War and persecution forces millions of Afghans to flee their homeland

Click to follow

The West's compassion fatigue would have to be pretty far advanced to explain the brutal rejection by Australia of the Tampa's shipload of Afghan refugees. Western analysts like to put refugees into neat boxes marked "political" (good) and "economic" (bad). But the destruction of Afghanistan since the outbreak of civil war 22 years ago has been so total as to render the distinction all but meaningless.

The West's compassion fatigue would have to be pretty far advanced to explain the brutal rejection by Australia of the Tampa's shipload of Afghan refugees. Western analysts like to put refugees into neat boxes marked "political" (good) and "economic" (bad). But the destruction of Afghanistan since the outbreak of civil war 22 years ago has been so total as to render the distinction all but meaningless.

At its nightmarish peak, the bombing and shelling and hand-to-hand fighting had forced 6.2 million Afghans to flee, most into neighbouring Pakistan or Iran. Due largely to a sustained effort by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, 4.2 million had been repatriated by 1999. But now a combination of renewed fighting, political and ethnic persecution and drought have forced hundreds of thousands more to flee – into the embrace of a world which is less and less willing to bother about them. Afghans have been the largest single refugee group in the world for 20 years.

So are they political or economic? Standing in the Armageddon ruins of Kabul, which looks as if the bombardment finished a few hours ago rather than a few years, or bumping along the rocky, unmade road towards the Khyber Pass and Pakistan with vans fore and aft crammed with people struggling to get away, the question seems absurd.

If you are an Afghan who happens to be an ethnic Uzbek from the north of the country, your desperate flight to some approximation of safety will most likely be political: the Taliban are your sworn enemies. If you live in the central highlands where Taliban forces massacred hundreds of civilians earlier this year, your problem is the same.

But what about the women who flee? The West is never more happily sanctimonious than when denouncing Taliban atrocities against Afghan women, who are not allowed to go to school or to work or even to walk alone in the streets. So when women make a bid for freedom, it is both economics and politics tied into a fearful knot that forces them out. Logically, the West should be urging them to make a run for it, throwing down the red carpet for them. Tell that to the heavily pregnant women on board the Tampa.

Compassion for the Afghan refugees' plight has dried up in the 21st century, as spectacularly as the wells and boreholes in the parched Afghan hills. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the vile, ad hoc refugee camp in Jalozai, Pakistan, where more than 80,000 refugees are squeezed into a tiny wedge of land with no protection against the cold and minimal relief.

Nowhere offered a more horrific symbol of the deadening of the world's nerve ends than Jalozai – until the Tampa.

Comments