They Escaped Taliban Bullets, but Not French Tear Gas

Afghans are the biggest group of asylum seekers in France – that means they are also the biggest targets of state-sanctioned police violence.
August 20, 2021, 12:12pm
They Escaped Taliban Bullets, but Not French Tear Gas
Hikmatullah and his teenage brother. All photos: Vivian Song.

PARIS – When Hikmatullah arrived in France last month after escaping the Taliban, he thought his days on the run were over.

What he didn’t anticipate was having to flee again, this time from French police who have been chasing out Afghan asylum seekers in Paris with tear gas nearly every night in August, according to local migrant aid groups.

“One of the officers shouted in English, ‘Go back to your fucking country,’” the 22-year-old, who asked to be identified by his first name only, told VICE World News in the northeast edge of Paris, where he, his teenage brother and two dozen other Afghan refugees were settling in for the night.

“I will never forget that,” he said, his voice shaking in anger. “I am shocked. Before I thought France was good to refugees. But I see it’s very different.”

While terrified Afghans are desperately trying to flee the Taliban via Kabul’s airport, those who’ve already made the journey into Europe face a different kind of persecution altogether, one that’s cloaked in bitter disappointment.

Calling France’s treatment of Afghan and other asylum seekers “deplorable,” the co-founder of migrant aid group Utopia56 Yann Manzi said that refugees are deliberately chased out from Paris city centre in a strategy aimed at making them “invisible” and leading the public to believe that the issue has been resolved.

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“It’s not a refugee crisis,” Manzi said. “The crisis lies in the reception of migrants.”

Over the last three years, Afghan refugees have become the largest group of asylum seekers in France, representing 19 percent of refugees in the country in 2020.

Of the around 10,000 asylum applications from Afghans received in 2020, about 72 percent received favourable decisions. And while France, like Germany and the Netherlands, has suspended deportations to Afghanistan, new rules out of the country’s National Court of Asylum could make it harder for Afghan refugees to obtain official status. Last November, the appeals court for asylum seekers revoked the “Kabul jurisprudence” that previously granted Afghan refugees protection in consideration of the widespread violence across the country. Now, cases are assessed individually, according to the level of violence in each region.

Manzi also accused the French government of deliberately mistreating refugees as part of a strategy aimed at dissuading more refugees from travelling to France. 

By consequence, as the largest group of refugees in France, Afghans also make up the biggest victims of police violence against asylum seekers.

Last November, France’s treatment of refugees came under the spotlight following major clashes with police.

During a police evacuation of about 3,000 people who had settled outside a stadium north of Paris, Elyaas Ehsas, 28, knew something was off when he saw French police officers swap their caps for armoured helmets.

Elyaas Ehsas

Elyaas Ehsas

As a former TV war correspondent in Afghanistan, he could smell it in the air: he knew that the atmosphere in the migrant camp, which had been uncharacteristically full of hope and optimism earlier that morning, was about to change dramatically.

While thousands of migrants had been placed in shuttle buses and shipped off to temporary lodgings earlier, hundreds of refugees, mostly young Afghan men like Ehsas, were left behind. Once the TV cameras were turned off and the media left the scene, he said police drew out their batons and lobbed tear gas at the men to disperse the crowd. Except that they were blocked off by police on both sides and had nowhere to run.

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Ehsas was furious. He was not a criminal. He was a survivor of war. And as a journalist, he felt he couldn’t hold back.

“I can’t shut up when I see something wrong,” Ehsas told VICE World News, speaking in English. “I raised my voice and yelled, ‘Don’t forget to tell your sons and family tonight that you burned the tents of refugees who escaped wars and that now you’re treating them with tear gas and your batons.’”

To the people watching the chaos from their balconies above, he yelled while pointing to the police: “Look! This is your liberté, égalité and fraternité!”

In conversation with Ehsas, he evokes feelings of helplessness, resignation and defeat at specific moments throughout his odyssey from Kabul to Paris. There was the time Afghan police told him they couldn’t help him after he received multiple death threats from the Taliban in 2015 for refusing to collaborate with them. There was the soul-destroying trek in the Pakistani mountains on the way to Iran when he walked hundreds of miles with his younger teenage brother in tow, and fellow, desperate travellers fought each other like animals over the last glass of water. There was the boat ride between Turkey to Greece in the dead of night, when the boat engine failed twice in the middle of the Mediterranean sea and the boat full of hysterical, frightened people began to sink with water until he ordered everyone to throw their bags overboard.

And then, there was the moment when he squared off with French police last November and in fury and resignation threw up his hands and shouted, “Shoot me! I have nothing to lose. You’re acting worse than the Taliban. I’m a war correspondent who walked hundreds of miles to have a human life, in a free country like France.”

It was at that point that a police officer lunged at him and put his knee on his neck.

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“Right then, I felt like George Floyd. Like when you’ve done nothing wrong and someone put his knee on your neck to shut you up, to make your voice die.” 

Ehsas had travelled to France because his father had worked for French NGOs during the first Taliban regime in the 1990s; because Victor Hugo was one of his favourite writers; and he had watched with admiration when millions of French people marched in solidarity with the victims of the satirical Charlie Hebdo magazine following the terrorist attacks in 2015, in a show of their support for the right to freedom of expression.

Similarly, Ehsas said he was moved by the French people’s support of migrant rights, notably when footage of the police’s use of excessive force and violence to evacuate migrant camps out of Place de la République last autumn went viral, provoking widespread condemnation and an internal investigation.

“French people are nice people. They do a lot for refugees. But for some reason, the state does not.”

Earlier this week French President Emmanuel Macron, up for re-election next year, was criticised by some for giving a speech on the Afghanistan crisis in which he said, “We must anticipate and protect ourselves against major irregular migratory flows that would endanger those who use them and feed trafficking of all kinds.” 

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Zabiullah Mohammadi, the Afghan-born founder of New Page, a Franco-Afghan association that works to help Afghan asylum seekers, said the speech did not do enough to reassure vulnerable Afghans.

“As the president of France, and a key player in the United Nations, he could have done more to give hope to Afghans,” Mohammadi, 26, said. “I know the speech was to appease the French, and that he’s not the president of Afghanistan, but as an intermediary, he could have done more to express a firm stance against the Taliban.”

Mohammadi, who is now a French citizen, speaks fluent French, lives independently, works and is studying civil engineering, said his goal is to unite young Afghans from across Europe to help rebuild their country from abroad. 

“We’re going to unite all Afghans from all ethnicities and fight for Afghanistan’s future and independence.”

It’s a sentiment Ehsas, who remains undocumented, shares.

“My big dream is to go home. It’s not my choice to be  here,” he said. “Every night, every morning, my dream is to go back home, back to my friends, my family, my childhood dreams, my job, and back to my people, whom I love so much.”