Afghanistan’s Forgotten Refugees

In 2008, Seyed Hasan, a father of 6, fled his home in the Wardak province of eastern Afghanistan. Hasan and his family were targeted by the Taliban for resisting their demands. It had been seven years since the United States had intervened to oust the group, but the Taliban was still acting with impunity in broad swaths of the country.   

Hasan’s family applied for refugee status in Turkey, but their initial claim was rejected, leading them to seek assistance from the Istanbul-based Helsinki Citizens Assembly Refugee Advocacy and Support Program (HCA-RASP), an NGO for which I work. Over four years later, the family was finally granted refugee status. But their situation did not improve. Employers continued to exploit Hasan when he was lucky enough to find work, multiple family members were in need of medical assistance, and the children young enough to enroll in school lacked the resources to do well. 

Years of living life at an impasse led Hasan to recently ask me, his legal adviser, “Why do they treat us Afghans this way?” 

Turkey is not the worst place in the world to be a refugee, but nor is it the best. When signing the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol, Turkey applied a “geographical limitation,” or reservation whereby only individuals fleeing European countries would be recognized and afforded full rights as refugees. As a result, non-European asylum-seekers are granted access to “temporary asylum” while they await a determination of their status by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Once recognized as refugees, they are allowed residence in Turkey while the UNHCR attempts to have them resettled to third countries. Permanent legal residence, or local integration, is not an option. 

Hasan’s question arose from having watched many newly arrived Iranian and Iraqi refugees pass through the asylum system with relative ease, spending sometimes as little as one year in Turkey before having an opportunity for a fresh start in the West. Meanwhile, Afghans did not seem to be going anywhere. Young Afghan men lost prime years of their lives practically begging for access to education while others established informal refugee camps in public parks. Many took notice of the government’s generous provision of camps and other services for Syrian refugees. Conditions lead Hasan’s eldest son to attempt an illegal crossing to Greece, only to end up back with his family after being detained, returned, and fined. 

The New York Times and New American Media each recently featured compelling pieces highlighting the predicament facing thousands of Iraqis who have sacrificed their own personal safety cooperating with American service members and contractors, but face enduring obstacles in their ability to gain protection in the United States. Is the very same thing happening as the United States plans its withdrawal from Afghanistan?

The Refugee Admissions Program, administered by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM), is the mechanism that allows for recognized refugees in other parts of the world to start new lives in the United States. As the world’s top receiver of refugees by far, the United States has set a ceiling for overall refugee admission at 80,000 for each of the last several years. In reality, only about 58,000 are actually admitted annually. The fact that over 20,000 spots have gone unfilled each year is indeed a problem, but not the only one. 

Only 428—or 0.8 percent of the total refugees admitted to the United States in 2011—were from Afghanistan. The U.S. government had allocated 35,500 of the yearly available spots for refugees from the Near East and South Asia, including Iraq, Bhutan, and Afghanistan. Almost 20 percent of the overall 2011 admissions, or 9,388 persons, were Iraqi. The recent articles advocate for an increase in this number and an ease in access to the system, but even a cursory look at the statistics should elicit a double-take at the tiny number of Afghans admitted. 

Hasan and other Afghans in Turkey represent only a small fraction of the over 2.6 million Afghan refugees worldwide, most of whom live in neighboring Pakistan and Iran. As new sanctions cripple Iran’s economy, Afghans are crossing the border into Turkey in increasing numbers and are expected to surpass Iranians to form the second-largest group of refugees in Turkey next year. 

Certainly responsibility for these refugees must be shared by various actors, not just the United States. Only 26 countries currently have resettlement programs, and those that do should increase their quotas. Turkey itself must open up local integration as a durable solution. But for now, Hasan must await an answer from the nation that put boots on the ground in his country in 2001.    

What response can our NGO give to Hasan? Is there anything more to it than the apparent brutal truth: among the already unwanted, you are the least favored? The standard explanation by UNHCR-Turkey that refugees from countries sharing a border with Turkey get priority due to security considerations has lost credibility, particularly since three times as many Somalis have left Turkey in the last seven years than Afghans. Although they may not know the specific name of the American law (the Lautenberg Amendment), Afghans know from experience that Iranian religious minorities are given priority in the resettlement system.

The recent attention to Iraqi refugees and their resettlement plight provides an opportunity to take stock of the broader inequities and inefficiencies of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. If our generous resettlement program is in fact an indication of our commitment to international law and humanitarianism, then we should establish a system that is transparent and does not favor specific religious groups while others wait endlessly. 

Resettlement quotas should reflect the size of each refugee group in first-countries of asylum like Turkey—and barring major vulnerability, referrals should be made according to the date of refugee recognition, so that new arrivals do not jump ahead of others. Simplifying the system will also lead to more resettlement for Afghans. In doing so, we will gain back the confidence and trust of many, like Hasan, who have lost their home and their future, at least in part to American geopolitical adventures.