Hierarchy of Tragedies
The current refugee crisis has been deemed the biggest one since World War II. For the past few years, it has made headlines in every major news outlet, making everyone aware of its occurrence, if not its extent. The crisis has claimed the lives of over 300,000 Syrians and has caused a mass movement of over 5 million people out of Syria. While world leaders have directed their attention to the Syrian crisis, many have forgotten about Afghan refugees, utterly neglecting them.
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 25% of the refugees who reached Greece in 2015 were Afghans. Yet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) unreservedly terminated all asylum applications from Afghanistan in 2013, putting Syrian lives before Afghan lives. In the summer of 2015, Afghan asylum seekers were reclassified as economic migrants, with the implication that Afghans were simply looking for a “better life” as opposed to Syrians who were looking for “life.”
The situation in Afghanistan, however, is dire. Afghans have been tortured, mercilessly killed, raped, imprisoned, and deprived of basic human rights since the Soviet invasion of the country in 1979, followed by the takeover of the fundamentalist Muslim guerrilla group, the Mujahedin, and thereupon the fundamentalist Sunni Islamist group, the Taliban. With the American invasion and democratization of the country in 2001 and presence of 140,000 NATO soldiers, the situation was getting better. But with the massive withdrawal of U.S. forces by President Obama’s administration at the end of 2014, the country’s untrained and inexperienced forces have been left to maintain security. In addition to their military presence, the international community has granted Afghanistan over 100 billion dollars in aid in just the last decade. Unable to accept the failure of their intervention in rebuilding the state, the international community now depicts a safe and democratized image of Afghanistan. Accepting Afghan refugees would equate to accepting a failure they are unwilling to be responsible for.
With only 8,400 U.S. troops remaining in Afghanistan and taking no proactive position in the defense department, UN reported the highest death tolls in 2016. According to the Washington Post, the government now controls only 57% of the geographic territory, while it controlled 72% just over a year ago. This has extended the Taliban’s ability to systematize suicide bombings and assaults all over the country. According to UN, nearly 3,500 Afghan civilians died in 2016 and over 7,900 were injured as a result of both insurgent attacks and airstrikes by NATO and Afghan forces. In an attempt to escape the Taliban’s gruesomeness, UN reports internal displacement of over half a million people. Meanwhile, there are millions attempting to flee the country in hopes of the European promise.
Most Afghans escaping persecution flee to Turkey in order to begin their asylum applications. The long journey requires them to first enter Iran and then Turkey. Turkey’s dual refugee system, whereas an applicant has to apply for refugee status both through the UNHCR and the Turkish government, is a lengthy and bureaucratic process that can take a minimum of two and a half years. Due to the termination of asylum applications from Afghanistan, the chances of Afghan refugees being resettled in a third country is now close to zero, obliging many to walk through the Turkish-Bulgarian border or cross the ocean to enter Greece. Afghans are constantly labeled ‘job seekers’ by other asylum seekers, not seen as truly in need. Because world leaders have hierarchized tragedy, conflicts between Syrian and Afghan refugees have intensified at detention camps in Greece. Angry shouts, assaults, slogans, and small firebombs between the two groups are common. “Afghans are angry because Syrians can get asylum in Europe, and they can’t,” said Hani Alkhalaf, a Syrian refugee in a detention camp in Greece, in an interview with The New York Times.
Afghan refugees and asylum seekers have been in Turkey for years, waiting for their fate to be settled by UNHCR, yet world leaders have not only prioritized Syrian refugees, they have fully discontinued assisting Afghan asylum seekers and refugees. In an interview with Foreign Policy, a former Afghan military officer, who is now an asylum seeker, says, “The Syrians have gone through four years of brutal wars, but for the Afghans it has been nearly 40 now.” Another Afghan asylum seeker who was detained in Turkey told The New York Times, “ Why should they [Syrians] get special treatment? Afghanistan is not safe… Now they want to throw us back to our country, but not the Syrians.”
The Global Peace Index regards Syria as the most dangerous country in the world and the international community should focus on the appalling situation in Syria, but should do so without terminating assistance to other vulnerable groups.