Heroes Left Behind
The Forgotten Refugees
In media coverage about refugees arriving in Europe by boat via smuggling routes, the most commonly mentioned nationality is Syrian. To be sure, those fleeing Syria are an incredibly vulnerable population that needs our support. What we don’t discuss often enough, though, are the other nationalities that arrive in significant numbers in the same boats that carry Syrian refugees, including Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, and Somalis, to name just a few. Due to sustained annual growth in civilian casualties and increasing terrorist activity from both the Taliban and IS groups in Afghanistan, Afghan refugees are of particular concern in the humanitarian aid community. Despite the ever-increasing level of conflict there, Afghanistan has been deemed a safe country by the European Union and other governing bodies when it comes to refugees. This designation limits options for legal relocation and puts asylum seekers at risk for deportation – right back into the shark’s mouth.
Late in 2016, I went to Greece to learn how our organization in the US could best assist teams on the ground. One camp was kind enough to accept an interloper such as myself for a volunteer spot. It was unique in that nearly all of its 600 or so residents were of Afghan nationality. I knew that that as Afghans, they faced a special set of hurdles, but what I learned about a specific subset of this population left me deeply saddened.
I had heard about Afghan and Iraqi interpreters who had been forced to flee before their life-saving US visa could be approved. I naively thought these were isolated examples. Reality hit me over the head one evening in Greece, when I suddenly realized the camp resident I was chatting with was one of these interpreters. After realizing the Taliban had attempted to kill him, he fled immediately, taking the smuggling route, which eventually brought him by boat to Greece.
Later, speaking with the camp manager on the subject, I learned that there were several of these guys in the camp. Due to a combination of bureaucracy, politics, and changing requirements, they had been left behind. If there were several examples in the small population of this camp, I realized there must be a lot more of these guys out there.
The Big Picture
So, let’s take a closer look. Tens of thousands of Afghans and Iraqis have served the US and British military as interpreters or in various support positions over the last two decades. “Terps,” as they’re affectionately called, are often lauded for saving the lives of their teammates. They were promised US residency if their service endangered their lives. They knew they would become targets for terrorist groups when they signed up, but they did it because they wanted us to succeed. That’s what makes their situation so heartbreaking.
The Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program for Afghan personnel began in 2009, and mirrors an earlier program put in place for Iraqis who filled similar support roles. Not all translators qualify, and for those who do, the application process is dangerously slow. As of September 2013, only 20% of Iraqi visas and 12% of Afghan visas had been granted. Luckily, with some pressure from organizations such as No One Left Behind, the numbers began to increase. According to a recent State Department report, Over 70,000 applicant and family member Visas have been issued (Iraqi and Afghan applicants combined). This is great progress, but applicants still wait an average of 23 months for approval. The report also shows that over 9,000 applicants and family members are in some stage of the application process. The consequences of the delays can be devastating. In 2014, the International Refugee Assistance Project, estimated that an Afghan interpreter was being killed every 36 hours. In an effort to stay alive, translators who have been threatened by the Taliban live in hiding, often removing themselves from their families to keep them safe. Others live secret lives, not telling anyone about the work they do.
As if the wait wasn’t enough, the application process is intense, and denials aren’t uncommon. Steps include polygraph tests, supervisor recommendation letters, and proof that their life is in danger. An added wrinkle was a program change in 2015 which increased the minimum service requirement from one year to two. Blacklisting also became a grave issue for some who were terminated and/or prevented from leaving the country for a range of security issues, many of which proved to be erroneous. This is another area where organizations like No One Left Behind and the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) have stepped in to assist. But, many interpreters, like the ones in the camp in Greece, are forced to give up on the Visa and flee on their own.
To really understand the gravity of current situation, we have to go all the way back to 1979. Afghanistan has experienced active conflict continuously since then. Pakistan and Iran host more than 2 million Afghan refugees, but due to political and economic pressures, both host nations are making it harder and harder for refugees to stay. With terrorist activity and political unrest growing, returning home still isn’t a safe option. If you’re not convinced, just look at a recent US State Department travel advisory. The result is a flow of both newly displaced and long-displaced families seeking refuge in Europe.
Figure 1 – September 2017 UNAMA Report
Chart source: https://unama.unmissions.org/sites/default/files/unama_protection_of_civilians
To the chagrin of international aid workers, a series of governmental policy changes and international deals led to Afghanistan being designated as a safe country. This has made it harder for Afghan asylum seekers to gain the protections they need so desperately. While Syrian and Iraqi arrivals in Greece can apply for relocation to other European Union states, many Afghans can only apply to stay in Greece. With a 50% unemployment rate, Greece offers more safety, but very little economic opportunity. In 2017, only 67.5% of Afghans were recognized as refugees in Greece, compared to 99.6% of Syrians and 74% of Iraqis. The most concerning aspect of current policy is that it allows Afghan asylum seekers to be deported back to Afghanistan if they can’t provide sufficient proof their lives are in danger. In fact, humanitarian watchdogs, such as Amnesty International, have said that the European Union’s policies toward Afghan asylum seekers amounts to a violation of international law.
A Way Forward?
So, what does all of this mean for our interpreters? It means that some of them have been left behind twice – first by the country they risked their lives for, and second by policies of the European Union and other nations who won’t grant them protection. But, if there’s even a tiny silver lining to this story, it’s that SIV’s are still being issued. What’s more is that community action has proven to increase the pace at which they’re approved. If you’d like to help bring more SIV applicants to their new home in the US, No Man Left Behind has volunteer opportunities across the US. Do Your Part and Oinofyta Wares assist Afghan refugees trying to find their way in Greece. IRAP works with stranded interpreters as well. If you’d like help identifying other ways to help refugees from home, No Place Like Home can assist in that capacity.