghans trying to cross borders while the UK government, in its peculiar response, has suggested that Afghans can come to the UK border independently, promoting behaviour that may endanger their lives. 

Afghan refugees also face challenges outside of Europe. As of 2020, Pakistan and Iran together were already hosting over 2 million refugees from Afghanistan – compared to just 9,000 in the UK and 2,000 in the US. Now, neighbouring countries have shut their borders until western governments guarantee that Afghan refugees won’t be there longer than 10 days. 

Australia has launched an advertising campaign to deter Afghans from trying to reach the country by boat. In the controversial and threatening video presented by Karen Andrews, Minister of Home Affairs, she sates that refugees who arrive this way will have ‘zero chance of success’. Meanwhile, New Zealand, a country, which is hailed as a model of compassionate leadership in crisis situation, have stopped taking visa applications – even from those Afghans who assisted their troops.

Over in the US, while the Biden administration plans to relocate tens of thousands of Afghan refugees, there are several legal and operational challenges. Reports suggest that only a small fraction of those who have departed Kabul qualify for refugee protection in the US. Neighbouring Canada has pledged to resettle 20,000 Afghans who supported the government. However, all these policies and initiatives have one thing in common – a lack of comprehensive and coherent policy to move Afghans to safety on an immediate basis. 

Politicians in Europe are concerned that a wave of migration from Afghanistan would feed populist voices, strengthening the rightwing anti-immigrant agenda detrimental to the political ambitions of more centre and centre-left political parties. How many Afghans should be allowed into the European bloc is being debated amongst the EU leaders trying to take a harder line on immigration to avoid ‘the mistakes of 2015’. Afghans are being discussed in a way which undermines the subjective experiences of women and children who have felt the brunt of the power imbalance that exists between the East and West. 

The power holders of the EU nations will decide the future of vulnerable Afghans who remain in uncertain conditions. However, there is a worry that the EU will make hurried decisions without any concrete, safe and legal pathways outlined to facilitate access for desperate Afghan families.

While the European Union has agreed to ‘float a plan to spend 300 million euros ($355 million) to resettle about 30,000 refugees’, the fund isn’t just limited to Afghan refugees. The reluctance of EU countries to accept their fair share of responsibilities and accommodate their Afghan partners has included many European leaders and politicians refusing to host Afghans in their countries.

Daniel del Valle, Ambassador of the Organization of American States’ #TodosSomosMigrantes (We Are All Migrants) campaign in Spain asserted: ‘We must remember that there are many Europeans and their leaders who are sceptical of mass arrival of migrants without control. However, if Europe wants to be a reliable ally worthy of confidence, there must be a clear policy to help refugees and a good leadership plan capable of negotiating with partner countries to welcome refugees under the conditions that respect human rights.’

The response of EU leaders so far has been inadequate and limited, despite the devastation of lives being brought about partly thanks to policies made in the West.  The response to this global crisis is nothing but piecemeal. Afghans’ lives are being discussed in a clinical fashion forgetting that Afghans are not things, numbers or cattle, they are human beings trying to run away from global inequalities. Afghans will soon find themselves trapped in a ruthless web of politics, which will force them to embark on journeys along dangerous smuggling routes, costing human lives. 

Leida, her eyes tired and hopeful as she made her way to Europe, described to me the scenes she had been seeing: ‘Anxious faces worried about their and their children’s future. They know that physically they didn’t belong to Kabul anymore but now anyone can claim them however they wish.’ 

Displaced by war and socially dislocated by immigration policies, the future for so many  Afghans remains uncertain. EU nations already treat desperate and war-stricken refugees with contempt and suspicion. Afghans are stuck between a rock and a hard place with the Taliban Islamist group on one hand and stringent European policies on the other. For them,  the horrific and uncertain journey has only just begun.

*A pseudonym was used to protect the identity of the Afghan woman interviewed. Leida didn’t want her location to be disclosed due to the fear that article could affect her refugee status where she is. 

Dr. Ritu Mahendru has been working in Afghanistan for over a decade promoting women and girls’ rights, and working with religious minorities, children, and Kuchi nomads. Ritu tweets as @ritumahendru.