KABUL Afghanistan – The international conference on Afghanistan this month was meant to foster international solidarity with the central Asian country and its people. Yet, the concept of solidarity presupposes a common interest.
In our multi-year study interviewing Afghans along the migration trail we tried to understand the interests of Afghans who flee their country.
We found that many Afghans heading towards Europe have the same expectations of solidarity from Europe that Europe seeks from Afghanistan in stabilizing its borders and managing migration flows.
Many Afghans who migrate are motivated by the perception that Europe will be a supportive and welcoming society.
After a tortuous journey to Europe, the moment they arrive will define their experience of the continent for a lifetime. The circumstances of leaving their country and crossing borders are often lasting memories for Afghans, but their point of entry is just as significant and will mark their experiences – whether they stay, return or get resettled.
The “power of a warm welcome” cannot be underestimated, says Uma Kothari a professor of migration and postcolonial studies at the University of Manchester.
Bahram, a 14-year-old from Kabul who came to Europe on his own, did not get such a welcoming reception. He arrived in Greece this summer after European borders closed, and he found himself stuck.
“We were like chickens in a cage. We were not able to move around,” he told us, clearly traumatized by the experience. “They were not giving enough food for us, and we were under such pressure to come back to our country.”
Bahram says he was looking for a life “far from war and fights and conflicts, explosions and suicides,” and believed that his asylum case would be accepted.
“Greece has so much to offer,” he says. “I saw historical places and monuments there. I had some information about asylum procedures. For example, about being underage, getting an education and that being [a refugee] from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria matters to Europe.”
But after after staying in Greece for 46 days, with no options in sight and an indefinite wait for an asylum interview in Athens, he decided to return to Afghanistan. “Our return was, in a way, compulsory. It was not what I wanted,” he says.
Other Afghans told us about positive experiences in Europe, including the power of kind actions and being able to count on good treatment in a way they could not back home.
“In this place, the culture is rich, and people respect law – even traffic law – and freedom,” says Emad, who came to Germany with his family.
“My wife and [two] children can go around alone, and nobody is calling us names. People are encouraging us to decide for ourselves. Three words summarize Europe for me: safety, security, humanity,” he says.
But with the passing of time, accounts of harassment and marginalization are entering the narratives of failed asylum seekers’ experiences of Europe. Afghans we spoke with repeatedly mentioned realizing that in Europe, their lives are not worth the same as other migrants or Europeans.
“Afghans do not have value or respect. I saw it at different ports of entry, we were insulted a lot,” said Shapoor, who has since returned Kabul. Hamid, another returnee, told us: “When you are out of Afghanistan, you understand that being Afghan means nothing. You are worthless in other countries due to your nationality.”
Afghans recognize that much of the European frustration with their presence stems from fears for security. They understand – these are the same fears that led them to flee Afghanistan.
“Recently, Europeans have developed different opinions about migrants. Generally, this is due to the recent explosions and attacks in Europe,” says Zia, an asylum seeker in Germany. “We understand the fears, [but] we are not a threat. We escaped the threat to live at peace here.”
Many Afghans we met still feel that Europe can be a welcoming place and want to tell Europeans that they have been misunderstood. Yet they believe this is only possible if Europeans are willing to understand their stories and reasons for leaving.
Some were lucky enough to have translators who helped build the cultural, legal and social bridges for them in Europe.
Emad has formed a support system that is helping him not only with administrative steps but also with his family’s integration in Germany. “Women from the neighborhood are coming to support us and interact with us a few times a week,” he says. He was pleasantly surprised by the way his family has been treated with “politeness and kindness” and how people “do not ask for bribes.”
This is the Europe of which Afghans want to become contributing members – a Europe that is welcoming and driven by solidarity in ways that Afghanistan and its government cannot be right now, especially with current levels of insecurity and conflict.
Future multilateral meetings must go beyond managing migration from the state’s perspective, and should focus both on migrants’ rights and returnees’ well-being.
It is not enough to invest in Afghanistan, to help Afghans over there. Europe also has to help Afghans on European soil.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.