Refugees by Choice: An Afghan Tale of Two Exiles

Afghanistan’s war has been going on for so long, it seems many others have forgotten it. While retreating foreign armies fire drones and violence engulfs the country once again, Afghans seek safer ground by trekking to Europe, where again, they are “forgotten.” Although about one in five of the migrants recently arriving in Europe are from Afghanistan (second only to Syrians), the asylum acceptance rates in the European Union are generally much lower for Afghan refugees compared to Syrians and other countries. The well of sympathy that buoyed those “refugees welcome” signs at European train stations now seems to have dried up for refugees of that “other” war (once deemed a “war of necessity”, now a “forever war”).

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, poised and impeccably Westernized on camera, stated in a recent BBC interview that he’d officially lost all sympathy for the masses of people leaving his country. As his country hemorrhages its best and brightest, the cerebral academic dismissed the mass exodus as the ungrateful and cowardly. He vaunted the courage of the young men and women who had just graduated from the military academy, who had “made a commitment” to defend the country, rather than scuttle away. They stayed to defend the new regime, to protect the impunity of the elite that their President proudly serves. Why couldn’t others do the same?

“Is it better elsewhere?” he asked rhetorically.

“The journey is made voluntarily. They’re paying $20,000 to $30,000. They’re impoverishing their families in order to make that journey. Because that journey was based on false assumptions. That they’ve made a choice to leave. When they leave they break the social contract. … This is an existential choice. Countries do not survive by their best attempting to flee. So I have no sympathy. My goal is to make sure that my people live with dignity, with hope, and with determination.”

It was a somewhat confusing statement when one takes the wide lens on how Ashraf Ghani arrived in his current position. He resided in the West, often in the safety of the American academy, while his countrymen were swallowed by the savagery of relentless warfare. He was safe in the West when President Bush rained hell across this homeland and dismissed the corpses of children as “collateral damage.” And he returned only after the initial fall of the Taliban, to deliver prosperity and development courtesy of international financial institutions. His biography reads, “Like so many Afghans, foreign invasion and civil war led to the persecution of his family and forced him to remain in exile,” and notes that after learning the ropes of rescuing “failed states” with the World Bank, “he returned to Afghanistan to devote his unique skills and knowledge to rebuilding the country.”

He was, in essence, a refugee. Granted, now he is a returnee, but he owes his life and political career to the open door he found when he fled the wars of his generation. Today, he extends no empathy to those who find themselves in his former position, once again taking that same path to exile, but this time, a more brutal, risky and heartless journey for many.

Though Ashraf Ghani wasn’t aware of it, his interview encapsulated perfectly the false distinction that the European Union is now drawing. Host governments turn down many Afghan asylum claims because it sees these people — exhausted, traumatized — not as survivors, but as invaders and parasites. They are migrants “by choice,” of course, because they can’t prove how much danger they’re in. Their “choice” is rendered unjust by bureaucracies and courts that often set such narrow criteria for who “deserves” sanctuary that only the tiniest trickle — often those who have cheated death an unfathomable number of ways — are deemed worthy of the right to live.

So the President asks, from the comfort of his fortified palace, “Is it better elsewhere?” He would know wouldn’t he?

And that is the same question that his fellow Afghans ask as they take their turn fleeing to safer horizons, searching for a better elsewhere. They run up against the other side of the migrant dilemma that Ashraf Ghani stumbled upon: the arbitrary divide between “economic migrants” and those with “well founded fears” of persecution and death. The people who actively choose to leave are supposedly making a cowardly choice. Those who flee the bona fide way are courageous, valiant, perhaps future returnees who can become true statesmen. The first choice is selfish, the second, selfless.

The President might soon have to rethink his sympathies anyway, as people are sent back to Aghanistan from Turkey under a new diplomatic “arrangement,” due to their lack of legal documents proving they are worthy of protection. Maybe the President will find it in his heart to forgive the deportees and try to make the most of these ingrates. Who only wanted a place where their children could grow up “with determination.” Their desires, and their fears, were not all that different from their President’s after all, likely not so different from those who did somehow win asylum. The difference was in who was willing to listen.

His fellow citizens are not risking death at sea, are impoverishing themselves because they chose to “break a social contract.” It was broken when they left.

Yet Ashraf Ghani was right about one aspect of the politics of migration. The migrants did make the journey based on “false assumptions.” It was naive of them to assume that the rest of the world might look upon them differently. There’s not much more sympathy “over there” than in the land they left behind. It is, indeed, an existential choice. But when you barely exist in the eyes of others, your choice matters little.