Monday, 7 March 2016

Europe shuts its doors to Afghans

This article was published by Al Jazeera International.

Musawir Roshan

Musawir Roshan doesn’t like long goodbyes. At two o’clock one morning about four months ago, he stole out of the house where he grew up in Kabul, leaving his father, seven brothers and an only sister, the sibling dearest to him, undisturbed in their sleep.

Only his mother realised he was gone. “My mother - she knew. That night when I moved out from my house, my mother came out onto the street at two o’clock and she cried and she held me,” says Roshan as we walk on a beach in Athens.

Roshan left his native Afghanistan because the Taliban were threatening to kill him. “The Taliban says music is not good, music is not in Islam. ‘If anybody is singing we will kill him,’ [they say]. All music.”

But Roshan was not targeted simply because he is a musician. His message is highly political. “Because women have problems in Afghanistan, I make a song, asking, ‘Why do the Taliban kill women? Why don’t women go to school?’” he says. “This concert made a big problem for me. The Taliban said, ‘why did you make this song about women? Women cannot go to school.’”

One night as he came home, Roshan was accosted by a stranger who lit a torch in his face, then inexplicably disappeared. In retrospect, he suspects, it was the Taliban verifying his address. Shortly after, the Taliban killed his cousin, Emal. “He is not a singer but he came with me everywhere, when I sang or had a shoot he came.”

Pointedly, Emal was gunned down just yards from Roshan’s front door. His body was riddled with 16 bullets. The next day, the Taliban posted a death threat on Roshan’s front door.

Even then, Roshan dug in his heels. He neither left Afghanistan nor stopped singing, but the Taliban lay in wait for him at night as he walked home on the unlit street.

“Once I saw a man walking towards me. He was looking straight at me, and as he walked past he turned his head and kept looking at me. I said, ‘why are you looking at me like that?’ Then he swore at me and pulled out a gun. I ran, and then I heard gunshots. I don’t know if he was aiming at me.”

The warnings came in every possible form. “The Taliban called me on the phone and said, ‘stop your music… if I find you where you are living, I will kill you,’” Roshan says.

What finally forced him to go was pressure from home. His youngest brother and his favourite sibling, an only sister, were facing discrimination at school from students whose families were sympathetic to the Taliban. “My father used to beat me to make me stop singing. He told me leave my home, and ‘go anywhere you go because you make for me a problem.’”

Asylum rules

Two young Afghan men chat at the defunct limousine stand of the old Athens airport, where they are being offered shelter

Roshan is now among thousands of Afghans trapped in Greece - the victims of a tightening political attitude in Europe towards refugees.

Until the beginning of this year, all self-proclaimed refugees enjoyed a wave-through policy, which allowed them to walk across six national borders from Greece to Germany.

On February 18, the policechiefs of Austria, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and former Yugoslav Macedoniaannounced that, “the migration flow along the Western Balkans route has to be reduced to the greatest possible extent.”

Three days later, the five signatories barred entry to Afghans, the latest addition to a growing list of displaced nationals which now excludes all except Syrians and Iraqis – ostensibly because overt war continues to rage in those countries.

Austria’s arrangement with the former Yugoslav republics originally had the political backing of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, who began to close their borders unilaterally last year.

The extent to which such unilateral behaviour has now become mainstream policy was illustrated by the words of Donald Tusk, head of the European Council of heads of government, in Athens on March 2:

“We have to end the so-called wave-through process… I want to appeal to all potential illegal economic migrants wherever you are from: Do not come to Europe. Do not believe the smugglers. Do not risk your lives and your money. It is all for nothing. Greece or any other European country will no longer be a transit country.”

The day before, Macedonian authorities allowed just 170 people in from Greece.

This, however, has caused legal problems. “What’s happening right now at the border is precisely what shouldn’t be allowed to happen,” says Maria Stavropoulou, who heads Greece’s Asylum Service.

“Someone without qualifications, operating under specific instructions, determining whether someone is an Afghan or an Iraqi or a Yemeni or anything else - this goes against everything we know about refugee law,” Stavropoulou says, adding, “It’s clear that all this has ulterior motives.”

The EuropeanCouncil on Refugees and Exiles, an alliance of 90 European NGOs, agrees: “The main goal of these new updated policies by the Balkan countries is to keep refugees out, thus overriding the rights, in line with international obligations, that should be accorded to displaced people,” it says.

The Greek Council for Refugees, an NGO providing legal aid to asylum-seekers, has alsodenounced the arbitrary removal of migrants’ documents, including passports and Greek registration forms. “It isn’t clear under what procedures the authorities of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia dispute… public Greek documents,” says the GCR in a note.

Although the EU recognises the registration Greek authorities provide at reception centres, the signatories of the February 18 declaration have instituted a new registration form of their own.

Although the slowing of the border crossing is bottling up refugees of all nationalities in Greece, it especially discriminates against Afghans. Some refugees can apply for Relocation – an asylum application to another EU country – but Afghans cannot. According to aSeptember summit decision on resettlement, only nationalities with acceptance rates of over 75 percent are eligible, and Afghans are just below that, at about 70 percent.

Even for Syrians and Iraqis, resettlement is failing. After the December terrorist attacks in Paris, Poland, Hungary and other EU members revoked their own voluntary resettlement quotas.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced that he will ask for mandatory quotas to be imposed three days after Tusk’s visit, but this was the very proposal that failed in May last year, opening the rift between Eastern and Western Europe.

Afghans at the old Athens airport, where Roshan is taking shelter, demand to be let through the border with former Yugoslav Macedonia

There is a glimmer of hope for Afghans like Roshan. “They can apply for asylum in Greece,” says Stavropoulou of the Asylum Service. “They have a very large chance of getting it – 60 percent. If they get it, they have to stay here.”

Alternatively, she says, they can “continue on their journey, with all the difficulties and dangers and costs that that entails, but if we live in reality, the fact is that smugglers are effective, and they are now more effective than ever.”

Roshan cannot afford a smuggler. As his boat crossed from Turkey to the Greek islands, he was stripped of everything he possessed. As his boat started sinking, “everybody agreed to put their luggage in the water,” he says. Inside the bag Roshan sent to the depths were his clothes, his mobile phone, all his compositions, the death threat the Taliban nailed to his door, and $10,000.

“I am stuck here. I have lost my way. What should I do here?” he asks. “The policy of Europe is not good. Syrian and Iraqi people are allowed because of war. Afghanistan has had war for forty years.” 

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