Afghans, the forgotten refugees

Afghan scholar Naser Mozaffari survived harrowing experiences in Afghanistan, Syria, and Turkey. But his asylum application in Turkey has yet to be approved. 

Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters
An Afghan refugee holds his two sons as they get off a passenger ship at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, in September 2015.

When Afghan scholar Naser Mozaffari escaped his homeland, after the Taliban kidnapped him and killed two others before his eyes, he never thought that seven years later he would be stuck in Turkey, still trying to get asylum.

He had survived 18 months of imprisonment and torture under the Taliban. He raised $100,000 to repay his ransom, then fled to Syria, only to get caught up in the civil war. Then, on his way out of Syria, he was detained and interrogated for nearly a month on suspicion that he was Taliban and cooperating with Islamic State (IS).

Upon arrival in Istanbul, Turkey, he put in his second application for asylum with the United Nations – his first was from Syria – and included all 10 family members. It has yet to be approved.

“I don’t understand why I’ve been waiting so long for asylum. I think I’ve been through enough, and I have all the proof,” says Mr. Mozaffari, who wears a suit and carries a briefcase of documents proving his story. “So why hasn’t the UN opened its doors to my family yet?”

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reportedly suspended asylum applications from Afghans in 2013, citing a backlog of cases. Though the UN subsequently processed such applications, officials say that from 2013 to 2015, Afghans accounted for only 3.6 percent of all refugees approved for resettlement from Turkey – some 1,600 out of 44,254.

Amid a global shift in refugee flows, Afghans in Turkey now feel forgotten and discriminated against in their quest to reach safety in the West by an imperfect asylum system that fast-tracks those fleeing the most urgent, headline-grabbing war. Syrians and Iraqis, who formed the bulk of the stampede of more than 1 million migrants arriving in Europe in 2015, now take priority.

Afghan refugees vented their frustration in 2014 during a 52-day protest, setting up a makeshift camp in front of UNHCR offices in Ankara, Turkey. A dozen sewed their lips together and began a hunger strike, declaring that UN “incompetence” had deprived them of their “fundamental rights.”

Afghans remain the second-largest global refugee community. Between 2013 and 2015, conflict deaths in Afghanistan quadrupled to 15,000, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

The result? About one-quarter of the refugees reaching Europe’s shores in recent months have been Afghan. But barriers to their entry keep getting higher. One European Union proposal calls for Afghanistan to accept the return of 80,000 Afghans who have already made it to Europe, in a deal due for decision in the fall – upon which continued aid payments to the Afghan government could partly depend.

Yet many in Afghanistan remain ready to join the exodus, their motivation based on the risk of violence and bleak prospects for peace and jobs, regardless of disincentives imposed by European or Turkish officials.

“That really doesn’t change the risk-benefit calculation of those people who decide to go,” says Alexey Yusupov, country director of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation of Germany in Kabul, Afghanistan. “Because [Afghans] are so past that point of saying, ‘Well, hmm, now it gets a little bit harder; I will not try it.’ ”

Despite the difficulties faced by Mozaffari, his brother – who is in Kabul with his family – hopes to follow Mozaffari’s path. They experienced the death of a third brother at the hands of the Taliban in the 1990s; more recently, a daughter stepped on explosives on the way to school and lost a leg.

The landscape in years past

As a member of Afghanistan’s minority Shiite Hazara community, often targeted by the Taliban (who consider Shiites to be heretics), Mozaffari escaped his native village in central Bamiyan province and lived in remote enclaves until US forces ousted the Taliban in 2001.

He moved to Kabul to teach sharia (Islamic law) and in 2004 was invited on a tour of the United States, where he visited eight states and learned about US law with a group of Afghan religious leaders. He didn’t think of staying. “I felt like I was a force of good in Afghanistan,” Mozaffari recalls. “We had so much hope then. There was no reason and no fear to leave my country.”

But that changed after he returned home.

He began receiving threats, accusing him of being a traitor close to the US. In 2007, he did not have the money to fly from Herat to Kabul, so he got into a taxi with four men – all strangers – to drive across the country.

Taliban dressed as Afghan National Army soldiers stopped the car, shot dead the driver and a passenger in front of Mozaffari, then kidnapped the Hazara and the man sitting next to him, a Sunni Pashtun merchant. It was after that that Mozaffari was tortured. “We spent 10 months in stone-built cells in a cave together, a Pashtun and Hazara. I’m Shia, he’s Sunni. I speak Farsi, he speaks Pashto, and historically, our people have been at odds. But I wouldn’t be here without his help. I owe my life to this man and his family. He gives me hope for Afghanistan,” Mozaffari says.

The merchant’s brother paid a ransom, freeing both men. Mozaffari’s family had already pronounced him dead and held a funeral; when Mozaffari saw them again, he says, it was the most exhilarating moment of his life.

In 2009, warned the Taliban might target him again, Mozaffari paid a $3,000 bribe for a visa to Syria and left Afghanistan for good with his eldest son. In Damascus, they met other Afghans, received free housing and food stipends from the UN, and applied for asylum in a third country.

But the Syrian uprising caught up with him in 2012, when shelling started in his neighborhood. He and 10 other Afghans decided to flee to Turkey, but on their way Syrian intelligence agents stopped them and accused them of being Taliban collaborating with rebels.

They were arrested and taken to a dark basement, hands chained, and were interrogated and barely fed for 22 days, Mozaffari says. The basement was targeted and flying glass injured his hand. They finally got away and made it to Turkey, where Mozaffari and his family were eventually reunited.

“I had learned to live in war. It was that knowledge that helped me survive Syria,” he says. “Sometimes I wonder how I’m here. Why have I survived?”

Refugees’ calculations

Campaigns in Europe and Australia have tried to scare off refugees, including with policies that prevent family reunification, so that one member can’t go first and then bring the rest of the family. But “people already see it as a lottery now; they understand it as a question of life or death,” says Mr. Yusupov of the Ebert Foundation.

The foundation and the Afghanistan Analysts Network have recently studied decisionmaking in Afghan households about leaving for Europe. Some 178,230 Afghans sought asylum in Europe in 2015, they report, and cite a leaked European Union document counting 223,000 “illegal migrants” who entered the EU in 2015.

Among those making such calculations are Mozaffari’s brother and his large, poor family in Kabul, who now live in a small rented house in the western, largely Shiite district of Dasht-e Barchi.

“We know most Afghan families are returned back, but it never affects people’s decisions because the main reason is the security problem,” says Ahmed Hossein Mozaffari, sitting on a carpet sipping tea in Kabul, his family gathered around.

They have little of the $25,000 they estimate it would take to leave. But they are waiting to see if Naser and his family make it any farther. “That’s our one hope. If we had one chance we would go; we would leave,” says Ahmed’s daughter Shakila. “100 percent.”

But in Turkey, things are not moving too quickly for Naser Mozaffari.

Difficult rules for all sides

On paper, all refugees may appear equal: Those who end up in Turkey and submit an application for asylum receive official protection and are entitled to receive health care, education, and access to work. Roughly 109,000 Afghans who registered by the end of April with the UNHCR in Turkey fall into this category, say UN officials.
Yet in 2011, Turkey declared a “temporary protection” program to handle the massive influx of Syrians – 2.7 million so far – that provides them with many similar benefits without having to register with the UN. A new regulation provides Syrians with the opportunity to work, six months after they register with Turkish authorities.

But in practice, the rules are difficult for all sides, and – for Afghans – give the impression of second-class treatment.

“Refugees are still earning their entire living by illegal means, and the government knows that,” says Ali Hekmat, an Afghan refugee in the central Anatolian city of Kayseri who has waited seven years and says he “just wants to go where it’s safe.”

Mr. Hekmat says Afghans resent the preferential treatment of Syrians. The Taliban control or significantly influence an estimated one-third of Afghanistan, and civilians bear the burden. On April 19, at least 64 Afghans were killed and more than 400 injured in a suicide bombing in Kabul, as the Taliban kicked off their spring offensive. And on July 23, IS claimed responsibility for a suicide attack at a peaceful rally in Kabul that killed more than 80 people and wounded hundreds – most of them Hazaras.

Mozaffari, sitting in a Shiite Azeri mosque in Istanbul where he’s welcome to preach and pray, says that despite his delayed bid for asylum he is grateful for Turkey giving his family safety.

“They treat us like human beings in Turkey, which is a nice change from Iran and even Afghanistan,” he says. But he adds that there is no future here, especially for seven of his children who are all adults. Daughter Zahra, who studied medicine in Turkey, is the only one with a work permit, and she supports the entire family through her job at a local hospital.

“I just wish my mind could be at peace,” says the patriarch, who has received trauma counseling from a UN-funded Turkish aid organization to cope with nightmares and flashbacks from his past. “Then maybe I could write and teach again.”

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