Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, recently made a very blunt statement that has left the public shocked. In an interview with the BBC, he said he has no sympathy for the tens of thousands of Afghans fleeing their country.
Complaining that his government has spent “hundreds of millions of dollars [on people] who want to leave under the slightest pressure”, Ghani said Afghans who flee are breaking the social contract. They are impoverishing their families and abandoning their country when it needs them most. In his view, they are making a voluntary choice to leave rather than staying to rebuild.
This, in spite of acknowledging that 2015 had been an extremely challenging year – that the Taliban was stronger than ever and that Islamic State and al-Qaeda remain a threat.
Young Afghans have responded with outrage on Facebook. They have accused Ghani of hypocrisy. This, after all, is a man who spent more than two decades outside his country – studying and working in the US in particular – and whose children continue to live abroad.
Equally, they are calling on him to give them a reason to stay.
It’s an understandable reaction, given the shocking deterioration in security in Afghanistan and the consequent contraction of the economy, which has led to massive unemployment.
Most are asking who has profited from the hundreds of millions of dollars spent. If Ghani (who once served as chancellor of Kabul University) was referring to educational spending, he overlooks the very poor quality of higher education (public or private) in the country and the absence of jobs at every skills level.
On my last visit to Kabul in January, I met a number of recent graduates who were frustrated and angry at their lack of prospects and at the many rejections they had received, only to see people who they considered to be barely literate given jobs by family members or in exchange for bribes. For them, there was no incentive to stay and bear the security risks if they could not work, support or found a family. They were enraged that they were excluded from rebuilding their country.
Pressure from Europe
However, much of the opprobrium currently raining down on Ghani fails to recognise the pressure exerted on him by European states. Afghanistan, as bluntly noted by European leaders, remains “highly aid dependent” and spends much of that aid on security. In their view, the Afghan state is at high risk of collapse without continued international investment.
Yet a deal is in the works that puts pressure on the Afghan government to let EU countries forcibly return Afghans who have arrived in Europe seeking asylum.
A document leaked following a visit by EU officials to Afghanistan in January seems to suggest that aid will be withheld unless the national government complies with these deportations. It reads:
The EU should stress that to reach the objective of the Brussels Conference to raise financial commitments “at or near current levels” it is critical that substantial progress has been made in the negotiations with the Afghan Government on migration by early summer, giving the Member States and other donors the confidence that Afghanistan is a reliable partner able to deliver.
Ghani is in an impossible position. Faced with security threats from insurgents and with his legitimacy under assault from former members of his own government, he urgently needs the support of EU leaders. But they are exploiting his weakness to force him to try and stem the flow of Afghans arriving in Europe.
In reality there is very little he can do. Despite appearing unsympathetic to their plight, the EU granted asylum to 60% of applicants from Afghanistan in 2015 (up from 43% in 2014). That is clear evidence that their claims about their lives being under threat back home are to be believed – and that doesn’t even take into account the people fleeing the more general insecurity in the country. There will be more, not fewer, Afghans arriving in Europe in 2016, whatever the Afghan president says.
With pressure growing on all sides, Ghani’s future, and that of his country, seems even more fragile.
Liza Schuster, Reader in Sociology, City University London
This article first appeared on The Conversation.