With Europe caught in divisive politics, Afghan refugee women face a bleak future

The existing Afghan population in Europe is already facing a compassion deficit in Europe due to the rise in anti-immigrant parties threatening to fracture the bloc further,  write Dr. Manasi Sinha, Pratyush Bibhakar and Vishal Rajput for South Asia Monitor

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Afghan refugee crisis

In spite of promoting humanitarian and normative values, the European Union will face unprecedented resistance to opening its borders for Afghan refugees. The rise of far-right regimes across European countries in recent times along with their narrow nationalistic agenda may escalate episodes of violence and abuse, leaving asylum seekers stranded along EU boundaries.

As contemporary Europe becomes divisive on account of rising racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and anti-hijab politics, much stress and challenges lie ahead for Afghan refugee women and eruptions of conflicts and violence cannot be ruled out as they head towards Europe.

A 20-year struggle to keep the democratic structure unscathed in Afghanistan, came to naught after the Taliban took over Kabul in less than an hour of strategic fight, setting the stage for the establishment of an Islamic emirate in Afghanistan. With this, not only are tensions echoing across international politics, but a sense of fear, chaos, unrest and distress persist amongst Afghan civilians particularly minorities, women, girls and children.

Glimpses of terrifying videos showing images of Kabul airport crammed with panicked people clinging and falling off the plane midair; targeted killings and execution of captured soldiers; bomb attacks in schools and local vicinities killing innocent lives, including women and children - all delineate a grim reality that Afghanistan is confronted with at present.

There is uncertainty and fears of a bleak future, that may mar the lives of Afghan natives in the coming years. As around 6 million recently homeless Afghans desperately try to escape to different parts of the world, what worries everyone is whether the West particularly the EU is ready for a new wave of migrants since the Syria crisis? And to what extent migrant refugees including women and girls may feel safe and protected in the EU?  

Curtailing of women’s rights

The defenders of civil rights groups are concerned about the imminent challenges before Afghan women and girls as the new regime conforms to Islamic law and is known to frown at women’s liberty and life choices. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid’s reiteration of allowing education and work opportunities for women and girls, yet within the framework of Islamic law, indicates a possible curtailing of women’s basic rights.

The oppressive history of Taliban diktats regulating the lives of women and girls in accordance with Sharia law has raised apprehensions that the same could be reinforced this time too. Cases of forced marriages, sex slavery, loss of mobility and the need for women to venture out only with male escorts in public spaces, as well as flogging, stoning, executions are on the rise as the Taliban expands its control over entire Afghanistan.

The recurring political uncertainty and Taliban violence have caused the displacement of tens of thousands of Afghan civilians since 2014 and, as such, the number of Afghan refugees including women and girls seeking asylum in Europe for securing a safe life for themselves is growing. Years of insecurity and conflict have taken a heavy toll on the country’s women and girls, children and minority groups and the present inhospitable situation has only worsened the situation.

As the world community looks to the United Nations and powerful countries to help and support Afghan lives, there seems to be complete apathy and inertia among international actors to do the needful. Except for a few countries like Canada, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, the majority of western nations put a halt to the evacuation operation after airlifting their diplomatic staff from Afghan soil. As the new regime prepares to take over formally, it is gaining legitimacy from strong political actors like the US, Russia, China, the EU.

EU prime destination

Amidst a mass exodus of Afghan refugees, the EU appears to be their prime destination. There are strong pull factors. For decades, the EU has been deeply anchored in humanitarian and democratic values that prompted it to build a system that manages and normalizes migration over the years. Reiterating this, the President of the European Commission, Von der Leyen remarked in 2020, “We will take a humane approach. Saving lives at sea is not optional. And those countries who fulfill their legal and moral duties or are more exposed than others must be able to rely on the solidarity of our whole European Union.”.

While diverse problems like demography, climate change, lack of opportunities, etc. continue to have a profound impact on migration, issues of conflict and violence have caused the most rapid migration through the decades. Because of its historical commitment to bring peace and security, the EU has been sensitive towards safeguarding human rights, harboring refugees of conflict zones, ensuring security and peace, and further absorbing refugees to its labor market through an effective migration policy for a long time now.  

By 2019 end the EU had already housed around 2.6 million refugees equivalent to 0.6 percent of the EU population. Between January and August 2020, nearly 50,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Europe despite strict measures to curtail irregular migration. Most European countries namely Germany, Hungary, Sweden, Italy, France, Netherlands are more likely to accept asylum seekers. Besides, the Council of Europe’s Gender Equality Strategy 2018-2023 binds the EU not only to promote gender equality and women’s rights but also the rights of migrant, refugee, and asylum-seeking women and girls in Europe.

UN Women report indicates about 244 million refugee women migrants spread all across the world, and out of one million women and men that sought asylum in Europe in 2015, women comprised 18 percent, 12 percent, and 15 percent of Syrian, Afghan, and Iraqi asylum seekers respectively (ibid). The European parliament also had adopted a resolution in 1984, calling on states to consider special circumstances of women as forming the basis for their claims within the Refugee Convention’s definition of a ‘refugee’.

In spite of the existing politico-legal framework, women refugees in Europe continue to experience difficulties primarily in achieving refugee status and also often are confronted with discriminatory gender-related practices in the determination of refugee status. They also face risks of gender violence, inadequate facilities like educational opportunities, social security, lacking physical safety and health including mental health, female genital mutilation, reproductive rights, etc.

For example, the most vulnerable refugee group namely the Roma community usually are at the receiving end of discriminatory practices from most of the European governments in matters of basic facilities like housing, employment, education, and healthcare. The massive death toll caused by Covid-19 among Roma communities was due to a lack of support from a majority of European nations including Bulgaria, Spain, Romania, Italy, etc. 

As such exploring an unknown future in Europe may look somewhat frightening for Afghan refugees particularly for women and girls and children.

Rise of far-right

Issues and challenges like protection risks in transit, psychosocial stress and trauma, precarious health conditions, reproductive health challenges for pregnant women, all add up to the unforeseen difficulties for women and girls who may be paddling towards a safe destination in Europe. Given the continuous inertia of global organizations like the UN, along with the apathy of international actors including the EU, the condition of Afghan refugees particularly women will continue to deteriorate until they are extended special need-based support.

The rise of far-right regimes in Europe in recent years have fanned a vicious agenda of vilifying the Muslim community to as a means of strengthening the hold on power, unleashing violence and abuse against asylum seekers, particularly refugees from conflict-ridden areas, and also against those who are stranded at the EU boundaries. A persistent fear psychosis runs through the minds of Muslim refugees, particularly women and girls as they confront widespread hostility, discrimination, resentment and intolerance by fundamentalists in some EU countries. Very often, veiled Muslim women are being used as a tool to create a nationalist discourse by far right political parties that projects ‘Muslim women being everything that Europe is not and cannot be’, as Italian sociologist Sara R. Farris spelled out through the concept of ‘femonationalism’.

Given the rise of ultra-conservative forces, the EU is already facing formidable ground for the protection of women’s rights for even European women. Some right-wing governments in the EU have already banned reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, gay marriages, etc. thereby threatening the inherent diversity and multiculturalism the EU has been known for. Despite this, there are civil rights protests that seek to channelize voices of rights and freedom for making choices in life for women and girls and for the LGBTQ community in Europe today.

What is ironic is that, in spite of being a harbinger of gender equality and social justice, the EU has not been able to safeguard its own values. Due to strong resistance from countries like Bulgaria, Hungary, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, and Slovakia, the EU has not been able to ratify the significant Istanbul convention (the 2011 Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence) yet. Therefore combating and preventing violence against women still remain a distant reality in Europe.

Since the refugee crisis in 2015-2016, the EU has been confronted with internal differences between its member states over many issues including challenges of external border management; large-scale arrivals; overpopulated reception centers; unauthorized movements of migrants.

A common European framework was sought to initiate policies managing such critical situations, that can provide transparency, stability, and decent conditions for men, women and children arriving in the EU and also act as a bridge of trust amongst member states so that migration is managed effectively and in a humane way completely in line with EU values. However, the tensions surfaced and amplified over the years as the economic crisis set in 2018 resulting in inadequate job opportunities, shortage of resources. An overburdening population of refugees became the focus of outrage for the same. As such the European leaders continue to face difficulty in keeping up the foundational goals and values of the EU.

Compassion deficit

Before the Taliban takeover, many countries such as Sweden, and its Nordic counterparts had opened their borders for asylum seekers including Afghan refugees. However, with the dramatic shift in the power structure in Kabul, these countries seemingly have taken a back step in extending their support to the troubled groups in Afghanistan; deported existing refugees and also put a halt to the evacuation plan.

Worryingly although the Taliban’s takeover has escalated the refugee crisis, most of the European governments are yet to outline concrete plans to facilitate humanitarian assistance or provide asylum access to their territory via humanitarian visas or family reunification. Greece has rather announced the erection of a 40-km wall along its border, restricting ways for refugees to enter the EU through Greece.

Only just a few countries like Germany, the UK are facilitating limited access on a priority basis to those who are facing the threat of persecution especially women, children and LGBTQ. The European leaders already worry that new migrants will fan the embers of the far-right and populist movements that had reshaped continental politics after the wave of asylum seekers from the Syrian and Iraq wars hit the European borders in 2015.

The existing Afghan population in Europe is already facing a compassion deficit in Europe due to the rise in anti-immigrant parties threatening to fracture the bloc further, and with the upcoming elections in Germany and France, these anti-immigration parties continue to articulate vicious expressions against Afghan refugees. The opposition is already echoing in various sections of the European society with a common slogan proliferating in the streets - “2015 cannot be repeated!”

At present, when most of the political and academic discussions are centered around the uncertain future of Afghanistan, the geopolitical concerns of international players; and implications of the Taliban regime on international politics, it is of utmost importance to ensure a safe abode for the thousands of homeless Afghan refugees, especially women and girls, who are desperately trying to salvage their lives.

The entire debate on the Afghan crisis, therefore, needs to shift gears to exploring safe destinations for these vulnerable groups. And the EU is not seemingly projecting itself as a safe harbor of refugees in recent times. It is to be noted that the Afghan refugee crisis has surpassed the exodus caused by the Syrian war and Daesh and as such its strategic fallout undoubtedly has exposed the miscalculations of the US in its decade-long efforts to democratize Afghanistan and eliminate terrorists and religious fundamentalists.

So, until the strong political actors, including the US, EU, Russia and China decide to weigh in with their influence and humanitarian resources to address the imminent crisis and allow humanitarian support and peaceful entry and safety of these displaced people in their own country, Afghanistan would remain a battleground for years to come, only to see a pile-up of more bodies.

(Manasi Sinha and Pratyush Bibhakar are assistant professors in Galgotias University, India and can be reached at manasi.sinha@galgotiasuniversity.edu.in. Vishal Rajput is a researcher at the United Service Institution of India and the National Security Council. The views expressed are personal.)