Europe shuts its doors to Afghans

A musician who fled Afghanistan after the Taliban threatened to kill him asks why Europe is shutting out Afghans.

[John Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]
Musawir Roshan fled Afghanistan when the Taliban began sending him death threats for singing songs about women's rights [John Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]

Athens, Greece – Musawir Roshan doesn’t like long goodbyes. At two o’clock one morning about four months ago, he sneaked out of the house where he grew up in Kabul, leaving his father, seven brothers and one sister, the sibling dearest to him, undisturbed in their sleep.

Only his mother realised he was gone. “My mother – she knew. That night when I moved out from my house, my mother came out on to the street at two o’clock and she cried and she held me,” says Roshan during a walk on a beach in Athens.

Roshan left his native Afghanistan because the Taliban were threatening to kill him. “The Taliban says music is not good, music is not in Islam. ‘If anybody is singing, we will kill him,’ [they say]. All music.”

But Roshan was not targeted simply because he is a musician. His message is highly political. “Because women have problems in Afghanistan, I make a song, asking, ‘Why do the Taliban kill women? Why don’t women go to school?'” he says.

“This concert made a big problem for me. The Taliban said, ‘Why did you make this song about women? Women cannot go to school.'” 

One night as he returned home, Roshan was accosted by a stranger who lit a torch in his face, then inexplicably disappeared. In retrospect, he suspects it was the Taliban verifying his address. Shortly after, the Taliban killed his cousin, Emal. “He is not a singer, but he went with me everywhere; whenever I sang or had a shoot, he would come.”

Emal was gunned down just yards from Roshan’s house. His body was riddled with 16 bullets. The next day, the Taliban posted a death threat on Roshan’s front door.

Even then, Roshan dug in his heels. He neither left Afghanistan nor stopped singing, but the Taliban lay in wait for him at night as he walked home along the unlit street.

“Once I saw a man walking towards me. He was looking straight at me, and as he walked past, he turned his head and kept looking at me. I said, ‘Why are you looking at me like that?’ Then he swore at me and pulled out a gun. I ran, and then I heard gunshots. I don’t know if he was aiming at me.”

The warnings came in every possible form. “The Taliban called me on the phone and said, ‘Stop your music … if we find where you are living, we will kill you,'” Roshan says.

What finally forced him to go was pressure from home. His youngest brother and his sister were facing discrimination at school from students whose families were sympathetic to the Taliban.

“My father used to beat me to make me stop singing. He told me to leave my home, and ‘go anywhere you go because you are making problems for me’.”

Thousands of Afghans are sleeping at the old Athens airport where they are being given temporary shelter [John Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]
Thousands of Afghans are sleeping at the old Athens airport where they are being given temporary shelter [John Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]

Asylum rules

Roshan is now among thousands of Afghans trapped in Greece – the victims of a tightening political attitude in Europe towards refugees.

Until the beginning of this year, all self-proclaimed refugees enjoyed a wave-through policy, which allowed them to walk across six national borders from Greece to Germany.

On February 18, the police chiefs of Austria, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Macedonia announced that “the migration flow along the Western Balkans route has to be reduced to the greatest possible extent”. 

Three days later, the five signatories barred entry to Afghans, the latest addition to a growing list of displaced nationals which now excludes all except Syrians and Iraqis – ostensibly because overt war continues to rage in those countries.

Austria’s arrangement with the former Yugoslav republics originally had the political backing of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, who began to close their borders unilaterally last year.

The extent to which such unilateral behaviour has now become mainstream policy was illustrated in Athens on March 2 in the words of the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk: “We have to end the so-called wave-through process … I want to appeal to all potential illegal economic migrants wherever you are from: Do not come to Europe. Do not believe the smugglers. Do not risk your lives and your money. It is all for nothing. Greece or any other European country will no longer be a transit country.”

READ MORE: Why is Europe closing its borders to Afghans?

The day before, Macedonian authorities allowed only 170 people in from Greece.

This, however, has caused legal problems. “What’s happening right now at the border is precisely what shouldn’t be allowed to happen,” says Maria Stavropoulou, who heads Greece’s Asylum Service. 

“Someone without qualifications, operating under specific instructions, determining whether someone is an Afghan or an Iraqi or a Yemeni or anything else – this goes against everything we know about refugee law,” Stavropoulou says, adding, “It’s clear that all this has ulterior motives.”

The European Council on Refugees and Exiles, an alliance of 90 European NGOs, agrees.

“The main goal of these new updated policies by the Balkan countries is to keep refugees out, thus overriding the rights, in line with international obligations, that should be accorded to displaced people,” it says. 

The Greek Council for Refugees (GCR), an NGO providing legal aid to asylum seekers, has also denounced the arbitrary removal of migrants’ documents, including passports and Greek registration forms.

“It isn’t clear under what procedures the authorities of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia dispute … public Greek documents,” says the GCR in a note.

Although the EU recognises the Greek authorities’ registration documents that are provided at reception centres, the signatories of the February 18 declaration have instituted a new registration form of their own.

The slowing of the border crossing is bottling up refugees of all nationalities in Greece, but it discriminates against Afghans in particular. Some refugees can apply for relocation, an asylum application to another EU country, but Afghans cannot.

According to a September summit decision on resettlement, only nationalities with acceptance rates of more than 75 percent are eligible, and Afghans are just below that at about 70 percent.

Even for Syrians and Iraqis, resettlement is failing. After the November 13 attacks in Paris, Poland, Hungary and other EU members revoked their own voluntary resettlement quotas.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced that he will ask for mandatory quotas to be imposed three days after Tusk’s visit, but this was the very proposal that failed in May last year, opening the rift between Eastern and Western Europe.

An Afghan refugee in Europe: ‘All I can do is pray’

Two Afghan children talk on the grounds of the defunct old Athens airport where they are being given temporary shelter [John Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]
Two Afghan children talk on the grounds of the defunct old Athens airport where they are being given temporary shelter [John Psaropoulos/Al Jazeera]

Forty years of war

There is a glimmer of hope for Afghans like Roshan.

“They can apply for asylum in Greece,” says Stavropoulou of the Asylum Service. “They have a very large chance of getting it – 60 percent. If they get it, they have to stay here.”

Alternatively, she says, they can “continue on their journey, with all the difficulties and dangers and costs that that entails; but if we live in reality, the fact is that smugglers are effective, and they are now more effective than ever.”

Roshan cannot afford a smuggler. As he crossed from Turkey to the Greek islands, he lost everything he possessed.

As his boat started sinking, “everybody agreed to put their luggage in the water,” he says. Inside the bag that Roshan had sent to the depths were his clothes, his mobile phone, all his compositions, the death threat the Taliban nailed to his door, and $10,000.

“I am stuck here. I have lost my way. What should I do here?” he asks. “The policy of Europe is not good. Syrian and Iraqi people are allowed because of war. Afghanistan has had war for 40 years.”

Source: Al Jazeera