Afghan refugees receive a cold welcome in Europe

Afghan migrants walk after crossing the border from Greece into Macedonia in Nov. 2015.
Afghan migrants walk after crossing the border from Greece into Macedonia in Nov. 2015.
Image: Reuters/Stoyan Nenov
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An Afghan doctor wearing a tracksuit stands on the muddy ground inside a temporary registration shelter for asylum-seekers in the western German state of Baden-Württemberg, waving a paper flyer announcing German classes. “Why not us?” he asks.

The full-time class was being offered to Syrians, Iraqis, Eritreans, and Iranians, but Afghans and other nationalities were not mentioned. The discrepancy points to a new multi-tiered approach in how Germany is processing asylum-seekers—one based at least initially on national origin.

In a particularly chaotic year for migration to Europe, Afghans represent the second largest group of migrants traversing the Mediterranean Sea, after Syrians. But though their country is riven by fighting with the Taliban and other armed groups, they have received a different welcome. Instead of fast-tracked applications and pledges to make integration a top priority, Germany is labeling them as economic migrants and telling them to stay home.

The doctor hoping for German lessons—an ear, nose, and throat specialist from Kunduz—requested not to be named because his family in Afghanistan could still face threats. He is one of 20,830 Afghans who have applied for asylum in Germany so far this year, more than twice the number who sought protection during the same period in 2014. But his odds of succeeding may be lower than they might have been in the past because fighting in the country is not widespread, and rarely garners headlines these days. The German government does not consider Afghans prima facie refugees, even though they were the largest population under United Nations Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) protection mandate for three decades until Syrians overtook them last year.

In response to the influx of Afghans seeking protection, Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel has called for the creation of safe-zones in Afghanistan to protect them at home. Last week she met with Afghanistan’s president Ashraf Ghani and promised to increase deportations of Afghans and others who she claims are seeking better economic circumstances.

At a joint news conference, Merkel said Germany would certainly continue to extend protection to Afghans living under threat, because they had worked with foreign troops, “but where refugees come hoping for a better life—and I know that this hope is big for many—that is no reason to get asylum status or residency status here,” she said.

As of Oct. 2015, Germany has recognized only 1,361 Afghans as refugees, processing only a quarter of their applications. Another 853 are allowed to stay with less rights under subsidiary-protection statuses. The majority, though, face months of uncertainty that are likely to end with deportation orders.

Human-rights groups and experts on Afghan migration worry that this is the beginning of a policy shift that amounts to asylum classification based on nationality, instead of the case-by-case evaluation required by international law, hurting chances for Afghans with legitimate fears.

Angeliki Dimitriadi, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, has been studying Afghan migratory flows since 2009. She noticed the shift this past year as Europe moved into crisis mode, dealing with the worst global refugee crisis since the end of World War II.

“It is a huge danger that we are moving towards a double-standard asylum system,” Dimitriadi tells Quartz, “and it’s one based on nationality and not on an individual’s right to asylum.” She adds that the unprecedented number of Syrian arrivals has pressured European countries to push for lower protection status for asylum seekers in order to speed up the process.

“Even Germany, which had a very good asylum system, is currently differentiating on the basis of nationality,” Dimitriadi says. “So the Syrians in a way get preferential treatment; they are being prioritized as everywhere else in the EU, while nationalities like the Afghans are downgraded in the process, often assumed to be migrating for economic motives alone.”

The German government also argues that because the West has poured money and troops into Afghanistan, they should be seeing fewer refugees. German interior minister Thomas de Maizière recently said at a news conference, “large amounts of development aid have gone to Afghanistan—so we can expect that Afghans stay in their country.” He recommended the middle class stay home and work to rebuild their government.

But for the “middle class”—like the doctor wanting German classes—this proposition is not so simple. He has seen the interior minister’s statement on Facebook and says, “I am a doctor, but my life is not safe in our country. We are obliged to leave our country and to come to Germany.”

Until he fled in Aug. 2015, the doctor said he earned $4,000 a month running his own clinic in a region near Kunduz, the same city where a Doctors Without Borders clinic was bombed by the US military in October. He said the Taliban, which briefly held control of Kunduz that month, began to harass him for for assistance, sending him a letter asking him to join the jihad and to donate 15 motorcycles to the group. If he refused, the Taliban might kill him, but if he complied, the government could label him a traitor. Nine months ago, his son was kidnapped and ransomed for $50,000.

“If our country was peaceful, we would go by ourselves,” he says offering to show where he was wounded by bullets in 2009.

Wenzel Michalski, the director of Human Rights Watch in Germany, calls the interior minister’s comments “ridiculous” and “plain propaganda” to get people to stay home. “It’s a kind of wishful thinking,” he tells Quartz. “Development and aid don’t fix problems in the short term, and you can’t use it as an argument.”

Other Afghans fleeing tribal vendettas or second-generation Afghan refugees coming from Iran or Pakistan face even greater odds against their asylum claims. But while they are increasingly labeled as “economic migrants,” Dimitriadi says that it was important to keep in mind recent Afghan history, including the Soviet invasion, Taliban rule, and the intervention of Western troops. “There have been continuous push factors that generate refugee flows,” she insists.

For Afghans currently seeking asylum, she adds, “it’s very unclear, they don’t understand: Why aren’t we sharing this? Why aren’t we welcoming them? Why aren’t they identifying them as refugees when it’s very clear that they’re leaving very unstable and unsustainable situations?”

Though it may take the German government many months to process the backlog of applications, the doctor is not wasting time trying to adapt to what he hopes is his new home. His first impressions of Germany were positive: He spoke of friendly camp workers and respect for human rights and personal liberties. Though he still is not allowed to join the German classes offered at the shelter, he bought a language book for 52 euros out of his own pocket and hopes his wife and son can join him in Germany.

“We are very lucky… we appreciate the German authorities,” he says. But he pleads for more support for asylum seekers, “especially for Afghan people.”