After fleeing Afghanistan, the Hashemi family thought they had found a safe haven in Norway – until they were deported recently.
In autumn last year, life was finally improving for Nadereh Hashemi. After spending all her adult years on the run from her family in Afghanistan – she lived in Iran for 10 years before making an arduous escape to Europe – Nadereh and her husband, Ahmad, finally found something resembling a stable life in Europe.
At a centre for asylum seekers in Norway, outside the village of Røn, she and Ahmad were poor, but they had security, food and housing. Their two oldest children, Meisam and Mohammad, went to school, and their youngest, Zahra, spoke Norwegian almost like a native. Nadereh was receiving medication for depression.
After four years and two months in Norway, the family was just four months short of qualifying for a residence permit on humanitarian grounds under the rules for asylum seekers.
But on Nov 7, Norway’s immigration appeals board rejected their request for asylum. At 5am the next morning, a dozen police officers banged on the family’s door at Lundeskogen asylum centre.
As they were escorted to a car that would take them to a holding facility at Oslo airport, four-year-old Zahra shouted: “I am not Afghan, I am Norwegian.”
The next evening, the family was on a plane to Kabul. “It was a very dark day,” said Ahmad. “A very bad day.”
Under a policy introduced by the centre-right coalition government that came to power in late 2013, Norway now deports families with children. Last year, according to Norwegian police, the country forcibly deported 649 children, 84 of them to Afghanistan.
The deportations have met staunch resistance from civil society advocates, who accuse the government of violating international rights conventions. Recently, the Afghan Government also put its foot down.
On Feb 10, Afghan authorities at Kabul airport refused entry to a woman who had been deported from Norway with two children, citing the woman’s poor health and the absence of a male family member. The woman’s husband had escaped before Norwegian police could deport him.
It was not the first time the Afghan Government had balked at the harsher Norwegian policies. In November, the Afghan foreign ministry sent a letter to the Norwegian embassy in Kabul, threatening to refuse to accept returning families if deportation rates did not drop.
“The problem arises when so many are deported against their will, particularly when so many of them are women and children,” Ghulam Murtaza Rasooli, legal director at the Afghan ministry of refugees and repatriation, told the Norwegian daily Bergens Tidende in January. The letter was sent six days before the Hashemi family was deported. However, the deportations have continued.
Jøran Kallmyr, of the anti-immigration Progress party and state secretary for the Norwegian justice minister, said: “It is not very unusual for countries which receive deported people to complain.”
The Guardian followed the Hashemi family for two months, as they attempt to settle into their new life in Afghanistan, a country none of the children had seen before setting foot there in November.
On their arrival, the government offered the family a temporary place at a guesthouse for returnees. Residents there warned Ahmad that returning families face danger as they are often rumoured to have made a lot of money abroad. “I was afraid that my children would be kidnapped,” Ahmad said.
Instead, the family, who are Hazaras, settled in Kabul’s predominantly Shia neighbourhood of Chendawol, where an imam let them stay in a small room at the back of a mosque. In late January, they moved a block away, to a smaller room. It had mouldy walls and a gas burner was the sole source of heat for the night, when temperatures in the winter drop well below zero.
While Ahmad searches for work in the day, Nadereh and the children spend their time in the room, afraid to venture outside. “This is hell. This is not a country. People die here every day,” said Meisam, 11. “I don’t want to see my father or mother die, or lose my brother or sister.”
In a corner of the room, a small backpack belonging to six-year-old Mohammad is packed and ready to be taken back to school. When talking to each other, the children speak in Norwegian. The parents have not yet had the heart to tell Mohammad and Zahra that they have left Norway for good.
“We tell them that the plane is broken and just needs to be fixed,” said Nadereh. “They tell other children they meet in the mosque that they are going to take them to Norway, to show them their room.”
Since arriving in Kabul, Mohammad has suffered from ear pains, and a stomachache that makes it difficult for him to keep food down. His siblings regularly cough and seem lethargic. In Afghanistan, medication is notoriously unreliable, and a financial burden.
Richard Danziger, the chief of mission for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Kabul, says that while any country has the right to deport or reject asylum seekers, deporting families to Afghanistan requires “very careful consideration” at present: “Economic and educational opportunities are limited and decent housing is scarce. Equally, the security situation has seen some deterioration over the last few weeks and we are in the middle of a harsh winter.”
Kallmyr, however, said that if Norway were to give asylum to families because they were poor and not in need of political protection, “there would be millions of potential asylum seekers that we would then be obligated to give asylum”. He added that a life in Kabul was better for children than being confined to an asylum centre in Norway. “We have a lot of children living in asylum centres, and that’s not a very good condition for children to live in,” he said.
The Hashemi family did claim asylum on protection grounds. But the persecution they claim to face is personal, not political. It was not possible to verify their claims, but what the couple told the Guardian is consistent with documents from Norwegian asylum authorities.
The heart of Nadereh and Ahmad’s story is, apparently, a tale of forbidden love. They grew up in Wardak, a conflict-ridden province west of Kabul. Nadereh came from a violent home with a father who, when she was nine, promised her to an older cousin. But before they could marry, Nadereh, at the age of 17, ran off to Iran with her neighbour, Ahmad.
Nadereh’s father was an elder in their village, and her daughter’s escape was seen as a great shame for the family. Her brothers vowed to track down Ahmad and kill him. Eight years after Nadereh and Ahmad had settled in Tehran, people in the community one day warned them that a couple of men had been asking about them.
“I don’t know how they found us,” said Nadereh, who was then pregnant with Zahra. They fled to Norway, where they applied for asylum in September 2010, four months before Zahra was born.
In Norway, the stricter immigration policies have triggered a major political dispute, mostly about refugee children with long-term ties to Norway. In 2014, 79 children who had lived in the country for four years or more were deported. The majority were sent to Afghanistan and Nigeria, the governments of which recently agreed to open up for returning refugees.
According to Norwegian law, the welfare of the child, including his or her connection to Norway, has to be a central factor in determining asylum cases. But Ketil Krohn Venas, a lawyer who represented the Hashemi family, said that in several cases, including that of Nadereh and Ahmad, the children’s well-being has been outweighed by attempts to regulate migration.
Deportations surged dramatically from September to November, possibly in an attempt to reach the government’s stated goal of returning 7,100 rejected asylum seekers in 2014.
According to Norwegian police, a total of 7,259 people were deported in 2014, including 438 to Afghanistan. The government’s goal for 2015 is to forcibly return 7,800 people.
Kallmyr said the increase was merely making up for the neglect of previous governments. “We can’t have a system where children are used by their parents to get permission to stay in Norway,” he said.
Venas brought Nadereh and her family’s case to court in Oslo, asking for their asylum claim to be reconsidered. He claimed that the Norwegian Government had violated the UN convention on the rights of the child and the European convention on human rights.
“The children are Norwegian, they can’t live like this,” Venas said. – Guardian News & Media