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Anatomy of a Crisis 002: How the Ukraine Crisis Could Benefit Afghan Refugees
Over the past month, Ukrainians flooded the Polish border as they flee the ongoing carnage Russia is inflicting upon Ukraine. Border agents have warmly received them, train stations in destination countries have been filled with sympathizers waving Ukrainian flags, and an astonishing number of generous people have opened up their homes to refugees, providing a warm bed, food, and security to those in need.
This warm reception stands in stark contrast to the scenes at the Polish border last fall where “less desirable” refugees from Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia were kicked back and forth between Belarus and Poland like a political football. Many were beaten, suffered frostbite, and starved. At least 21 died. The darker your skin, the more likely you were to be abused.
Militarization of Polish border to stop refugee flow from Belarus (November 2021)
This was not an anomaly. People tend to be substantially less sympathetic to those who do not look, act, and pray like them. When non-Western refugees try to flee to safety in the West, these prejudices have consequences.
The EU has often actively strategized on how to keep refugees out. Following Kabul’s fall, conversations centered on containing the refugee crisis regionally, not offering what support they could to Afghans who supported NATO forces.
Then, following Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the Western world pivoted. They were shocked and heartbroken to see “relatively civilized, relatively European” people under duress, as opposed to people from places “like Iraq or Afghanistan that have seen conflict raging for ages.” (CBS News) Media coverage on Ukrainian refugees exposed enormous bias as commentators said things like “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair … being killed every day” (BBC) and “To put it bluntly, these are not refugees from Syria; these are refugees from Ukraine…They’re Christians. They’re white.” (NBC)
Even in the midst of an incredible outpouring of support for refugees in Ukraine, ugliness reared its head. Polish border agents prevented non-white Ukrainian refugees, especially Africans working and studying in Ukraine, from boarding trains and buses out of the country. CBS reported that Awofaa Gogo Abite, a Nigerian surgeon who worked in Kyiv for 14 years, was told by one border official, “You are not our priority…I can [deny you entry] as long as I want, and you can do nothing about it.”
This issue, of course, is not exclusive to Ukraine and Poland. At least 23,674 refugees have died in the Mediterranean region alone since 2014, according to the International Organization for Migration's Missing Migrants Project. While some may have fled for economic reasons, many were fleeing violence and war, and their lives were not valued as Ukrainians lives have been. Anti-migrant policies have flourished in the EU, trying to keep out war-ravaged Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African migrants.
Alan Kurdi, a Syrian toddler, drowned while trying to reach Greece with his family (September 2015)
The fact of the matter is civilian casualties are not all treated equally. Afghans who supported NATO forces as lifesaving interpreters, critical contractors for development projects, and so much more felt particularly betrayed by this realization when they were left behind after the coalition’s withdrawal. Although the United States’ airlift of about 82,000 Afghans was commendable, the Association of Wartime Allies estimates that of the approximately 81,000 SIV applicants with visa applications pending as of the day Kabul fell, 78,000 are still in Afghanistan. Similarly, Canada promised they would let in 40,000 at-risk Afghans, many of whom had risked their lives to support Canadian forces and initiatives, but only 8,000 have arrived to date.
A US Air Force plane taking off with several Afghans clinging to its sides, immediately prior to 2 Afghans falling to their death (August 2021)
As infuriating as the inequity in the support for Ukrainian and non-Western refugees has been, there is a silver lining. After months of dragging their feet and hiding behind overlong procedural timelines, the West’s rapid reaction to the refugee crisis in Ukraine proves that a more efficient and effective response is possible.
This has already been demonstrated by the United States’ rapid granting of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to both Ukrainian and Afghan refugees. On March 3rd, one week after Russia’s invasion, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) granted TPS to Ukrainians already in the United States. After 2 weeks of accusations of discrimination, DHS also granted TPS to Afghans on March 16, 6 months after the Taliban takeover.
This reflects the power of the public in this unique moment to capitalize on the momentum and get Afghan refugees more of the resources and support they deserve. Refugee discrimination may be institutionalized, but that can be combatted with new, more inclusive policies. Here’s how you can help:
For Americans, pressure congressional representatives, the Department of State, and the White House to pour more resources into SIV processing and getting qualified Afghans to the United States in a more timely manner, increasing engagement with private evacuation and resettlement groups, and finding a solution for either reinitiating consular services or revising documentation requirements given the closure of all Afghan diplomatic missions in the US.
For concerned parties outside the US, reach out to your legislators. Support local NGOs working with refugees to see how you can alleviate the situation for recently arrived refugees and more effectively lobby your government to promote more equitable policies.
For Afghans, tell as much of your story as you can safely. Make sure the world knows what is going on in Afghanistan. Share intelligence from on the ground when safe. Apply for every visa you qualify for; even a pending visa application makes it easier for groups to get you out of Afghanistan.
For everyone, speak up on social media. Write articles, blog posts, and letters to the editor. Contact your representatives. Don’t get discouraged and disengage. Public sentiment can encourage genuine change, like we saw with the new announcement on TPS for Afghans. Use your voice and ensure that people do not forget about the plight of Afghans, no matter how many distractions pop up around the globe. Do not forget that 95% of Afghans do not have enough to eat. The Taliban continues to crack down on dissenters, especially those with former relationships with the West (read more in our Daily Evacuation Brief). It is estimated that suicides have tripled. You can play a critical role in ensuring the world’s attention is not completely pulled away from this tragedy.
The public’s recognition of the horrifying disparity in the treatment is heartening and provides an excellent opportunity to reignite the movement for Afghan refugees. The warm support most Ukrainians have received is a model for the world. They deserve this support not because they are European, or “relatively civilized”, or white, but because they are our fellow human beings worthy of respect and compassion. Afghans and any other human being fleeing violence deserve no less.
- A.D. Hudson