Afghan refugees feel they have been cast aside in favour of Ukrainian refugees

Afghan refugees
6 min read
29 June, 2022
Russia's invasion of Ukraine has caused Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban to fall down the pecking order of global protection. Unable to attain asylum, many now face deportation back to Afghanistan, where further repression awaits.

On 15 August 2021 during a family visit, a diplomat from Afghanistan landed in the capital of a European country with his family. Without knowing anything about the situation in Afghanistan, he was asked to apply for asylum at the immigration control at the airport.

“Because the republic he represented does not exist anymore,” recalled the diplomat. Unsure what to do, he reluctantly agreed.

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From that fateful day onward, as the Taliban embarked on tightening their hold over the country, suppressing any dissenting voice, many countries involved in Afghanistan in the past two decades stepped up to save a handful of people — where they failed to protect the democratic values promised to everyone.

When the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani and his entourage fled, thousands of people had already swarmed around Kabul airport to get out of Afghanistan — the great evacuation had already begun.

After the US withdrawal from Kabul Airport, many were transferred to third countries to remain safe until their final relocation, while many others still remain in safe houses until their cases are approved.

"Belgium has already started to reject any Afghan applying for subsidiary protection, as Afghanistan is no longer considered a risk country by Belgium"

Nargis* 25, in Stuttgart, Germany, remembers that she had no way out, as her and her family’s passports were submitted for renewal to the passport office in Balkh just before the province fell to the Taliban.

“We were desperate to have even our expired passport, but we couldn’t find a way to get them,” said Nargis, a refugee from Afghanistan currently living in Germany.

Nargis and her family, after months in hiding, arranged travel documents to travel to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. They were finally on their way to safety after months of living under the Taliban regime, however, in disguise.

“It was a big sigh of relief when we crossed the border into Uzbekistan.” They reached Germany the next day.

Afghanistan asylum seekers cook at a makeshift migrant camp in Pantin, northeastern suburbs of Paris
Afghanistan asylum seekers cook at a makeshift migrant camp in Pantin, northeastern suburbs of Paris [Getty Images]

After the fall of Kabul, individuals from different walks of life, having any association with embassies, INGOs, media and other foreign individuals who could get them out of Afghanistan, gave them much hope of fleeing Afghanistan.

Others who found themselves in danger took refuge in the neighbouring countries to apply for permanent resettlement in Europe, Canada or America. For the next few months, their cases were processed rapidly. 

However, the developments in Ukraine and the exodus of Ukrainians to European countries pushed evacuees from Afghanistan into a status of uncertainty. 

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While in Germany, recent refugees from Afghanistan are forced to make room for the Ukrainians, Belgium has already started the deportation of refugees to Afghanistan — a country marred with violence, curtailment of freedom and human rights under the Taliban.

Since 2 March, Belgium has already started to reject any Afghan applying for subsidiary protection, as Afghanistan is “no longer considered a risk country by Belgium.”

The General Commissioner for Refugees and Stateless Persons (CGRA) in Belgium believes that “with the Taliban takeover, the security situation has changed significantly (...), but there is no longer a real risk of being a victim of indiscriminate violence in Afghanistan.”

This comes at a time, despite the fact that the Taliban claims to have brought “peace” to Afghanistan, explosions and suicide bombings continue in Kabul, in particular, targeting the Hazara community, and extra-judicial killing has been on the increase in the northern part of Afghanistan where pockets of resistance are challenging the Taliban rule.

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The continuation of the targeted killings of former security personnel and detaining and torturing of women’s rights activists have reached to the point that it raised concerns from the UN agencies.

Richard Bennett, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, tweeted, “Many extremely worrying videos, audios & reports of violations from Northern provinces #Panjshir #Takhar #Baghlan. Further verification is needed. Essential for international #humanrights & humanitarian law to be upheld. Watching closely.”

Every calamity produces its victims, garnering sympathy and empathy from people from across the globe with different religious fates and skin colours.

In early August, as the Taliban made progress toward capturing Kabul at lightning speed, that took everyone by surprise; with every inch of advance toward Kabul, the people started to panic, the Air tickets skyrocketed, and all those who had visas felt unable to leave Afghanistan.

After the US started evacuating its embassy staff, the smoke coming from the embassy gave the impression that it was all over, adding to people’s apprehension.

Almost everyone in the Western world felt to save the people of Afghanistan from the wrath of the Taliban.

But the event in east Europe leading to the war in Ukraine gave the Western world victims of its 'own kind' — people with “blonde hair and blue eyes” who were in desperate need of shelter and assistance.

Millions of Ukrainians were displaced and warmly received by foreign countries, and most countries and businesses initiated special treatment packages. 

Hazara protestors display Afghan flag during a demonstration in Rome, Italy [Getty Images]
Hazara protesters display the Afghan flag during a demonstration in Rome, Italy [Getty Images]

The fast-food chain Burger King through its franchises in more than 25 countries in Europe, partnered with local NGOs to distribute $2 million of free Whopper meal vouchers to Ukrainian refugees arriving in those countries.

In Germany, telecommunication companies provide free SIM cards with unlimited data volume and calls.

The helpukraine tickets introduced by the German rail service provider “Deutsche Bahn” announced a free usage of all railway transport which means all local busses, trains, or subways could be used with only a Ukrainian passport or ID Card.

The special treatment of the Ukrainian refugees was met with serious criticism; to this end, an alliance of 57 organisations criticised the “unequal treatment of non-Ukrainian refugees,” asking for non-discriminatory actions. However, for many refugees from Afghanistan, the ordeal is not yet over. 

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The Canadian government announced it will be accepting refugees who had worked with the Canadian government.

Just before the fall of Kabul, an Afghan interpreter (who preferred not to be named) working with the Canadian forces where he utilised the Immigration Programme for Afghans, applied to be evacuated.

After several months of hiding, he was told to reach Pakistan for further processing and screening. After going through the process, he waited for his flight but was then told that he was not eligible to be evacuated despite spending months in Pakistan.

After appealing the decision, he is still hopeful that he will be granted permission to settle with his family in Canada. However, his wait is longer than he had expected.

Hundreds of Afghans are stranded in Pakistan, and many have been holding protests for the past two months in Islamabad, as their fate remains unknown.

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Many evacuees have been left in limbo in third countries for months without any progress on their cases, which they believe have been derailed by the situation in Ukraine and the refugees flooding to the European countries.

Recently resettled evacuees, such as Nargis in Germany, have found it difficult to enrol in language classes.

“In the past three months, every time I call to inquire about the possibility of joining a German class, I get told that I need to wait as they are dealing with Ukrainian refugees at the moment,” Nargis sadly explains. 

“Afghanistan has been pushed out of people's minds. It's as if we don’t even belong here anymore; I feel unwelcome every time I get treated differently.”

Sayed Jalal Shajjan is a freelance journalist based in Kabul. He covers post-conflict development and counter-terrorism operations.

Follow him on Twitter: @S_Jalal_Shajjan