THE AGONY OF AFGHAN REFUGEES: A pro-active response with lessons learned from Syria
By Andrew Richards – Institute for Strategic Foresight:
This article takes a look at the lessons learned from the Syrian refugee crisis with special reference to the response of the Church in Germany.
When war broke out in Syria (2011) no one could have envisioned the swift and forced displacement of the Syrian people. In just two years, Syria, once a country that hosted the third most refugees, became the country that produced more displaced people than any other country on earth: from hosting 755,000 refugees in 2011 to displacing 2.4 million Syrians as refugees in 20131. To date, more than 6.7 million Syrians find themselves displaced as refugees in neighbouring countries including Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and even as far as Germany – currently hosting an estimated 600,000 Syrian refugees. Another 6.2 million people are displaced within Syria which means that a total of 12.9 million Syrians total are forcibly displaced, more than half of the country’s population. A further estimated 11.1 million people in Syria need humanitarian assistance. The war in Syria is perhaps the cruelest example of just how quickly things can go wrong when civil war, added by Islamic terrorism (ISIS), leaves little room for mercy.
The ultra-conservative Taliban has once again taken control of Afghanistan, a nation that produced the most refugees before the war in Syria, and threatens to turn the nation into the world’s largest producer of refugees once again.
During the Soviet-Afghan war (1979 – 1990) more than 6 million Afghans fled the country, primarily to Pakistan and Iran. Following the withdrawal of Soviet forces, a bloody civil war followed between Mujahideen leaders who previously fought together against the Soviets, causing more refugees to flee the country.
Then, in 1994, from within the shattered Mujahideen groups, the Taliban arose, promising to restore order throughout the country. The Taliban, having gained enough support, took over Kabul in 1996 and cemented itself as the new national government. From 1996 to 2001 hundreds of thousands more Afghans fled the country as the Taliban forced strict Islamic laws on the people, including amputations and even public executions as punishment for crimes.
In 2001 the United States invaded Afghanistan, together with NATO coalition forces, ousting the Taliban, and helping Hamid Karzai to become the first democratically elected president of Afghanistan. Since then, millions of Afghans have returned in the hope that a new democratic government, propped up by the West, would mean freedom from the oppression they knew under the Taliban.
At the height of the Afghan refugee crisis, an estimated 6.2 million2 Afghans fled the country. By the end of 2020 only 2.6 million3 Afghan refugees still remained outside the country, meaning that over the 20 years since the Taliban was first overthrown, 3.6 million refugees returned. These numbers prove to some extent that the US occupation of Afghanistan brought a recognised measure of stability to the country. As for Internally Displaced People (IDP), displacement continued despite continued intervention from foreign militaries. The number of IDPs rose from 352,000 in 2010 to 3,55 million in 20204. Since the beginning of 2021, when the Taliban began their offensive against the Afghan government, the number of people being displaced has once again increased by more than 300% compared to the same reporting period the previous year, with 558,000 having been newly displaced so far5.
With the Taliban now almost in full control of the country, and foreign militaries having completed their troop withdrawals, the United Nations estimate that at least 500,000 Afghan refugees will leave the country by the end of the year. Some reports coming out of the country suggest that an estimated 30,000 people are leaving the country per day, with refugee specialists6 in Iran suggesting as many as 7,000 illegal crossings into Iran every day. At this rate, the UN estimate will be exceeded in less than a month.
A worst-case scenario, that would bring Afghan refugees back to its Soviet-era numbers of more than six million, begs the question of resettlement – and the only situation that could be used as a benchmark to such a catastrophe is Syria.
After the conclusion of the Afghan airlift evacuation which assisted more than 120,000 people to escape Afghanistan, the only option of escape for the millions who are left behind is by foot, with Pakistan and Iran remaining popular destinations. Some will choose to flee to Europe, meaning they would have to cross both Iran and Turkey to get there. Turkey currently hosts the world’s largest refugee population (3.7 million Syrians) including 300,000 Afghans.
After the 2015 refugee crisis, when more than a million refugees entered the European Union, Turkey signed an agreement with the EU in an attempt to stem the flow of refugees, as Turkey was the most popular route taken by refugees from the Middle East in reaching Europe.
Greece also recently finished a 40km fence and surveillance system on its border with Turkey, focussed on keeping refugees out. Over the past couple of years, especially concerning Syria refugees, refugee fatigue has settled in. In Lebanon, a country that hosts the most refugees per capita in the world, the fatigue of receiving and caring for refugees has caused many to simply turn a blind eye, and in some cases even forcefully oppose refugees.
The Encyclopaedia of World Problems and Human Potential7 identified a new trend amongst host nations and defined it as Refugee Fatigue: the moment when people who were viewed with sympathy yesterday because they were still far off are turned away today because they are too close and imposing. In other words, it’s easier to have sympathy and care for refugees when they are far away than when they cross our borders. It’s also much easier to show compassion during the early stages when refugees just arrive, than one or two years later when refugees have been integrated into society. Refugees also place a financial burden on host countries, providing at least one reason why Greece decided to put a stop to refugees coming over from Turkey.
Compassion fatigue has also caused volunteer numbers to drop. At the height of the refugee intake in Germany during 2015/16, more than 200,000 Christian volunteers were recorded as serving refugees throughout the country. This number has dropped significantly over the years as volunteers became more and more disillusioned. Christian volunteers quickly found that Muslim refugees were not as easily persuaded to convert to Christianity as initially assumed and that despite the time and money the volunteers spent on serving them, the refugees were seemingly not as grateful as would have been expected.
In an interview with Dr. Detlef Blöcher (Previous director of the Christian Relief and Missionary Work DMG, in Sinsheim near Heidelberg, Germany, and previous lecturer in the Arab world) a critical observation was mentioned. Dr.Blocher noted that the receptiveness to the Gospel by refugees and the probability of conversion is much higher during the initial stages of fleeing, compared to when refugees finally settle down in a host country. In essence, refugees are more susceptible to the Gospel while on the move, than when they are settled. This is one reason why Christian volunteers in Germany found it difficult to gain converts. Nevertheless, according to Dr. Blocher, more than 50,000 Muslim refugees have become genuine followers of Christ during the past five years with thousands more being exposed to the Gospel.
One thing is clear, however, that none of these converts would have had the opportunity to hear the Gospel, and accept Christ without fear, if they had remained in their countries of origin (Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq – all countries where conversion is punishable by death).
Dr Bloecher also noted that refugee converts have becomes the necessary “blood infusion” for the indigenousness German church, which would have reached a point of non-existence in the near future as the German population becomes more and more secular. Not only are German Christians recommitting their lives to Christ, but church memberships are growing in large numbers due to refugee converts. The Alpha and Omega Church in Hamburg, as an example, hosts one of the largest refugee convert Christian groups in the country, with more than 1,000 Iranian and Afghani Christians worshipping together8.
Yet, despite the thousands of Christian volunteers who continue to serve integrated and newly arriving refugees, there is growing opposition from right-wing groups calling for the deportation of asylum seekers. Germany, facing a decline in population growth, made a calculated decision in allowing refugees into the country as a way of stimulating an aging workforce that is not being replaced with young Germans. With a new wave of refugees from Afghanistan facing Europe, Germany for one, will most likely not take in as many as they did previously with refugees fleeing the war in Syria. Germany’s conservative government is cautious of right-wing political parties that gained much support during the previous elections and could pose a threat to the political status quo if they again allow large numbers of refugees to enter the country. Right-wing groups hold that refugees pose a threat to German nationalism and that refugees, especially those from Syria, pose a security risk as Islamic extremist attacks across Europe (three attacks in 2014, seven in 2015, thirteen in 2016, sixteen in 2017, and twenty-five between 2018 and 2020)9 prove that groups like the Islamic State use refugees as a means to enter Europe and commit acts of terrorism.
Syrian refugees were viewed by right-wing groups as potential terrorists. This unfounded assumption led to hoaxes and fake news of alleged Syrian refugees committing crimes throughout Europe, raping women, and even burning down churches. All were proven false, yet countries like Greece have made it clear that refugees from an Islamic background are not welcome. Europe had many reasons to fear large-scale Muslim refugees, with various Islamic terrorist attacks that have taken place over the years (mentioned above). And when you add the threats and brutality of the Islamic State, you can understand why some would want to put a stop to refugees.
Yet even with right-wing groups protesting against more refugees in Europe, large-scale compassion for those in need can still be found. In Britain10, hundreds of people have offered to host Afghan refugees in their homes, and Airbnb and its charitable arm, Airbnb.org11 have offered to temporarily host up to 20,000 fleeing Afghans.
In trying to estimate the number of potential refugees fleeing Afghanistan in the coming months and years, it’s important to understand which groups the Taliban will likely target, oppress and persecute, and who would flee in case of a civil war?
Minority groups are always the target of the majority, especially if the majority is a ruling religious militant organisation like the Taliban. Apart from Christian minorities who face discrimination and even violent persecution in conservative Muslim countries, many other minority Muslim groups also suffer at the hands of other Muslims. From the Rohingyas in Burma to the Sufis in Iran, Muslim minorities are often the target of large-scale persecution.
This will be no different for the 3.8 million Hazara Shiite Muslims in Afghanistan. According to interviews conducted by the Financial Times12 four months before the Taliban seized Kabul, they put out a propaganda video to assure the Hazara population that they have nothing to fear from Taliban rule. Despite Taliban assurances, the Afghan Hazara population remains extremely watchful of the Taliban, who during its previous rule (1996 – 2001) committed three large-scale massacres against them.
Christians, who number less than 20,000, have been persecuted as long as can be remembered and is currently number 2 on the World Watch List for countries most closed to the Gospel – second only to North Korea. The Taliban persecuted Christian during their previous rule and will most likely do so again. Especially because Christianity is seen as a Western religion, and Muslim converts are often viewed as spies of the West.
Anyone who helped the coalition forces are also obvious targets. Many of the 80,000 civilians evacuated by the US had some connection to the US military in capacities like translators and negotiators. Since 2011, more than 300,000 Afghans have been affiliated with US military operations. This is not counting family members that are often punished as a result. According to the Population Reference Bureau13 the average household size in Afghanistan is 8. At its extreme, this means that, including household members, more than 2.4 million people are viewed with suspicion by the Taliban and at risk of being persecuted -a factor that might cause them to flee the country. If only 10% of Afghanistan’s 38 million people flee as refugees, it would mean that 3.8 million people will be added to the already 2.6 million, equalling 6.4 million Afghan refugees. A very close second to Syria.
The Syrian refugee crisis allowed for millions of Muslims to hear the Gospel in countries where they had the freedom to do so. Never before has there been such an open door to share the gospel with people who would otherwise never have the opportunity to hear “the good news of the Kingdom” (Luke 4:43 “But Jesus said, ‘I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also because that is why I was sent.’)
Refugees fleeing to Lebanon and Germany were best positioned to hear the Gospel. But this time things might be different. Lebanon, a country where 1 out of every 4 people is a refugee, might refuse any more displaced people and close their borders for Afghan refugees. Germany faces its own struggles, and as already mentioned would most likely not take in as many refugees as it previously did. This leaves Afghan refugees with few gospel-friendly options. Some might find their way to the United States, but for the majority, Pakistan and Iran are the only real options they have. Both these countries, together with the other four that border Afghanistan (Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, China, and India) are known for their persecution of Christians and lack of religious freedom.
Of the six neighbouring countries bordering Afghanistan, the church in China is perhaps the best suited as a gospel vehicle in reaching the millions of Internally Displaced Afghanis. China has chosen to keep its embassy in Kabul open, saying that their relations with the Taliban remain positive. After decades of war, the Taliban require largescale humanitarian aid and financial investment towards the development of infrastructure to run the country, both of which China is more than happy to supply. Under the intense persecution of the Chinese Communist Party during the cultural revolution, the Chinese church actually grew and embraced a theology of persecution – a model that Afghanis can identify with and accept. This time around the Chinese Communist Party will once again serve as a vehicle for growth, as Chinese missionaries use the opportunity afforded by good China-Taliban relations to share the gospel with Afghanis. Chinese Christians are no doubt part of God’s redemptive plan for Afghanistan. They represent a non-Western, non-threatening, and non-(obviously) Christian presence. The Chinese Church is also one the fastest-growing Churches in the world with an established mission vision to reach all the nations on the silk route, which includes Afghanistan.
A CHRISTIAN (WESTERN) RESPONSE
The story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-) perfectly represents the cries of the displaced and presents us with three options – and three options only (taken from a post by Hill Carmichael, Executive Pastor at Canterbury United Methodist Church)
The first option is that of the robbers, whose ethic suggests that “what is yours is mine at whatever cost”. And the robbers will take whatever they need through violence, coercion and whatever means necessary. These are the people who will leave us physically, mentally, and emotionally beaten and bruised along life’s road with nothing left but our shallow breath.
The second option is represented by the priest and the Levite, whose ethic suggests that “what is mine is mine and I must protect it at whatever cost”. They aren’t bad people. Both the priest and the Levite are deeply respected in their communities. They very likely follow all the societal rules and norms. They sit on local boards. They pay their taxes on time and likely coach their son’s or daughter’s teams. They also show a great deal of love to those within their immediate communities, but because of what crossing the road to help might cost them, they put their head down and go about their business. So, without even recognizing it, they do more harm than good. Their focus is inward toward their needs and the needs of those who are most like them. It’s an ethic that leads the good and decent priest and Levite toward a life of valuing their reputations instead of relationships. And it often results in them choosing their own individual rights over the health and well-being of their neighbours. Unfortunately, this is the category where I fall most often throughout my life. And if we’re all being honest, I’d say it’s the category that most of us fall into more than we care to admit.
Then there is the Samaritan, whose ethic is love. And along one of the most dangerous roads in all of history seems to live by a code that says “what is mine is yours…if you have need of it”.
- My safety is yours…if you have need of it.
- My security is yours…if you have need of it.
- My resources are yours…if you have need of them.
- My health is tied to your health.
- My well-being is tied to your well-being.
Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. preached on this text often and once said that the real difference between the priest and the Levite from the Samaritan is the question that each must have asked. The priest and the Levite likely asked, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?”. The Samaritan likely asked a very different question – “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
It doesn’t take looking out the window for very long to know that we are all on a road somewhere between Jerusalem and Jericho right now. It’s dangerous out there. The heart-break and exhaustion are real. It’s not only refugees. It’s everything. It’s layers and layers of being beaten and bruised along a dry, hard road.
So, we have some choices to make. We can choose to make our decisions with an ethic of fear. And for a time, choices based on fear have a way of making us feel safe, but that is fleeting at best.
The other choice is to cross the road to help our neighbour. When we cross to the other side, we’ll get a glimpse of something Jesus talked an awful lot about. We’ll see what transformation looks like. We’ll finally understand who we are called to be. And best of all, we’ll finally encounter the Kingdom we’ve been longing for.
We might have three options but only one will carry the approval of the Lord.
- 1 UNHCR Global Trends 2011 – 2020: https://www.unhcr.org/flagship-reports/globaltrends/
- 2 Afghanistan 10 years after Soviet pull-out. UNHCR: https://www.unhcr.org/news/briefing/1999/2/3ae6b81cf0/afghanistan-10-years-soviet-pull-out.html
- 3 Global trends forced displacement in 2020. UNHCR: https://www.unhcr.org/flagship-reports/globaltrends/
- 4 Afghanistan. iDMC: https://www.internal-displacement.org/countries/afghanistan
- 5 UNHCR: Half a million more may flee Afghanistan. abc10: https://www.abc10.com/article/news/nation-world/half-a-million-may-flee-afghanistan/507-0bf32cc4-21d8-43a8-88b3-6ba4fd572516
- 6 Suggested 7000 cross Iran border daily: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/aug/31/afghanistans-neighbours-offered-millions-in-aid-to-harbour-refugees
- 7 Refugee Fatigue. The Encyclopedia of World problems and Human Potential: http://encyclopedia.uia.org/en/problem/136690
- 8 Alpha and Omega Church in Hamburg: http://alpha-omega-int.com/
- 9 Islamic Terrorism in Europe: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islamic_terrorism_in_Europe#2014
- 10 Hundreds of Britons offer to host Afghan refugees after the fall of Kabul. The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/aug/27/hundreds-of-britons-offer-to-host-afghan-refugees-after-fall-of-kabul
- 11 In times of crisis, be a host. Airbnb: https://www.airbnb.org/refugees
- 12 Afghanistan’s Shia are fearful in face of Taliban takeover. Financial Times: https://www.ft.com/content/dedd8b47-e7fa-4afe-aa0f-d1833dc27418
- 13 Population Reference Bureau: https://www.prb.org/international/indicator/hh-size-av/map/country/