A Ride from Kandahar

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An item on the front page of the New York Times this week told a harrowing tale: of Afghan migrants trekking 1,400 miles across the width of Iran to escape the Taliban—only to be “pushed back” by a “harsh and unfriendly” Turkish government. The reporting made for a painful read. It was also utterly misleading, bearing the hallmarks of the ongoing effort to normalize porous borders and irregular migration westward.

Since the United States accelerated its withdrawal from Afghanistan, some 30,000 Afghans have been leaving the country every week. The escapees follow a well-trod path that takes them through the treacherous mountains of northwest Iran into Turkey, where about 300,000 have already settled; from there, many will try to reach Europe. Indeed, Afghans have already edged out Syrians “as the largest group of new migrants arriving” in Europe, per the Times.

Except this time, unlike during the 2015-16 migrant crisis, the Turks are shuttering the gates, thus drawing the editorial ire of the Grey Lady. At the border town of Van, more than a dozen Turkish security forces apprehended an Afghan husband, his sick wife and wailing children—“part of an intensive crackdown by Turkey,” the Times claimed, “to prevent journalists from reporting on their plight.” After a few days in detention, the family was deported back to Iran.

The Times conceded that Turkey is already hosting nearly 4 million refugees and would-be asylum seekers, mostly Syrians, a situation that grows more unpopular by the day amid an economic funk. Nevertheless, the paper sternly reproached the Turks for supposedly violating the international treaty on Afghan refugees and abridging their opportunities for appeal under Turkish law; a local asylum lawyer was on-hand to supply the requisite condemnatory quote.

Any reader with a functioning heart will sympathize with the plight of the desperate Afghans profiled by the Times. Nevertheless, the report as a whole is, as I say, misleading: designed to advance the cause of ever-more-open borders, a permanent agenda item for the West’s liberal internationalist ruling classes, regardless of events in the region. To understand how, it’s necessary to unpack the story’s subtle elisions and to make visible the missing context.

For starters, we must ask: Are the people the Times discusses refugees or mere economic migrants? The distinction is clear and crucial, yet open-borders activists, NGOs, and their media allies routinely blur it. Witness, well, the Times story: The words “refugee,” “asylum,” and “asylum seeker” appear throughout whenever specific persons are discussed; “migrant” is used only in reference to policy. In other words, the paper uncritically accepted the claims of its (no-doubt-desperate) subjects.

In doing so, open-borders advocates play on the general ignorance of ordinary Westerners, who associate the very words Afghanistan or Iraq with “Terrible Tragedies.” But while conditions in such places are indeed terrible for many, it doesn’t follow that every single person from Afghanistan or Iraq is a bona fide refugee—or else the millions who live in these countries would all automatically qualify for asylum by dint of the fact that they’re Afghans or Iraqis.

Not every person fleeing, say, Kandahar has a well-grounded fear of persecution or has been dislocated by war or non-state actors (the traditional definition of a refugee codified in the 1951 Convention). Yet during the 2015-16 crisis, the prestige press treated every Ahmad and Morteza as a refugee. While reporting on that earlier crisis, I initially took the same approach, liberally applying the “refugee” label to every subject I profiled. Yet the more time I spent embedded with groups of Afghans, Iranians, and Arabs, the more the status question troubled me.

For example, on the migrant trail stretching from western Turkey through the Balkans, many of the Afghans I encountered had been born in Iran and barely, if ever, set foot in their ancestral land. They were honest about this fact with me, a Persian-speaking reporter they took as one of their own. But they also made it clear that escaping “war-ravaged Afghanistan” would form the basis of their asylum claims in Europe.

Now, is living as an Afghan in the Islamic Republic of Iran a pleasant experience? It’s a matter of perspective. Yes, the government denies many Afghans legal papers, forcing them to live and work in the shadows. There is also discrimination, a cruel fact of life across the region, in peacetime and in war. But no, they didn’t face mortar attacks and barrel bombs—a distinction that mattered profoundly to authorities in Turkey and further down the trail, but to which most of my fellow blue-check reporters were oblivious.

Speaking of Afghans and Iranians, we might also ask: What share of the “Afghans” amassing at the Iranian-Turkish border today are, in fact, opportunistic Iranians seeking to take advantage of the latest crisis to slip through? I ask, because by my rough estimate, 1 of 10, if not more, of the “Afghans” I met on the trail were Iranians who passed themselves off as Afghans; the Persian spoken in Iran and the Dari spoken in Afghanistan are nearly identical. A curious paper would look into this, but the Times isn’t curious. (A larger conflation or elision last time around was the use of “Syrian refugee crisis”—an expression reporters continue to fling around sometimes, even though the newcomers hailed from across the Arab world, Iran, Afghanistan, and even places as far-flung as Congo and Bangladesh.)

Note, too, that last time around, hundreds of thousands of Afghans came while the U.S.-backed government in Kabul was in power—a fact that might suggest there is no particularly urgent push factor driving today’s Afghan wave. Or at least, that the push factors may not be equally urgent for the Afghans escaping the resurgent Taliban. If so, then that would only bolster the case for Ankara’s decision not to indiscriminately accept all who seek to cross Turkey’s borders. Again, this would be worth looking into for a paper that had the truth, rather than open borders, as its chief cause.

Finally, the Times might have wondered: What role are smugglers and smuggling technology playing in this latest wave of Afghan migration? The only reference to human trafficking in the Times story came in passing, in the last paragraph, where the paper described how a group of Afghans had been robbed by Iranian smugglers en route to Turkey. Yet there is so much more to this factor than reporters-cum-open-borders activists are prepared to examine.

War and dislocation and persecution have been going on in the Middle East and North Africa for…ever. But attempts to cross into Europe have been surging in recent years, because inexpensive transport and GPS technology have made the smuggler’s business a lot easier than it once was. An Afghan smuggler I embedded with in Istanbul offered to get me across the Aegean for $2,000. He and a few other smugglers could purchase a dinghy for that amount and load it up with five-dozen Afghans and Iranians, each paying $2,000: a great business model, if you think about it. A minuscule share of the dinghies would drown, but most made it across to the Greek isles, from where the newcomers could continue their journey to generous welfare states like Germany and Sweden.

Every time European governments signaled open borders, the smugglers made bank. Whether any of this was good for recipient states, or even the migrants themselves, is a different question—the question the NGOs and their Midtown mouthpieces are most eager to avoid.

Sohrab Ahmari is the op-ed editor of the New York Post and a contributing editor of The American Conservative. He is writing a book about America’s privatized tyranny.

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