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Why Canada is obligated to host Afghan refugees

By Aymen Sherwani, December 28 2021—

On Aug. 16, 2021, the Taliban began to reclaim victory over Afghanistan, sweeping across the country in the conquest of all the major towns and cities, facing little resistance from Afghan security forces. The militant group’s seizure of power has caused somewhat of a mass exodus from the region and compelled thousands — foreigners and Afghans alike — to scramble for an exit out of the country.

Canada, in particular, has pledged to host 40,000 — the reception to which, like Canadian winters, has been predictably frosty. Twitter user Chad Lewis (@chadl84625640) states “We don’t want them. We have enough foreigners who can’t speak a damn word of English.” 

Others have been quick to criticize the Trudeau administration’s commitment to accept Afghan refugees, insinuating that doing so will compromise the country’s national security and economy as well, despite the majority of incoming refugees being families.

In an interview with the Gauntlet, Mark Machacek — sessional instructor in the University of Calgary’s Political Sciences department — states that the scapegoating of refugee groups as threats to the economy and national security is not a new phenomenon. 

“It’s been like this since the post-war period — refugees have been increasingly politicized and securitized. We’ve seen refugee populations connected to security and economic concerns when really there’s no evidence supporting that whatsoever,” he said. “There is so much research out there in forced migration and refugee studies that get into the economics of refugees themselves in new communities — the vast majority of this research is pretty much at consensus that the ‘injection of refugees’ in an economy is not a zero-sum thing, it’s a contribution.”

Machacek is currently completing his Ph.D. dissertation, which is focused on the political economy of United Nations (UN) business partnerships. Based on his knowledge in the issue area, he argues that refugees have been misframed as these economic vampires that steal opportunities from domestic job pools. Instead, he states that hosting refugees allows for economic growth. 

“It doesn’t take anything away,” he said. “They not only are offered jobs, but they also create jobs, they’re often entrepreneurs — they’re also a large customer base [in the host country].” 

Not only do they contribute to the economy, but they also give back. The best example is that of Wais Habibzai, an Afghan refugee who fled from the country “after his house was destroyed by a rocket” in 1992. He now has a successful career as a property developer in Canada and has most recently launched a personal aid effort for those trying to escape Kabul, providing over $50,000 in essential supplies for refugees. At the same time, refugees should not have to prove themselves to be useful to a host country for them to have the right to safety. 

Many refugees from Afghanistan have lived through the trauma of the Soviet invasion, the draconian-style leadership of the Taliban and then the Western neo-imperialist occupation of their homeland, which included the deployment of 40,000 Canadian troops and the deaths of 71,000 civilians. Being forced to live in countries like Canada serves as a constant reminder of the devastation wreaked on their homeland in the pursuit of arbitrary notions of freedom and liberation. In the context of the current situation unfolding in Afghanistan, Machacek believes “we [Canadians] personally have a humanitarian responsibility — a human rights responsibility — to refugees, given our role in the conflict in Afghanistan.” 

A large portion of society in the Global North, however, believes that refugees have no place in their countries. They assert that the morals of a refugee are incompatible with their ways of life — as seen by an Australian Twitter user, Jeffrey Blackman (@BaronBlacky), tweeting “No more refugees from a different culture or uncivilized nation.”

Anyone who clutches their pearls and paints refugees as this alien force that changes society for the worse, evidently, has probably never met one and is simply playing into a political narrative that scapegoats refugees to be causing pre-existing symptoms of economic inequality and national security. Machacek provides his account of such. 

“I was doing research in Uganda for my master’s thesis on traditional authority in Africa — a friend of mine was travelling with us and he was shooting a [CBC] documentary on child soldiers, and I was taking a break from my research so I helped out with the writing,” he said. “We found a place to stay [while filming] and it happened to be a combination between an IDP [internally displaced person] camp and a refugee camp and included those internally displaced from the NRA [National Resistance Army] insurgency in the north of Uganda, but also refugees from South Sudan.”

“We were staying in a cement block with a prison door — we had left for a bit to Juba, South Sudan for the independence [in 2011] and somebody had picked our lock,” Machacek said, assuming that his belongings would be stolen due to the level of scarcity and poverty that were rampant across the camp. Most refugees there lacked access to running water, heat and electricity. 

Instead, “somebody had picked the lock to clean our place and our clothes for us as thank you for staying in the neighbourhood — organized our money, our books and swept up everything — it was just really cool to be welcome home.” 

Privileged Canadians are desensitized to news of tragedies surrounding the issue area, despite the numbers of refugees only growing as the years go by. Regardless of their ethnicity, refugees are refugees not because they want to be, but out of necessity. 

“These are the people that are in some of the most vulnerable situations of any population in the world,” Machacek concludes. “I’m not saying anything new here but exposure and proximity are key. The most I can do [as an academic] is just keep trying to spread factual information, what research is showing us and also just be very open about my normative orientation.” 

This article is a part of our Voices section.

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