Footprints: The high price of migration

Published December 11, 2015
The shopfronts around Victoria Square Park, like this Indian restaurant, draw so many Afghan refugees that they now post signs in Dari and Pashto, the national languages of Afghanistan. —Photo by writer
The shopfronts around Victoria Square Park, like this Indian restaurant, draw so many Afghan refugees that they now post signs in Dari and Pashto, the national languages of Afghanistan. —Photo by writer

ATHENS: Nasima, 32, has just finished wrangling with her two daughters and one son, when a foreign journalist comes asking Afghan refugees what they plan to do after reports that the border of Macedonia is closed to all non-Syrians.

“What did he say?” she asks in panic. An Afghan man, himself unsure of whether to believe the journalist, translates.

“No, God, don’t let them close the border. We risked our children’s lives, our own lives, we sat on an overcrowded, under-inflated boat for hours in the middle of the cold night, what will we do now?”

The scene, in Athens’ Victoria Square park — a long-time haven for refugees looking to venture further into Europe — is indicative of the situation Afghans find themselves in as part of the so-called “refugee crisis”.

Whereas in the years past, Afghans would spend months at a time in the Greek capital, the last few months have seen most leaving Athens, aboard “luxury” tour buses, in under a week.

At one-time, the park used to be full of mostly single young men trying to while away the days until their smuggler could devise a plan to get them out of Greece. Many would be made to suffer through several failed attempts — in taxis, in the back of freezer trucks or aboard airplanes — and being sent back to Athens before they could leave the country.

Today, however, that experience is completely foreign to Afghan refugees like Nasima and her family.

When Afghans get stuck in Greece now, as Nasima’s family has been for the last week, it is usually due to finances, not borders.

After having spent the bulk of the $12,000 they made selling their land in the northern Afghan province of Parwan getting to Greece, Nasima and her husband Reza, are unsure of how to continue onward with the $767 that remain.

Though the fact that all three of their children are under the age of 10 means they saved up to $15,000 on fares to Greece, they have no idea of how much time or money the road to Germany will cost them.

However, with Syrians now surpassing Afghans as the world’s largest refugee population, making it to Germany will only be half the battle for the family.

“When a Syrian arrives in Europe, all they have to do is say they are from Syria and they are acknowledged as refugees fleeing war,” said Reza Golami, who has lived in Greece for more than a decade now.

“An Afghan, however, must not only prove they are Afghan but also that they come from an area deemed ‘dangerous enough’ by European governments,” said Golami.

Speaking alongside Ashraf Ghani, the Afghan president, in Berlin last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her government would only accept Afghans in “acute” danger, namely those who served alongside German forces.

“Where refugees come hoping for a better life — and I know that this hope is big for many — that is no reason to get asylum status or residency status [in Germany],” Merkel said.

To Reza, Nasima’s husband, Merkel’s assertion is both short-sighted and disrespectful to the current situation in Afghanistan.

“The fact is, when we leave we don’t know if we will make it back alive. I don’t want my children to grow up in that kind of fear.”

According to a report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, 2015 has already logged the highest number of civilian casualties — 1,592 deaths and 3,329 injuries — since 2009, when the group first began tracking civilian deaths and injuries.

That number, coupled with a severe economic downturn since 2014’s highly contested presidential elections, has had a severe impact on the psyche of the Afghan people.

According to the Asia Foundation’s annual survey of the Afghan people, 2015 saw an unprecedented surge in the people’s disenchantment with the state of their country as 57.5 per cent of respondents said they felt Afghanistan was headed in the wrong direction.

However, Arash Bayat, who works as an interpreter at a camp that many of the Afghan refugees in the park go to, these numbers often go overlooked by the rest of the world.

“The fact is Afghanistan is old news now. People have been hearing about it for years whereas Syria is just now starting to be seen as a real, active conflict.”

This lack of attention and media coverage around Afghanistan, said Golami and Bayat, means European leaders like Merkel can easily pass Afghans off as economic migrants looking for an opportunity rather than refugees fleeing active war.

The acknowledgement that Afghanistan is still in the throes of war came from US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Joseph Dunford when he said in an interview with Stars and Stripes on Tuesday: “I still call it a war — there’s still a war in Afghanistan.”

Refugees speaking to me said their case is further hurt by Ghani’s own lack of protest to the deportation of Afghan refugees by European countries.

“How can we hope to stand a chance at proving we are refugees worthy of asylum when our own president doesn’t object to our deportations?” said Nazir, 35, who has spent the bulk of his adult life as a refugee in Iran and Greece.

To Nasima, her reason for leaving Afghanistan is simple, her son and two daughters.

“Their father and I already lost everything, any chance at making something of ourselves because of war and violence, why would we make our children suffer the same fate? We brought them here for a chance to live. To live free of violence and war, but also just to live.”

Published in Dawn, December 11th, 2015

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