Empires slay, publics pay: The global refugee crisis unfolding in Afghanistan

ByBala Venkat Mani
Aug 22, 2021 05:08 PM IST

Twenty years, 83 billion US dollars, hundreds of thousands of dead Afghan civilians and allied soldiers later, we stand where the twenty-first century began: a global refugee crisis in the making.

If Americans falling off the Twin Towers in New York City on September 11, 2001 is the iconic image that inaugurated the 21st Century, Afghans falling off a US evacuation plane on August 15, 2021 serve as the saddest iconic bookend to a twenty-year war. Violence begat violence, a war fought on grounds of religious fanaticism led to a war fought on the pretext of wiping global terrorism from the face of the planet.

Afghan women queue upon their arrival aboard a second evacuation airplane, carrying Afghan collaborators and their families, that landed at the Torrejon de Ardoz air base, 30 km away from Madrid. (AFP)
Afghan women queue upon their arrival aboard a second evacuation airplane, carrying Afghan collaborators and their families, that landed at the Torrejon de Ardoz air base, 30 km away from Madrid. (AFP)

Twenty years, 83 billion US dollars, hundreds of thousands of dead Afghan civilians and allied soldiers later, we stand where the twenty-first century began: a global refugee crisis in the making.

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We are living once again in the age of refugees. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) currently estimates a total of 82.4 million forcibly displaced people around the world, including internally displaced persons, stateless individuals, and refugees. Afghanistan is the third largest source-nation for refugees, with Syria and Venezuela leading the list. Most of the refugees from Afghanistan do not end up in Europe or the United States. They are absorbed by neighboring countries such as Pakistan, Iran, and India. Many of them make their way to Turkey, which leads the list of host countries. Germany, which during the Nazi regime turned its Jewish citizens into refugees, became the top European nation in 2015-16 to accept over one million Muslim refugees from Syria and Afghanistan in 2015.

Millions of Afghans have fled over the last fifty years because of continued military interventions: the first by the former Soviet Union (1979-1989), an empire run under the guise of communism, and now the end of a two-decade long war in which former European colonial empires such as UK and France collaborated with the US, which emerged as a global superpower after the Second World War.

2021 is not only the twentieth anniversary of the war on Afghanistan. It’s been 10 years since the beginning of a bloody armed conflict in Syria in 2011, and more than 6 million Syrians have fled to find refuge in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, and those who could afford, in Germany. The year also marks the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951) in Geneva, a watershed event in global history which shifted the discourse of refugees from charity to rights, from the arbitrary goodwill of nations to a legal obligation of signatories, the US being one of them.

India and Pakistan were not among the signatories of the Convention. Following the Partition they considered the movement of peoples across the borders of the newly carved nation-states an internal exchange of populations. Nonetheless, the word refugee, or Sharnarthi, Panahgeer, or Muhajir is etched into the history and cultural memory of millions of South Asians. Given the blood-smudged birth-certificates of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, the term carries a special resonance for all of us, whether we live on the subcontinent, or not. Which is why the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan carries special significance for all South Asians.

US evacuation from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s return to power have unleashed a new season of soundbite political punditry and rushed post-mortems of the so-called “Global War on Terror.” Discussions over the last week have revolved around the legitimacy and efficacy of a sudden withdrawal and the astounding alacrity with which the Taliban recaptured power by force. The question of refugees is now quickly emerging as a test-case for US and its allies’ international credibility, as well a hot-button topic for domestic politics.

While the Biden-Harris administration is busy justifying its decision of sudden pullout without any contingency plan in place, it has made a gesture toward evacuating refugees from Kabul. It’s a different story altogether if in an ironic moment the Secretary of State Anthony Blinken desperately attempted to prevent the comparison of Afghanistan with Vietnam: “manifestly not Saigon.” That very reference takes us back to 1979, when the end of the war in Vietnam finally led to US’s evacuation of 130,000 refugees following the collapse of South Vietnam.

The Republicans and conservative right wing are taking a tried and tested stance. The Trump election campaign was built on politics of hate and anti-immigrant sentiments, symbolized in the promise of a wall to hold off migrants from entering the United States. Describing migrants and refugees in violent vocabularies of alien hordes, rapists, and terrorists—unless of course they were White Europeans—was central to Trump’s agenda. Tucker Carlson of Fox news has restoked these sentiments, casting Afghan refugees as an enemy force: “so first we invade, then we are invaded.” The scapegoating of refugees—which haven’t even arrived yet, as one can see through chaotic scenes at the Kabul airport—has already begun and will continue to be the basis of another “culture war” in the US until the next elections.

Such fear mongering, presenting refugees as a threat to majoritarian national culture and security resonates across the Atlantic Ocean. Germany’s far-right political party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has declared it will not allow the “repetition of 2015,” referring to the arrival of Syrian refugees. The French President Emmanuel Macron believes that Europe must “protect itself” from a wave of “irregular migrants.” UK’s Boris Johnson, a Brexiter whose slogan was “Take back control” (from migrants), has allowed the acceptance of 5,000 refugees in the first year, a drop in the ocean compared to the hundreds of thousands fearing for their lives, who helped these former colonial empires and their armies as translators, mediators, guides, cooks, custodial staff and much more.

The UNHCR has issued a non-refoulement (non-return) advisory for Afghanistan. In addition, UN’s Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) on Afghanistan has issued a joint letter urging “Governments to keep borders open to receive Afghan refugees fleeing from violence and persecution and refrain from deportations.” It would be a mistake to think that such advisories and appeals just pertain to Europe and the US. Pakistan, which has traditionally hosted Afghan refugees has fenced itself off. Turkey is building a border wall. Iran, home to a very large Afghan community is accepting refugees, but Iranian Afghanis are protesting for fear of surreptitious entry of Taliban.

With its geographical proximity to Afghanistan, India as an emerging superpower does have a major regional and global role to play. Along with a long history of peaceful relations with Afghanistan and acceptance of refugees, a thriving Afghan community in New Delhi and students in major national and regional universities, India also has the intellectual and diplomatic wherewithal to lead the world out of this mess. However, the ruling BJP’s anti-Muslim stance and the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (2019), which favors only Hindu and Sikh refugees will impact India’s political will.

I am neither an international legal expert nor a political pundit. But given the utter loss of credibility of armies of political analysts and intelligence agencies around the world, the necessity of humanistic inquiry in the current global political text becomes extremely important. Lost in the din of so-called expert voices and the relentless rain of 280 characters on Twitter this week is the human cost of the war which goes well beyond the eighty-three billion US dollars spent over the last two decades. Absent from self-justified positions of Twitterati and think-tank experts—some even revisiting their pro-war positions after being “embedded” in Afghanistan—are voices of human beings who paid and will continue to pay the price of the war and now their abandonment for generations to come. Pilfered from debates about implications of invasion are the voices of the people of Afghanistan, not all of whom are Taliban, nor all fans of US or Britain either, but everyday people with hopes, dreams, and ambitions, struggling for survival, who have now been thrown into another descending spiral of history.

One cannot ever excuse the Taliban, or any other religious fundamentalist group for their heinous crimes against humanity, anti-democratic and totalitarian characteristics, or rampant misogyny. But it is unclear who, if anyone, won against global terrorism: the US, its NATO allies, or Taliban who are busy rebranding themselves as an “Emirate.” One thing is for sure: the people lost, as they always do. The people paid with their lives then, they are paying with their lives now.

New York and Kabul, this catastrophic tale of two cities, can neither be bracketed between 2001 and 2021, nor will it stay contained within the political boundaries of Afghanistan and the US. Our fellow human beings fleeing Afghanistan will carry the tale in their hearts forever. There’s a global humanitarian crisis unfolding, and the world simply cannot afford to ignore the flight and plight of refugees.

The author is Professor of German and World Literature, former director of Center for South Asia, and a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Research in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Ideas expressed in this essay are his own.

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