A hierarchy of refugees?

Although the Syrian refugee crisis has drawn some renewed attention to the forgotten plight of Afghan refugees (many of whom have been displaced for far longer), Afghans are filtered through a different asylum process. Before the Syria crisis unfolded, Afghanistan had been the world’s biggest source for refugees for 32 years. However, now that parts of Afghanistan are being rebuilt and are considered ‘safe’ again, only about 68% of Afghan applications for asylum are granted.

In order to qualify for relocation within the EU, asylum applications from a given nationality must be accepted at least 75% of the time, meaning that Afghans just miss the cutoff to be eligible for relocation. The choice that many Afghans face now is between returning to Afghanistan, paying a smuggler to take them elsewhere in Europe, or applying for asylum in Greece. If they choose to apply to stay in Greece, their application has a 60% chance of being approved. Unlike Syrians, their applications are not fast-tracked, meaning that it may take months or even years for their application to be processed.

This difference in the asylum process has reportedly led to tensions and clashes between Afghans and Syrians currently staying in Greece. We have seen that many of the areas around Athens hosting refugees are divided by nationality; the Elliniko airport is primarily occupied by Afghans, while the Eleonas camp contains more Syrians. However, some of the informal squats around Athens host refugees of both nationalities without conflict. One Syrian woman told us that in her squat, Afghans and Syrians coexist peacefully. She said, “We have the same pain and took the same journey. We share the same spirit.”

Based on exchanges with service providers, we have heard that the Afghans have a more difficult time accessing refugee services and information about the asylum process, partly because there are fewer Farsi interpreters and no Pashto interpreters. Others have told us that Syrian asylum-seekers are more willing to adapt their customs and values to adjust to life in Europe, while Afghans hold more tightly to conservative practices.

In some ways this topic is an interesting extension of Sophia’s previous posts about cherry-picking migrants: are European countries more sympathetic to Syrian refugees because of their higher educational levels and less conservative culture? Or perhaps the crisis in Syria is considered more urgent than the situation in Afghanistan, even though the Taliban still violently rules nearly 30% of Afghanistan. However, with Pakistan threatening to revoke the refugee status of the 2.5 million Afghans living inside its borders, it is possible that the numbers of Afghan refugees will soon surge again.

While the experience of being a refugee would be traumatizing and frustrating for anyone, Afghans’ uncertainty about the future is more pronounced because their options are even more limited and international attention is fixated primarily on Syrians. One service provider explained it this way: “Syrians will find their way. It may take 6 months, 1 year, but they will get the chance to start over. Afghans…I still don’t know.”


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