An American made refugee crisis
On 25 August, five members of the Afghan Girls Robotics Team landed in Mexico City. The media darlings were greeted with hot cameras and the warmth of Mexican state dignitaries handing out praise - and more importantly - passports to the evacuees.
Since the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, seemingly everybody has followed the story of these girls, particularly American elements, smitten with the juxtaposition of young female excellence and the reemergence of a hyper-masculine fundamentalism. Western cameras and white saviours facilitating their evacuation all wanted a piece of the Afghan Girls Robotics Team. Meanwhile, airports and evacuation centres in Kabul and across the war-torn nation devolved into theatres of horror, with young families clamouring onto planes and young men clinging on to hope before falling from the sky.
America loves a good immigrant story. However, a sizable and swelling segment of it doesn’t love immigrants.
Unless, that is, these immigrants fill a void, vindicate a narrative, provide a benefit, or drain their native country of brainpower that it will zealously seize and swallow.
"America loves a good immigrant story. However, a sizable and swelling segment of it doesn’t love immigrants"
Converging with the vignette of Afghans - some more fortunate than others - trying to escape the country, is the sobering reality that the US has only resettled 1,592 Afghan refugees and another 88,000 on the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) Program since the war in Afghanistan began roughly 20 years ago.
That combined figure is an indictment of this nation that not only participated in the decimation of Afghanistan for two decades, but contributed heavily to the displacement and scattering of nearly 2.5 million Afghan refugees across the globe.
That number will increase considerably in the coming weeks, and the Biden administration has initially committed to taking in 30,000 refugees. However, these early pronouncements have galvanised right-wing politicians who staunchly oppose immigration, and most zealously, Muslim immigration. Even more, the revitalised debate around Afghan (i.e., Muslim) immigration will give legs to populist and xenophobic elements on the right, a debate that will certainly continue into the upcoming midterm and presidential elections.
Beyond the heavily politicised wedge in Washington that is immigration, the Afghan refugee crisis has prompted novel questions about the US's role in addressing it. These questions centre around an ethical imperative for a nation that spawned millions of Afghan refugees with war, and will cause millions more after a reckless departure that opened the door for the Taliban. The very same outfit that, public media savvy and posturing aside, the Bush administration made the first targets of the global War on Terror.
The Taliban is back, stronger than before, and the surge of Afghans fleeing their rule is explosive. While too early to assess the exact number of refugees, the number of domestically displaced and those seeking to flee the country will swell the population of more than two million Afghans seeking a permanent safe haven.
Even before the Taliban's recent rise to power, thousands of refugees were languishing in legal flux. A majority of them lived in nearby Pakistan, with the remaining population scattered in nations across the world.
Despite its role in spearheading the War in Afghanistan, and maintaining a military occupation that spanned four presidential administrations, the United States hosts just 0.3 percent of the world's Afghan refugees. The vast majority are not refugees in the traditional sense, but SIV recipients who were granted that status because they worked with American troops during their war effort.
That figure, in light of American culpability, is criminal. That figure, regardless of the xenophobic zeal rising from the right all over again, must change in the days to come. It must change to the tune of exponentially raising the number of Afghan refugees admitted to the country, and subsequently, extending protections for those already on American soil.
"Despite its role in spearheading the War in Afghanistan, and maintaining a military occupation that spanned four presidential administrations, the United States hosts just 0.3% of the world's Afghan refugees"
Those protections should start with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) given to Afghan refugees currently in the United States, and those who will be pushed into it in the coming weeks and months. TPS program beneficiaries cannot be deported - a special status extended to those fleeing a natural disaster or a live crisis (most recently, Syrians were granted TPS). Afghan refugees would presumptively fit within the latter classification, despite counterarguments that any "crisis" had been rendered moot by the Taliban reclaiming power.
Expanding the number of refugees admitted in the short term and extending TPS, however, should be the bare minimum. Unlike other nations absorbing a large number of Afghan refugees, such as Tajikistan, which will resettle 100,000, the US is no innocent or altruistic actor.
From 7 October 2001, through 15 August 2021, American bombing and military presence sunk Afghanistan into perpetual strife, and conditioned multiple generations of Afghans into the absurd normality of foreign occupation. The sights and sounds of American tanks, planes, and foot soldiers were a routine part of their landscape, and the scenes of war are rooted deep in their minds.
The war was deadly, with at least 110,000 Afghan civilians and soldiers killed. Millions more were forcibly removed from their homes, internally displaced, and at least 2.5 million more became refugees.
"Afghan refugees must be admitted not because they fill an economic void or a fulfil a white fantasy, but because they are American made"
All of that, in great part, is America’s doing. And tending to it, after an abrupt and reckless departure, must also be America’s doing.
There is an ethical imperative to absorb and accommodate as many refugees as possible because of America’s role in establishing a war-victim to refugee pipeline in Afghanistan. Afghan refugees must be admitted not because they fill an economic void or a fulfil a white fantasy, but because they are American made.
The War on Terror comes with costs. The gravest is the unseen faces and nameless bodies that never left their native lands. Those Afghan souls pouring into American airports are coming to collect the protection they are owed.
Khaled Ali Beydoun is a law professor at the Wayne State School of Law, and a Scholar in Residence at the Harvard Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society’s Initiative for a Representative First Amendment. He is the author of the critically acclaimed book, American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear.
Follow him on Twitter: @khaledbeydoun
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.