Will the West’s newfound solidarity with the Afghan refugees last?

While a humanitarian crisis was unfolding on the tarmac of Kabul International Airport, through a televised address by the French president Emmanuel Macron, Afghan refugees caught a glimpse of what to expect in life on the run. Now accused of pandering to the far-right, Macron argued that his country must “anticipate and protect itself from a wave of migrants’’. According to the French President, although Europe should help those Afghans fleeing the Taliban, ‘‘Europe cannot solely bear the consequences of the current situation’’. Macron’s remarks echo the American sentiment recently expressed explicitly by Joe Biden in his speech justifying American withdrawal from Afghanistan. The United States’ mission in Afghanistan wasn’t aimed at nation-building. As such, the Afghan government’s collapse under the Taliban onslaught isn’t America’s fault. By that same token, it isn’t Europe’s sole responsibility to provide refuge to those fleeing Afghanistan.

Provided that there wasn’t any error in translation, a careful observer would notice that Macron used the word ‘migrants’ — and not ‘refugees’. For Macron, those fleeing Afghanistan are migrants from whom his country needs to protect herself. Thus it would seem that those Afghan refugees taking the wheels of an aeroplane as a pis aller and then dying after falling mid-air are just like any other Europe-bound ‘economic migrants’. Who among the Afghans then, according to Macron, qualify as refugees and deserve protection? Only those who served the French Forces in Afghanistan and those who share French values. What is so special about serving France and sharing French values that these two virtues take precedence over the right to seek protection. To gain refuge, does one need to have both these virtues? What happens when one has served France but doesn’t share her values or vice versa? Do the Malian asylum-seeker, who was awarded French citizenship after he scaled a building to save a child hanging from a balcony, and the foreign front-line workers, who were granted French citizenship after serving France during the COVID-19 pandemic, share all those values cherished by the French Republic? Would France rescind their citizenship status if they claim not to do so?

Now that alternative histories of the Second World War have become à la mode these days, let me take the risk of attracting the criticism that all humanitarian crises are nowadays compared with the Holocaust. Imagine a scenario where France had not capitulated under Nazi aggression. Would France have accepted Jewish refugees? The answer would seem to be no: Neither had the non-French European Jews served the French Republic, nor could they share one particular value cherished by the French in the 1930s — i.e., anti-Semitism.  Despite France being one of the first two countries to grant Jews full equality — the other being the United States — the spirit of the French Revolution that brought Jews emancipation was replaced by rabid anti-Semitism during the pre-war period. Vulnerable to the vagaries of the political climate, values cannot, therefore, serve as the index to judge any claim for refugee status. Thus, except for shared humanity, the requirement of any other common denominator — sharing common values, e.g. —between those who seek refuge and those who grant refuge is entirely absent in the 1951 Refugee Convention and, as such, does not have any legal basis. Indeed, Macron’s speech sounds more like a dog whistle to the millions of displaced refugees worldwide and leaves plenty of cues for bigoted demagogues who refuse to accept these refugees. For the logic employed by Marcon is no different than the one used by the BJP government in India. Narendra Modi’s government denies refugee status to Muslim asylum-seekers from neighbouring countries, claiming a conflict between religious values.

Contrary to Macron’s claims, Europe is responsible for only a tiny segment of the Afghan refugees; Afghanistan’s neighbours host the bulk of them. In recent years, Western counties have tightened the screw on the paltry allowances available to asylum seekers. Despite an outpouring of solidarity for the Afghan refugees among the general masses in Europe and North America, Western governments have been slow to respond. The UK government is yet to fund the resettlement schemes initiated by local councils. Sweden, the humanitarian superpower, hasn’t increased the daily allowance for asylum seekers in twenty-two years. The European Union still lacks a unified refugee plan. The Afghans evacuated by the United States have not entered US soil as refugees — rather under a humanitarian evacuation scheme. The scheme will run out in two years. Unlike Europe, the United States doesn’t have any extensive state-run social safety net. The Medicaid coverage currently offered to these refugees will last only thirty days. On both sides of the Atlantic, the brunt of the refugee-hostile policies will surely be felt by the newly arrived Afghans.

In 2015, the images of the drowned Syrian child refugee Alan Kurdi shocked the conscience of the world and woke up the international community to the plight of the Syrians. Since then, a few terrorist attacks in some major European capitals have brought about a marked shift in European attitudes towards Syrian refugees. After begrudgingly accepting that Assad is most likely to hold onto power,  European governments have also found an opportunity to ease their refugee burden. Declaring parts of Syria safe, Denmark is revoking the refugee status of many Syrian refugees — in some cases women and children but not able-bodied men, as the latter face the risk of conscription in the Syrian military. Once the West accepts that the Taliban will rule Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, will it adopt a similar approach? Already there are talks of collaboration with the Taliban to counter the threat of the Islamic State.  If the West decides to recognise the Taliban regime, could the exiled Afghans in the West face deportation orders? Such a question may be deemed as premature, even outré and cynical. However, given the kaleidoscopic wonder that is public sentiment and how vulnerable it is to populist appeals, we may as well as ask it now — if not to put off the inevitable gradients, then at least to make the refugees au courant of what to expect in life in exile.

 

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