Friday, 6 November 2009

Thoughts On Woolas' Weasel Words

Having reflected on the weasel words of Phil Woolas overnight, and having looked at the available UNHCR statistics for asylum applications of Afghans in 38 out of the 44 industrialised countries*, we can see that there was a steady but accelerating rise in numbers till a peak in 2001. After that there is a rapid drop down to 2005, when the numbers start to rise year on year. [Graph 1 & 2: See below]

This pattern is mirrored by the UK asylum statistics, but with something of a time-lag. This can be explained simply by the time it takes to travel (6-12 months) by land from Afghanistan to the UK. [Graph 3 & 4: See below]

Now, we all know that the Afghan War began on 7 October 2001 and at first glance it would appear that this provides some circumstantial support for Woolas' 'thesis'. However, the Afghan situation is much more complicated that say that of Iraq or Somalia, current conflicts that have been subjected to extensive study and statistical analysis.

Normally the pattern for population movements during a large-scale armed conflict, is for an increase in numbers of externally displaced peoples. This is the norm for conflicts on the African landmass. In Afghanistan, however, the opposite appears to have occurred, with numbers falling rapidly during 'Operation Enduring Freedom', the first phase of the war. So why could that be?

Firstly, this hi-tech form of war is very different to those that regularly occur in the Horn of Africa for example. The amount of ordinance used and the lack of combatants on the ground initially would have led to a different sort of conflict. Estimates for the numbers of civilians killed in Afghanistan vary greatly but conservation numbers appear to show that at least 4,200-4,500 were killed by mid-January 2002 as a result of the U.S. war and air-strikes, with some claiming up to 20,000 Afghans dying as a consequence of the first four months of U.S. air-strikes. In the first 2 years estimates for direct and indirect civilian deaths range between 6,300 - 23,600, with the total from 2001 to the present from 12,460 - 32,057. This is as part of a population estimated to be 26,813,057 in July 2001 and currently 28,150,000.

Secondly, the major part of the conflict was fought in the much more densely populated East of the country, where the population can and do freely cross the border into Pakistan. As we have seen in the recent Pakistan army operations, large scale population movements readily occur across state/regional boundaries and these most certainly do not lead to asylum applications. If you are hopeful that Western involvement in your country will lead to societal improvements, surely you would take the short trip to relative safety in neighbouring countries rather than travel halfway across the world? On top of this Iran effectively closed its border with the country in the run up to the War and kept it closed, cutting off the main smuggling route to the West.

So initially it would appear reasonable that the numbers of asylum seekers making to the industrial countries would show a dramatic decrease. It would probably stay that way for a while with a multi-national occupying force in the country offering the potential of economic and developmental aid and employment. And who would be the people most likely to remain? Those who would probably be most likely to seek a life in the West. Those who could speak one of the myriad of languages of the occupiers.

In the meantime, the Taliban has become more and more active as the local population have come to realise that the Knights in camouflaged armour have not turned out to be quiet what they claimed they would be. Increased insurgency, the inability to protect the people that put their lives on the line to work with the UN and NATO** and the lack of real developmental progress, coupled with widespread political corruption has led many people to consider a long and perilous and expensive journey to uncertain life in a country they know next to nothing about as the better option when compared to what their life in Afghanistan is and might become.

So why has the recent increase in numbers of asylum seekers been relatively small when compared to pre-war levels. The simple answer is that it is so much more difficult, not only to make it to your country of choice and make an asylum application, but also to have that application accepted. The walls of Fortress Europe for example have become more fortified and refugees are being much more readily deported if they manage to scale those ramparts. Britain for example carries out weekly deportation flights to Kabul, and this at a time when the UN has cut its international staff in the country by more than a half because of the deteriorating security situation.

So there is some anecdotal evidence that the correlation between the presence of NATO troops in Afghanistan and the levels of Afghan refugees. Yet Woolas appears to be claiming that the government has something a bit more substantial than mere anecdotal evidence. Yet any scientist knows that real evidence must be able to be subjected to statistical analysis and one needs a 'control' for that. We have data for asylum application rates for before the war and during the occupation, but that is it. For a control, we need a country almost exactly the same economically and socially as Afghanistan but that wasn't invaded and occupied by the US and it allies, not of course forgetting a Taliban-style 'insurgency'. One that could provide meaningful data that could then be compared to what has happened in Afghanistan to show what would happen if NATO pulled out. Or even such a country that had recently been subjected to such a war and occupation and had been evacuated of troops. Know of an example of a country like either one of those Phil? We thought not.

So in the end it looks like your evidence is not worth the empty fag packet its scribbled on the back of.

* The sample base used by the UNHCR for their statistical analyses.
** Interpreters have been particularly badly treated. After having survived years of the Taliban, where a knowledge of a foreign language could quiet easily get you killed, they are often now in daily fear for their lives as many fail to meet the stringent resettlement criteria of NATO and the UN.

Graph 1

Graph 2

Graph 3

Graph 4

No comments: