Persecuted in home, helpless in camps: Afghan migrants are struggling to survive

Years of war have pushed thousands of َAfghans to flee Afghanistan and seek asylum in a safe country. Afghan migrants, who have fled the country in the last couple of years, are staying in dire situation in refugee camps.

Jalil Rezai used to live a normal student life in northern Afghanistan’s Jawzjan province, where he was studying social science at Jawzjan University.

In 2016, a suicide bombing targeted a military vehicle in Kabul, the Afghan capital, where civilians were also killed. Rezai took to his social media account and wrote a post, titled “Where God was today and why He did not save civilian lives?” His classmates took a snapshot of the post and circulated it in the campus. Islamic Studies lecturer of Jawzjan University, and provincial religious council of Jawzjan sentenced him to death over blasphemy.

“I never wanted to seek asylum,” Jalil Rezai wrote from UN-funded Moria refugee camp, Greece. “If they did not sentence me to death, I would have a fine life in Afghanistan.”

The 18-year long ruthless combat between the western-backed Afghan government and the Taliban, widespread poverty, and political instability in the country have driven tens of thousands of Afghans to flee the country and seek refuge in abroad. With European countries and other developed countries refuse to welcome more refugees, Afghan asylum seekers have ended up in refugee camps, bearing unbearable conditions.   

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees have registered almost 2.5 million refugees from Afghanistan, a figure that comprise the largest protracted refugee population in Asia and the second largest refugee population in the world.

An Afghan asylum seeker is raising placard in Indonesia

As the United States and the Taliban make progress over a possible deal, there was little hope for the return of the refugees to the country. In 2018, UNHCR facilitated the voluntary repatriation of some 15,700 Afghan refugees, a 73 % reduction of returns due to the widespread challenging security, incipient political transition, uncertainty regarding on going peace process and lack of economic opportunities.

“Two families have been staying in Indonesia since 2000,” Mustafa Omid, a refuge in Indonesia, wrote from Indonesia’s Tjong Ping city, where 8,000 to 9,000 Afghan refugees stay. Two members of these families sat themselves in fire in separate incidents few years ago. “A 21-year old man set himself on fire. We saw the death in front of our eyes. An old man also set himself on fire. We do not know where to bury the Afghan asylum seekers who commit suicide here.”   

“A 21-year old man sat himself in fire. We saw the death in front of our eyes. Another old man also sat himself in fire. We do not know where to bury the Afghan asylum seekers who commit suicide here.”

Mustafa Omid said.

The doorstep to Australia, eastern-Asian country Indonesia, has been one of the major destination for the Afghans who seek asylum. In recent years, the Australian government changed its immigration policy, under which anyone who attempts to make an illegal entry into Australia will be transported to Nauru and Manus Islands.

As Indonesia is not a party to the 1951 Convention, Afghans refugees and other refugees are not allowed to work and receive monthly stipend. The refugees have to wait for years and even for decades to be settled to a third country, a process which angered many Afghans asylum seekers. They claim that UNHCR office in Indonesia has failed to process their applications.

UNHCR office in Indonesia was not available for immediate comment. 

As the war drags on in home country, many Afghans head to other destinations in Asia, including Siri Lanka, Thailand, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan.

“We always worry about our daily food,” said Mohammad Mahdi Alizada, father of two kids who were born in refugee camps of Siri Lanka. “We escaped from problems and caught up in a dire situation.”

A desperate Afghan asylum seeker is holding placard

For years, Greece and Turkey have served as major centers for Afghan immigrants to make their way to European countries. In 2015, when European borders were opened, thousands of Afghan migrants poured to European countries, making the second largest group of 1.5 million refugees in the green continent. The UNHCR reported that 80,000 Afghans migrants applied for asylum in Europe in the first six months of 2015.

But when European countries closed down their borders to asylum seekers, refugee camps in Greece and Turkey were packed by refugees from war-torn countries, and most Afghan migrants were left behind on the streets of Greece and Turkey, struggling to survive.

In Turkey, many young Afghan migrants work for years to make money and make an illegal entry into European countries.  Jawad, 22-year old from Afghanistan’s Baghlan province, works in a butcher shop and receives only half salary of a worker, as Jawad is an undocumented worker. The workers are subject to ill treatment and could be fired at any moment.

Most Afghan migrants in Greece, stay in refugee camps in different isolated and remote Islands.

“7,000 people live in a camp that was set up 1000 refugees,” said Ahmad Arash Bayat Hemati, refugee rights activist based in Greece. “They wait for months to be interviewed and then few succeed to obtain document as a refugee.”

Hemati says that Afghans had to live in tents under 45 C weather without air condition. And they receive only one time food in 24 hours and twice a week a doctor accompanied by a nurse visits refugee camps to offer health service to thousands refugees, Hemati added.

Many Afghans have gone through several steps to arrive to Athens, the capital of Greece, where they are vulnerable to exploitation. In Greece, 25,000 Afghans refugees crumble to survive, according to Hemati.   

“Alexandra Park in Athens is the place of 500 young Afghans who have sex with old people in exchange for money,” said Hemati. “Many Afghan refugees are pushed to drug smuggling and criminal activities just to survive on the streets.”

In Serbia, the situation is much worse, as the country’s corrupt police often catch up undocumented Afghan migrants, beat them up and force them to pay bribe, according to journalist Emran Feroz who is based in Germany.

First hand reports suggest that the Afghan migrants are divided across the ethnic lines even in refugee camps.  

 With the far-right anti-refugee wings take over leadership in some European countries, the situation for asylum seekers gets tougher each day. Basir Ahang, a political activist based in Italy, says that European countries censor news about the bad situation of asylum seekers.

“People are very sensitive about migration issue,” said Ahang. “European governments fear that their people would stand with migrants if they do not censor the situation.”

In addition, economic crisis is also a matter of some concern in European and the Europeans distance themselves from human rights issues, Ahang adds.

For Afghan refugees, there is neither way back to home, where ruthless war, political instability, tough economic situation, and uncertainty over peace deal with the Taliban offer little hope for a comeback.

“The German Ambassador to Afghanistan lives in the United States Embassy Kabul,” said journalist Ali Latifi, who has made several trips to Greece and Turkey to report on situation of Afghan refugees. “The European countries keep sending back Afghans, saying the country is safe, though suicide bombing wracked the German embassy in Kabul.”

For the 25-year old Jalil Rezai, camp in Greece is the only safe place. Rezai lived in Turkey for year and a half. The longer he waited in Turkey, the more he lost his hope to resettle in a third country. Rezai packed bag and headed to Greece, where he is caught up in a dire situation.  

“Every month, one or two boat drown in the sea,” Rezai wrote on Facebook messenger. “I have witnessed murders in the refugee camp, and then camp authorities come for interview, which is all about asking name. We do not hear back from them for five to six months.”