Yearning to Breathe Free

On October 8 there were two appalling reports about the plight of the Afghan people. One was that in September the US Air Force dropped more bombs and fired more missiles in Afghanistan than in any other month for ten years. The other concerned an investigation by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan which concluded that the massive aerial blitz on May 5, targeting supposed drug-production facilities, killed 30 civilians.  The findings of this exhaustive four-month-long inquiry were rejected by the US military. What a surprise.

On September 22 at least 40 civilians attending a wedding party were killed in a raid conducted by Afghan soldiers and supported by US airstrikes. Four days earlier a US drone attack killed 30 civilians and injured 40 others while they were resting after collecting pine nuts in a forest.

Insurgents in Afghanistan are killing people, too, as evidenced by the plethora of suicide bombings, and the Taliban have said they will continue their fight against “foreign occupation”. The country is being torn apart by savagery on the part of all those involved.  It is a broken nation. The number of refugees has swollen to unprecedented heights and suffering is unbelievable.

According to Amnesty International the Afghan refugee crisis greatly increased following the US invasion in 2001. The number of people internally displaced by conflict has risen to more than 2 million, and about 2.6 million Afghans exist outside the country, about a  million in Iran and 1.2 million in Pakistan, where the dedicated staff of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees continue to administer them. Currently the US Agency for International Development provides “refugee food Assistance” in 25 countries, 21 of them in Africa. Iraq is included, but not Afghanistan, Pakistan or Libya.

Given the appalling worldwide refugee emergency, it is not surprising that the Trump administration has weighed in to make it worse.  Not only does the Pentagon continue to blitz Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, but Trump decided to drastically reduce the number of refugees permitted to enter the Land of the Free which used to be characterized by the wonderful words on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

This sentiment, so evocative of the United States in time gone by, has been repudiated by Trump’s acting director of Citizenship and Immigration Services, Kenneth T Cuccinelli, who said in August that the lines referred to “people coming from Europe” and that they should be amended to read “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet, and who will not become a public charge.”  His callous declaration was criticized by Democrat Senator Elizabeth Warren who declared that “Our values are etched in stone on the Statue of Liberty,” but this cut no ice with Trump, who issued an order to drastically cut immigration, at the very time the number of displaced persons has exploded to over 70 million, worldwide.

President Trump has ordered that the number of refugees allowed into the US next year is to be cut to 18,000, down from the previous modest ceiling of 30,000. National Public Radio reported that this figure “represents the lowest number of refugees seeking protection from violence or political persecution allowed into the country since the modern refugee program was established in 1980.”  It is the third time that Trump has cut immigration numbers and the new limit is “a more than 80% decline compared with the last year of the Obama administration, when the US allowed up to 110,000 refugees who were fleeing war, persecution and poverty to resettle in America.”

The new US regulations allow entry of only 5,000 people fleeing religious persecution, a maximum of 4,000 Iraqis who assisted the US military during its invasion and occupation, and a limit of 1,500 people from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. There is no mention of Afghanistan.

One of the reasons I feel strongly about Afghan refugees is that I know their country and also know something about at least some of them, because a small number are being looked after by saintly volunteers near where I live in France.  The French Red Cross (as distinct from the International Committee of the Red Cross) has been a disgrace in its treatment of these refugees, while regional bureaucrats who are supposed to administer them have behaved despicably. Their approach is the usual one to be expected of people with limited intelligence and small ability placed in positions of authority. They relish the wielding of power and appear to take pleasure in imposing uncertainty and inflicting distress.

And so it is elsewhere, for there is much pressure around the world to send these unfortunate people back to the war-shattered countries from which they fled in fear for their lives.

Western governments and media don’t say much about refugees, but last year The Guardian reported Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, as stating “The rhetoric that things are better in Afghanistan and therefore we can return people is not correct. Immigration ministries are saying it’s safe to return, but [recent treatment of returnees] shows it’s not true.”  It’s hardly news that Norway had nothing to do with invading and destroying Afghanistan — and nor did France, for that matter — but in 2017 many European countries were accused of breaching international law when it became clear that “the number of asylum seekers forced to return to Afghanistan had tripled at a time when civilian casualties were at a record high.”  And now civilian deaths and injuries have increased even further, with the BBC noting on 16 September that “unrelenting violence affects almost the entire country as US negotiations to withdraw after 18 years of war are in disarray. Fiona Frazer of the UN mission in Afghanistan said that their data “strongly indicates that more civilians are killed or injured in Afghanistan due to armed conflict than anywhere else on Earth.”

Quoting a UN report based on figures for the first half of 2019, Reuters indicated that in Afghanistan “Air strikes by US and government forces killed 363 people and injured 156 others, and of those casualties 150 were children”.

But terrified Afghans, living in terror of when the next US drone attack or Taliban suicide bombing might shatter them and their families, should not attempt to flee to the United States whose war plunged their country into chaos.  There will be no welcome for them in the land where, at one time, it was proudly declared that it would welcome “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”  Washington broke Afghanistan, but there’s no way it is prepared to help its desperate refugees. Yearning to breathe free?  F*ck off.

Brian Cloughley writes about foreign policy and military affairs. He lives in Voutenay sur Cure, France.