Perceptions of Afghan Refugees
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, EU officials issued a symbolic statement that the EU was prepared to receive Afghan refugees displaced from the looming American intervention. Despite internal policy tendencies to reject Afghan claims to protection and domestic security concerns over admitting individuals who may be affiliated with terrorist organizations, EU officials seemed to recognize at the time that there was very little risk of a massive influx of Afghan refugees.
This chapter, in Global Responses to Terrorism: 9/11, Afghanistan and Beyond, addresses three crucial issues that help to explain the lack of attention on Afghan refugees: the images (or lack thereof) of refugees publicized through various media outlets and their impact on public perceptions; the significance of enduring perceptions; and the dilemma faced by public officials who must bridge the divide between their international commitments to refugee protection and claims to domestic security.
In addition to “attention grabbers” or images that diverted the public’s attention away from the people of Afghanistan, the author finds that much of the indifference experienced in Western states to the plight of Afghan refugees can be attribute to the absence of new images. In fact, the author notes that the most widely publicized image of an Afghan refugee remains the iconic image of a young Afghan girl with vibrant green eyes − Sharbat Gula − taken by Steve McCurry in 1983. In addition, the author finds that rather negative and longstanding perceptions of Afghan asylum-seekers as bogus or lacking legitimate claims to protection in many developed countries also played a role in the lack of initiative experienced among Western populations to act on behalf of Afghan refugees. In fact, the author finds that in the 1990s, of 150,000 Afghanis who sought asylum in Europe, only 36,000 claims were recognized. Finally, the author also notes that governments faced their own political, strategic and security concerns, many of which help to explain the lack of attention on those displaced by the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan.