20 January 2016, Diplomatic Academy Vienna
The Vienna Institute for International Dialogue and Cooperation (VIDC) and the World Hazara Council (WHC), in cooperation with the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, the association, Afghan Youth – NEW START in Austria” and AKIS, held a panel discussion about the political situation in Afghanistan and of Afghan refugees in Europe on 20 January in Vienna, Austria. The event attempted to shed light on the push and pull factors behind the high level of Afghan refugee influx to Europe. The conference took place at the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, followed by a workshop the following day.
The participants, which exceeded 330 people, consisted of diplomats, researchers, scholars, international organisations, and social activists working in the field. Sibylle Hamann, the prominent Austrian journalist, moderated the conference and the speakers included Malek Sitez, Khadija Abbasi, Michael Fanizadeh, and Tahir Shaaran, who gave an introductory speech at the start of the program.
Michael Fanizadeh from VIDC started the program by introducing the speakers and welcomed the participants. He briefly spoke about the large number of Afghan refugees seeking asylum in Austria. Tahir Shaaran, the President WHC highlighted the importance of scholars, researchers and human rights activists attending such events to collectively address the Afghan refugee crisis in Europe. Shaaran shed light on the WHC focus in helping Afghan asylum seekers by providing assistance, orientation, and consultancy to make their integration process easier in their residence countries with the cooperation of relevant organizations and agencies. Since January 2015 more than 130,000 Afghans have already arrived in Europe. The ongoing violence in Afghanistan, target killings, and kidnappings of various ethnic groups are the biggest push factors for Afghans reaching Europe.
“However, it is important to acknowledge that a high number of Afghan asylum seekers in Europe are from the Hazara community”, said Tahir Shaaran.
Malek Sitez, a prominent author and expert in human rights law, had travelled from Copenhagen to attend the event. Sitez focused mainly on international law and international human rights principles, highlighting the push factors behind the large influx of Afghan refugee trends in Europe. According to Sitez, a refugee or asylum seeker is a person who is in conflict and disagreement, politically as well ideologically, with the state. This definition is also recognised by the UNHCR 1951 Refugee Convention, which states that the citizen leaves the country due to fear and harsh circumstances, with the hope and intention to seek asylum from other states.
The first wave of Afghan migration started in 1979, one year after the Communists took power in the country. According to Mr. Sitez, between 1979 to 1992 more than five million Afghans fled the country to neighbouring countries like Pakistan and Iran, whilst approximately 250,000 managed to reach the US, Europe, Canada and Australia. The second wave of displacement occurred during the Afghan Civil War when the Mujahedeen came into power from 1992 to 1996. The third round of Afghan refugee movement to Europe and neighbouring countries took place when the Taliban established a government in Afghanistan between 1996 to 2001.
“During this period around 70 per cent of native Kabul inhabitants were displaced to remote provinces and neighbouring countries”, said Mr. Sitez.
The post-2001 Afghanistan witnessed the return of more than 1.5 million Afghans to the country. However, the mobilisation of the Taliban since 2006 and the recent rise of ISIS/Daesh in the country, has sparked a large influx of refugees attempting to reach Europe. Malek Sitez, in his speech, enlightened the audience with some of the push factors and the challenges faced by citizens in Afghanistan. According to Mr Sitez, there is a lack of national strategy on national interests and unity.
“The National Unity government, in fact, is not based on national interests. The leaders of the National Unity Government mainly focus on the dissemination of power structures to their fractions rather than to representatives of the nation”, said Mr Sitez.
The need for a functional and effective civil society, who can advocate for the benefit of the national interest of all Afghans, is empirical. Currently, the majority of civil society institutions are project based or donor driven organisations, whilst there is also a clash of understanding between modern/Western and traditional civil society actors. The lack of security, justice and a high level of unemployment within the country, which can hinder development and basic human rights for vulnerable groups of society like women and minority groups, are major push factors.
“The justice sector of Afghanistan badly suffers from corruption”, said Mr Sitez. According to International Transparency, Afghans pay around two billion USD in bribes to state institutions annually.
Moreover, warlords and extremism, is another significant challenge. According to Mr Sitez, there are currently around 4000 madrasas (Islamic schools) in the bordering Durand Line of Pakistan, which promote extremism and fundamentalism amongst children and women. The condition of women’s human rights differs from region to region. There are some improvements in major cities like Kabul, Mazar, Herat and Bamyan. However, in the remote provinces, Afghan women suffer from fundamental human rights principles such as the right to live, the right to health care, education and civil freedom.
Khadija Abbasi, who is currently a PhD candidate in Anthropology at the Graduate Institute Geneva, shed light on the situation of Hazaras and vulnerable sectors of society like women and minority groups in Afghanistan.
Ms. Abbasi started her speech by focusing on a brief history of the Hazara people.
“The persecution by the Emir of Afghanistan Abdur Rahman Khan in late 19th century (1890-1900), committed to centralise his power, is still vivid in the collective memory of Hazaras”, said Ms. Abbasi. During this period, many Hazaras sought asylum in neighbouring countries like Pakistan and Iran.
The second wave of migration occurred during the Taliban. Although many Afghans fled the country for Europe and neighboring countries, the Hazaras were systematically targeted by the Taliban and suppressed.
“In 1998, more than eight thousand Hazaras were massacred systematically by the Taliban in four days in Mazar-e-Sharif, the city I came from today”, stated Ms. Abbasi. Such events took place in other cities like Bamyan, Yakawlang and Kabul.
Khadija Abbasi, who had travelled from Mazar-e-Sharfi to attend the event, went on to discuss the contemporary situation of Hazaras in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. Generally, Hazaras believe that their persecution and systematic discrimination continues to date. The Hazaras are more willing to embrace democracy because of the historical persecution and oppression they have experienced.
According to Ms. Abbasi, the Hazaras seek equality and social justice and are producing the most enthusiastic, educated, and forward-looking people in Afghanistan. The first female mayor, the first provincial governor and the first Olympic medal winner were Hazaras. In the Afghan presidential election in 2014, 22 percent of the total vote in the country were cast by Hazaras.
Khadija Abbasi highlighted some of the issues faced currently by the Hazaras and other ethnic groups in the country. She highlighted the unjust dissemination of power within the government.
“During the Bonn Conference, it was agreed to allocate 19% of governmental seats to Hazaras. Now, it is believed that only 4 % of the governmental posts are occupied by Hazaras”.
Security and the Hazara-Kuchi dispute are other push factors. Generally, security in Afghanistan is deteriorating and all civilians are at risk. However, Hazaras are amongst the most vulnerable communities because of their distinct ethnicity and religion. The emergence of ISIS in Afghanistan, continued insurgency by Taliban, the gradual withdrawal of international forces, and lack of effective policies from the current Unity government of Afghanistan have made the security situation in the country very fragile. Vulnerable groups like ethnic and religious minorities and women are more at risk.
According to Asylum Information Database, the Austrian government has witnessed a large increase in asylum applications. Afghans are the second largest group of refugees travelling to Europe, after Syrians. Currently, the Austrian government has acknowledged that the majority of the Afghan refugees are from the Hazara ethnic group.
“The ongoing violence in Afghanistan, targeted killings, and kidnappings of various ethnic groups are the biggest driving force for Afghans, especially Hazaras to risk their lives to reach Europe.
At the end of her speech, Ms. Abbasi focused on European policy makers and how they can cooperate with Afghan communities and institutions to overcome this crisis in the long term. According to Ms. Abbasi, Western authorities should engage more with the Afghan diaspora as they have the background knowledge and can play a key role in mediating coherent dialogue, while proposing effective initiatives to the European policy makers. These communities can become a platform to disseminate information about the host countries to those Afghans wishing to migrate.
The panel discussion ended with a questions and answers session, where participants raised questions and shared their comments.
For PDF format see here: Summary Report_Afghanistan. The lost paradise_20 January 2016