Afghan Refugees Rise Up Across Europe

Against the threat of deportation, refugees from Athens to Vienna are standing up for their rights.

Samira Shifteh, Suraia Sahar and Urooj Rahman September 11, 2017

Afghan refugees rally against deportations on August 22 in Athens. (Samira Shifteh)

In Afghanistan, the Tal­iban or Daesh kill me once, but here in Greece I am being killed every day.”

In early August, hundreds of Afghan unaccompanied minors in Stockholm held a sit-in outside the parliament building, demanding an end to deportations.

–An Afghan refugee liv­ing in a camp out­side Athens 

ATHENS, GREECE — Afghan refugees across Europe are orga­niz­ing demon­stra­tions against the depor­ta­tion poli­cies of the Euro­pean Union. In par­tic­u­lar, they are demand­ing their rights under inter­na­tion­al law, which are con­tin­u­ous­ly being vio­lat­ed by two 2016 deals: the Joint Way For­ward agree­ment between the EU and the Islam­ic Repub­lic of Afghanistan, and the EU-Turkey agreement.

The EU-Afghanistan Joint Way For­ward Agree­ment (JWF), signed Oct. 2, 2016, allows EU mem­ber states to deport an unlim­it­ed num­ber of Afghan asy­lum seek­ers by clas­si­fy­ing them as eco­nom­ic migrants rather than refugees, and oblig­es the Afghan gov­ern­ment to receive them. Thanks to a leaked memo, it is wide­ly known to have been a back­room deal that Afghanistan was forced to accept in order to receive human­i­tar­i­an aid. The agree­ment has been crit­i­cized by the Afghan par­lia­ment as well as human rights groups, and rests on the false assump­tion that Afghanistan is safe to deport peo­ple to, when all recent reports indi­cate an alarm­ing rate of violence.

The March 2016 EU-Turkey Deal allows Greece to deport refugees to Turkey, ignor­ing that Turkey is also not a safe coun­try for refugees to be deport­ed to: Accord­ing to Turk­ish law only Euro­peans can claim asy­lum under the 1951 Refugee Con­ven­tion. Thus, the depor­ta­tion of refugees to Turkey leaves them in extreme­ly vul­ner­a­ble posi­tions that can lead to their abuse by traf­fick­ers and oth­ers. In exchange for the agree­ment, Turkey is to receive bil­lions of euros in aid, visa-free trav­el through the EU for Turk­ish cit­i­zens and revived nego­ti­a­tions for Turk­ish acces­sion to the EU. Often, the peo­ple deport­ed back to Turkey are held in deten­tion cen­ters built using EU mon­ey. They are forced to live in deplorable con­di­tions while detained, often end­ing in their depor­ta­tion back to their coun­tries of origin.

Faced with the threat of depor­ta­tions, on August 22 more than 100 Afghan refugees and allies marched and ral­lied in Athens. Peo­ple chant­ed in Dari, Eng­lish and Greek, call­ing for an end to depor­ta­tions and for open bor­ders. Peo­ple marched with hand-paint­ed ban­ners, read­ing, in ref­er­ence to the JWF agree­ment, Afghanistan is Not Safe,” and War Refugees, Not Eco­nom­ic Migrants.” The uni­fied mes­sage was clear: Stop the deten­tion and depor­ta­tion of Afghan asy­lum seek­ers back to Afghanistan.


Afghan refugees and advo­cates march in Athens on August 22. The signs in Greek read No to fortress Europe.” (Sami­ra Shifteh)

Refugees came to the August 22 action from two gov­ern­ment-run refugee camps, Schis­to and Eleonas, as well as the Athens sol­i­dar­i­ty squat City Plaza, run by activists. Res­i­dents of Malakasa Camp attempt­ed to attend the action, but allege they faced polit­i­cal repres­sion by offi­cials with the Inter­na­tion­al Orga­ni­za­tion for Migra­tion (IOM) who threat­ened to with­hold sup­plies (such as cloth­ing) if they board­ed the bus­es to the protest. Res­i­dents at Schis­to camp tell us they also faced repres­sion by Inter­na­tion­al Res­cue Com­mit­tee (IRC) offi­cials, who, they allege, attempt­ed to pre­vent refugees from leav­ing the camp.

We were there as well, as part of a recent del­e­ga­tion to Greece, through the War Resisters League, a U.S.-based anti-war orga­ni­za­tion. Our del­e­ga­tion came togeth­er as eight activists from the Syr­i­an, Iraqi, Yemeni, Afghan, Iran­ian and Pak­istani dias­po­ras liv­ing in the Unit­ed States and Canada.

Dur­ing our time in Athens we con­nect­ed with many Afghan refugees and par­tic­i­pat­ed in com­mu­ni­ty meet­ings hear­ing their con­cerns. With their lead­er­ship, and help from mem­bers of the Afghan dias­po­ra inside and out­side of Greece, we draft­ed a let­ter of their demands, and sup­port­ed a polit­i­cal action to deliv­er the let­ter to the EU and the Greek Min­istry of Migra­tion and Policy.

The Afghan refugee com­mu­ni­ty read aloud these demands in front of the Min­istry of Migra­tion and Pol­i­cy, before march­ing to the offices of the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion of Greece to do the same. Demands includ­ed a mora­to­ri­um on all depor­ta­tions and the can­cel­la­tion of the EU-Turkey Deal and the JWF. The let­ter also called for Afghan refugees to be des­ig­nat­ed as refugees flee­ing war and gen­er­al­ized vio­lence, and called for time­ly fam­i­ly reuni­fi­ca­tion trans­fers with loved ones else­where across Europe.

Less than a week lat­er, on August 28, around 50 Afghan refugees from Moria refugee camp marched from the camp into Sap­pho Square, the heart of Myti­lene city, Lesvos. The deci­sion to protest out­side the camp in the city cen­ter was intend­ed not only to gain media atten­tion but also to avoid vio­lent police repres­sion recent­ly met by pro­tes­tors at the camp that result­ed in the arrests of 35 refugees. Cit­ing inspi­ra­tion from the recent vic­to­ri­ous hunger strike led by refugees in Moria’s Sec­tion B deten­tion cen­ter, the pro­test­ers claimed they would not leave until their demands were met. Men protest­ing had hand­writ­ten mes­sages on their T‑shirts with the date they arrived to Moria to show how long they have been trapped on the island, unable to trav­el to the main­land and wait­ing for deci­sions on their asy­lum cas­es. Many have been there over a year, with no updates on their sta­tus. Dur­ing the action, peo­ple remained camped out overnight in Sap­pho Square. Many expe­ri­enced harass­ment from the Greek police as well as vio­lence from an off-duty Moria guard. After three days the Greek author­i­ties respond­ed with claims that the people’s asy­lum deci­sions would be issued by the end of the week; pro­test­ers dis­as­sem­bled but vowed to be back if their demands were unmet. As we write this, they are still wait­ing for an offi­cial response on their asy­lum cas­es.

The protests in Greece were part of a greater move­ment of Afghan refugees protest­ing their depor­ta­tions across Europe. In ear­ly August, hun­dreds of Afghan unac­com­pa­nied minors in Stock­holm held a sit-in out­side the par­lia­ment build­ing, demand­ing an end to depor­ta­tions. In an open let­ter to Swedish Migra­tion Agency, Migra­tionsver­ket, youth wrote about their con­cerns for their safe­ty if they were returned to Afghanistan. The group was attacked by fas­cists one day into their protest, and after lit­tle police inter­ven­tion, they moved their action to anoth­er site, where they remained for near­ly two weeks, and were joined by many Swedish sup­port­ers show­ing their solidarity.

Also join­ing the call to action, over 100 Afghan refugees protest­ed in Vien­na, at Votiv­park, from August 25 to 28. Pro­test­ers also draft­ed an offi­cial let­ter of demands for their asy­lum rights that reads sim­i­lar­ly to the Athens let­ter. Addressed to the EU, the Unit­ed Nations High Com­mis­sion­er for Refugees, and the Prime Min­is­ter of Aus­tria, the let­ter includes a call for an end to depor­ta­tions, the imme­di­ate recon­sid­er­a­tion and reval­u­a­tion of reject­ed asy­lum cas­es, and legal sup­port and qual­i­fied inter­preters for inter­views and appeals.

On August 31, Franz-Michael Mell­bin per­ma­nent­ly closed the office he held, the EU Spe­cial Rep­re­sen­ta­tive for Afghanistan, after 16 years of oper­a­tion. He end­ed his last report with Long Live Europe!” leav­ing many to spec­u­late how this will affect diplo­mat­ic rela­tions and policy.

Afghans have been flee­ing Afghanistan for many years now in search of safe­ty due to dete­ri­o­rat­ing secu­ri­ty there, and a lack of essen­tial gov­ern­ment sup­port. The civil­ian pop­u­la­tion is con­tin­u­ous­ly under threat of vio­lence from the Tal­iban, Daesh, war­lords, the Unit­ed States and NATO mil­i­tary occu­pa­tion and war­fare. And with Pres­i­dent Trump’s recent announce­ment that he would be send­ing thou­sands more mil­i­tary troops to Afghanistan, the longest U.S. war has no end in sight. Afghan refugees arriv­ing in Greece after a long and dan­ger­ous migra­tion face ongo­ing inse­cu­ri­ty with inad­e­quate access to shel­ter, health ser­vices, edu­ca­tion and employ­ment, as well as vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty to drug and sex traf­fick­ing. The pop­u­la­tion is also at high risk of depor­ta­tions as a result of the false clas­si­fi­ca­tion by the EU of Afghanistan as a safe” coun­try and as post-con­flict,” mean­ing that Afghan refugees are not con­sid­ered war refugees.

The Euro­pean Union and Min­istry of Migra­tion and Pol­i­cy must rec­og­nize that the EU-Turkey deal is a vio­la­tion of inter­na­tion­al law. Once a per­son arrives at a nation’s bor­ders exer­cis­ing their right to seek asy­lum under the 1951 Refugee Con­ven­tion, they can­not be turned away or detained. The prin­ci­ple of non-refoule­ment, which is enshrined in the Refugee Con­ven­tion, for­bids the return or depor­ta­tion of asy­lum seek­ers to their coun­tries of ori­gin or last habit­u­al res­i­dence. The EU-Turkey deal and the JWF allow for exact­ly this type of ille­gal depor­ta­tion to occur. The EU and oth­er rel­e­vant par­ties have also con­tin­u­ous­ly vio­lat­ed these rights of Afghan refugee com­mu­ni­ties through long assess­ment process­es, which take years, or through restric­tion of move­ment with refugees stuck lan­guish­ing in camps and deten­tion cen­ters. There­fore, it was inevitable that the Afghan refugee com­mu­ni­ty would right­ful­ly take mat­ters into their own hands and rise up against such injustices.

As activists in the dias­po­ra, we will con­tin­ue to fol­low the strong lead­er­ship of Afghan refugee activists, and we will con­tin­ue to raise their demands to the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty, as we strength­en transna­tion­al sol­i­dar­i­ty in the move­ment for refugee rights. We call on the inter­na­tion­al anti-war move­ment to heed the call of refugees, and lend your voice and resources to sup­port their strug­gle and vision.

Sami­ra Shifteh is an Iran­ian-Amer­i­can activist based in Seat­tle, who has been work­ing on immi­grant and refugee rights for well over a decade, from sup­port­ing sur­vivors of inti­mate partner/​family vio­lence to orga­niz­ing actions against depor­ta­tions and deten­tion cen­ters. Sura­ia Sahar is an Afghan-Cana­di­an activist based in Toron­to study­ing inter­na­tion­al devel­op­ment at York Uni­ver­si­ty. Urooj Rah­man is a Pak­istani-Amer­i­can activist and lawyer from Brook­lyn, N.Y., who has worked direct­ly with refugees and asy­lum seek­ers as a legal advi­sor while liv­ing in Istan­bul. Present­ly she is the pol­i­cy coor­di­na­tor for Bob Gangi’s may­oral campaign.
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