Finding Refuge: The din of noise, without the right voices

When the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan, my family, alongside several others, was forced to leave.

The place we called home, was now packed into two suitcases as we, with a fair share of difficulty, left behind the dust of the armed and the harmed. However, we lucked out and the year 2000 saw us reach Europe as political refugees. Mind you, refugees, not migrants.

The two words often used as synonyms for each other, saw yet another mention at the recently-held Youth and Leadership Summit 17 at SciencesPo Paris, France. I and other SciencesPo students, were invited to attend the summit for a conversation around the ‘Migrant Crisis’ facing parts of the world today.

Samina Ansari tells her story via this piece. Several others face worse to this date. Image- Afghan refugee children, Image courtesy the Express

The event that featured eminent voices like Demetrios Papademetriou (President, Migration Policy Institute Europe), Dimitris Avramopoulos (Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship, European Union), Lakhdar Brahimi, (former Special Representative of the UN Secretary General), Filippo Grandi (High Commissioner for Refugees, United Nations) among others, was kick-started by Fredric Mion’s (President, SciencesPo)remarks that underlined the difference between the terms, refugee and migrant. Many still used the terms synonyms throughout the conference.

Mr. Grandi also correctly mentioned that, while a refugee is a person who escapes his/her native country to seek security or/and human rights, a migrant is one whose decision to leave the country is often economically motivated.

A confusion between the terms is understandable, if not correct. Which is why leaders need to ensure that both, their contemporaries and the upcoming generations understand the correct context of the words.

Waves of people are crossing the borders and being put into grey zones due to a lack of clear bifurcation between terms. For those who have no option but to move places, must be given room–and to decide who stays and who doesn’t, vivid definitions are the first step.

The region of Northern-Norway we moved to in 2000 had no translators. At the age of nine I communicated to the Government officials, the needs of several refugee families hailing from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Most of the refugee families in Norway at that time were political refugees seeking escape from Taliban’s brutal takeover. These refugees were often misunderstood by the society.

Norwegian social workers, as part of the integration process, would come to their houses and offer them work like fish-rearing, cleaning and child care. The type of work offered was unfair considering many of the refugee families were well educated and had held important positions back home. In fact, two Afghan families that had arrived the same day as ours, had doctors.

Simply put, the options they were given were wrong, the timing of these options was wrong and the way these options were given was wrong. Members of some families suffered from the depression and trauma associated with war of any kind. Women were particularly vulnerable where one Afghan woman expressed to me her desire of going to the cold sea and allowing it to take her back. An early realisation struck me–just because these refugees had found refuge, didn’t mean they were rescued.

Years later in 2015, I visited refugee families in other parts of Europe and Maastricht, Netherlands. Here, young Syrian college students were offered shelter in a refugee camp that used to be an old prison far from the rest of the civilisation.

One of the young boys from the camp became a good friend of mine and expressed that he was forced to make Netherlands his new home because he ‘d already bid farewell to his family and friends in Aleppo. I was convinced he wouldn’t see any of them again and sadly enough, I was proven right. In 2016, I spent a few days at Marseilles in South of France, where the city is completely segregated and where refugees and migrant workers are misunderstood. Here I came in contact with a Sahrawi refugee mistaken for a Moroccan migrant worker, the young man had no place to turn to as Morocco is not his home country and Western Sahara is occupied.

After participating in the SciencesPo conference, I realised that even after 17 years since my family attained the refugee status in Norway, the refugee process within the European Union(EU) and other European countries hasn’t changed much.

So what needs to be done in order to improve the situation? To work differently, is what.

First of all in the context of the conference, while many important voices saw a representation, there were few perspectives from Syrian, Afghan, Iraqi and African people. When will these voices be invited to talk about the situation in their homeland without any form of government intervention?

The Sahrawi refugee crisis wasn’t mentioned during the conference, despite it being one of the longest conflicts in the world. The African migrants were almost ignored because as per some participants there weren’t many African migrants in Europe.

The Afghan situation was mentioned, yet not debated. The situation of the country is brutal, yet EU chooses to deport thousands of Afghan asylum seekers on a weekly basis. The integration process is stagnant. There are no integration efforts being made in many European communities. Miscommunication is rampant. Most participants during the SciencesPo conference talked about “better integration”–when the need of the hour is to shift focus on listening the people who are actually crossing borders. Where are they coming from? What are their problems?

There is no migrant crisis. There is not even a refugee crisis. There is a human crisis that we talk about but aren’t curbing. We cannot solve the issue without including those who matter. Refugees, migrants and other groups are more than willing to talk it out and share the burden with Europe if given a chance, but some would argue that the continent is failing itself.

Few are asking the right questions about the human crisis. And in places where there’s a chance of addressing these issues, there are too many voices of the same kind that turn into one giant echo. Almost similar to the echo that comes back when you scream at the strong and intimidating mountains.

We need to start using the correct terms, we need to talk about the challenges of both opening and closing the borders, we need to stop stressing on the importance of integration, and focus on the actual establishment of a fair integration process instead.

Because every person who’s escaped his or her home needs therapy, support and individual follow up, including the Afghan families that arrived to Europe the same time as my own–whose suitcases brought from Afghanistan have been replaced by new ones that are filled with questions related to departure and homeland.

These questions remain unanswered, and will meet a befitting end only after the inclusion of relevant, diverse voices.

Under the mandate of our “Policy+People” initiative and the section titled ” Finding Refuge: Looking at humans as humans. Without the filter of economic, social or religious concern”, Samina Ansari talks about the lack of right voices within the echoing of opinion. 

Samina Ansari

Samina Ansari

Editor, Middle East at InPRA
Afghan-Norwegian Samina Ansari is an Intern at NATO Secretary General’s Representative for Women, Peace and Security Office. She has background in Cyber Security law, Globalization law and International-Public Management from University of Oslo, Maastricht and SciencesPo.
Samina Ansari