Some of the Afghan women around the table in the neoclassical building in central Athens were taking notes in leather-bound notebooks as they discussed the future of women and girls in their homeland. They were lawmakers, journalists and judges, but they were also refugees, a characterization that many of them flinched with shame and disbelief.
“For a woman who has been working for 20 years, having to come here and be called a refugee is not an easy thing,” said Khatera Saeedi, a reporter, as other members of the group nodded emphatically.
The presence of Ms Saeedi and the other refugees in Athens has brought into focus a complicated reality for the tens of thousands of people flown after the Taliban’s takeover: the Afghans Europe wants are the ones who would never wanted to be there.
“I had a very pleasant life in Afghanistan,” said Wahida, 31, an employee of an international organization in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, who was evacuated to the Netherlands and who only wanted to be identified with the his name. “I had a very prestigious and stimulating job and I never thought of seeking asylum in another country”.
When Kabul fell to the Taliban in August and Afghanistan’s elites were flown to Western destinations, European Union nations pledged to welcome up to 40,000, many of which have already reached Europe.
Many are those educated and skilled enough to be connected to the vast international presence that has defined Afghan life over the past 20 years, ultimately also giving them the connections to make their way overseas through legitimate channels.
They are at odds with tens of thousands of others from their country who have made their way to the gates of Europe in recent years – sometimes smuggling, often arduous overland journeys of thousands of miles and then one last risky crossing for sea - only to be rejected.
Since the acquisition of power by the Taliban, Afghans have filed the largest number of asylum applications in the European Union, according to the European Asylum Support Office. But even before last year, Afghans consistently constituted one of the largest groups of asylum seekers from abroad.
For many years they have been rejected at the bottom of the line, their applications rejected in favor of refugees from more urgent and forthcoming conflicts, such as that in Syria.
Reportage from Afghanistan
Afghans and Iraqis, both fleeing protracted Western-led wars, faced difficulties similar to those of asylum seekers in Europe, said Camille Le Coz, an expert at the Migration Policy Institute, a Brussels-based research institute, which has worked in Afghanistan.
But the arrival of thousands of displaced people from Kabul has brought to the surface a long-standing current in EU migration policy.
“It highlights the dichotomy the EU has tried to create between people arriving in Europe to apply for asylum via safe and legal routes and those arriving by irregular means, and the latter are not welcome,” he said.
But those routes are nearly closed to the vast majority of refugees, a fact that forces thousands of people to arrive in Europe via dangerous and costly smuggling routes.
Normally, only about half of the Afghans who have applied for asylum in the European Union have been successful. That acceptance rate jumped to 91% in the final months of 2021, as EU displaced people were hastened through normally slow asylum bureaucracies.
The Dutch government, which maintained a military presence in Afghanistan, quickly granted asylum to the 2,000 evacuated Afghans, but virtually suspended all requests from illegally arriving Afghans.
Athens is now the temporary home of some 170 prominent Afghan women and their families, including a third of the country’s female lawmakers, who have been brought there by a coalition of charitable foundations and will be resettled in Germany and other wealthy nations.
They reunited with Melissa Network, a non-governmental organization in central Athens that supports migrant and refugee women. Melissa offered them a daily sanctuary, a space to meet and talk, and organized legal aid and mental health seminars.
“There is a significant difference between how these women became refugees and the experience of other refugees,” said Thalia Portokaloglou, mental health expert with Melissa.
“They bring the pain and fear that we see in all the women we work with here,” she added, “but they also have a purpose, which helps them find meaning in life.”
Lawmakers among the displaced in Athens were working feverishly to create an organization in exile to defend the rights of Afghan women and, through that, maintain their identities and purposes.
“I think about the people who came and gave me their vote,” said Shagufa Noorzai, who was Afghanistan’s youngest lawmaker when she was elected to parliament by Helmand province in 2019, adding that she felt guilty. for escaping while her constituents stayed behind to face the Taliban and starvation.
“A politician should be with his people at war,” said Nazifa Yusufi Bek, another lawmaker, from Takhar province. “We are now in Europe, we are safe, but our concern is for our people in Afghanistan.”
While most of the deportations of Afghans from the European Union have halted in recent months, the blockade has tried to discourage Afghan municipalities from coming and is paying neighboring countries hundreds of millions of dollars to house refugees fleeing in an attempt to dissuade them from moving to Europe.
“The borders remain open to those fleeing violence and persecution,” said Margaritis Schinas, a senior European Commission official, in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa on August 15, the day of the fall of Kabul.
But “we must be clear”, he added, “we will only accept those who really need protection: those who cross borders illegally will be sent back”.
And not only do Afghans and other asylum seekers in Europe face long waits and little chances of getting protection, they are also increasingly victims of indiscriminate violence and extrajudicial expulsions at Europe’s external borders, preventing them in the first place from submit asylum applications.
In early September, just two weeks after the fall of Kabul and as sympathy for Afghans was at its peak, Greek border guards violently expelled a large group of asylum seekers, including Afghans, to Turkey. Among them was an Italian legal resident of Afghan descent who worked in Greece for Frontex, the border agency of the European Union, and had been mistaken for an asylum seeker by the same border guards he was there to help.
Most Afghans travel across Asia to Turkey and arrive in Greece, placing themselves in the hands of smugglers who put them on precarious rubber boats to cross the Aegean Sea. If they are successful in filing asylum claims, they must wait years in legal and financial limbo before their claims are evaluated.
This was the experience of another Afghan woman in Melissa who was there to help the group of newly arrived displaced people: the organization’s interpreter in Farsi, Karime Ganji.
She arrived in Greece in 2016 after a dramatic overland journey in the middle of winter, crossing mountains and rivers with her two sons, then 3 and 9. In the last five years in Athens, she has learned English and Greek and enrolled. at a university in Athens. But her asylum request is still pending.
Ms. Ganji said she sympathized with the group of prominent women she was helping, but added that other Afghans and other asylum seekers also deserved more support.
“They came from the bloodshed, they survived,” she said through tears. “I don’t see them as politicians, but as a small group of innocent people from Afghanistan who need help.”
Monika Pronczuk And Wali Ariano contributed reportage.