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Asylum Concerns Haunt Western Exchange Programs For Afghan Students

Afghan students take an entrance exam for a Laghman Province technical school. Access to higher education is extremely limited in Afghanistan.
Afghan students take an entrance exam for a Laghman Province technical school. Access to higher education is extremely limited in Afghanistan.
One of the projects that foreign governments have funded since the Taliban was ousted and a UN-backed government established in Kabul is an Afghan student exchange, with the aim of brightening that country's future and increasing cross-border understanding across borders.

But such exchanges have been troubled by concerns that too many of the visitors bother returning to help rebuild Afghan society.

The fact is that only a few Afghan universities provide master's-level studies -- and those are just in literature. So there is an acute need for a wider range of fields for higher studies for Afghan students to choose.

To fill the gap, many countries invite Afghan students to attend university in the West. The United States and Britain have some of the most prestigious scholarships -- Fulbright and Chevening, respectively. Apart from government-funded programs, private and nonprofit projects also provide Afghans with educational opportunities around the world.

Afghan students are provided scholarships and fellowships for their higher aptitude and capability in return for a promise that they will return to Afghanistan after their study programs are over to help rebuild their country. To ensure this -- taking Afghan family and social structure into account -- restrictions are imposed such as a ban on taking family members as dependents along during their studies. The rule doesn't apply to students from countries whose governments pay half of the scholarships provided by foreign programs.

But despite the rule, many Afghan students never come back; they vanish before or soon after the completion of their study-abroad programs. Perceptions of a deteriorating security situation, news of the looming exit of NATO troops, and the woeful state of the critical infrastructure mean Afghan young people might also lose hope for a better future in Afghanistan.

For some Afghans, becoming a scholarship grantee has been like getting a free ticket to jump from the United States to seek asylum in Canada. Harris Najib is a Fulbright alumnus who works as a case manager with a nonprofit in Calgary, Canada. He says he didn't return to Afghanistan because of political instability.

He says Afghan students abroad "have now had the experience of engaging in dialogue without the fear of being silenced, shunned, or ridiculed," adding candidly, "A grim political environment in Afghanistan and the possibility of a Taliban takeover diminish the appetite for returning and contributing to the process of rebuilding Afghanistan."

Some criticize the U.S. State Department for not following up with employment opportunities in Afghanistan so the students gain confidence through a financially secure future there.

Ateeq Nosher, a Harvard University alumnus who lives in Kabul and works as managing director at Apex-2 Consulting, says "the job opportunities for those who come from the U.S. and Canada or other Western countries are relatively higher than those for students produced locally or in neighboring countries."

Najib adds: "Many Afghan students who have come to study in the U.S. post-Taliban have a decent amount of professional experience working for the UN or other international agencies back home. They can therefore compete for jobs with their North American or European peers within certain sectors. And, if they can find a job in Europe or North America and are able to guarantee a better future for themselves and their families, some would rather not return to Afghanistan, and wait out the current political uncertainty."

Apart from concerns over security and employment opportunities, other issues face graduates returning from their Western studies on a daily basis in Afghanistan.

"The well-educated segment of the population gets disappointed when they see weak people leading them," Nosher says. "They feel they aren't contributing to policies because [at the] end of the day, those policies are influenced by political appointees."

Students seeking asylum obviously think of their individual benefits hindering the opportunities for the rest of the batches to come.

Although there are no numbers available on students not returning to Afghanistan after going to Western countries as exchange students, one program appears to have gotten fed up with such students using their scholarship programs to seek asylum. Last year, the United States suspended its highly regarded YES youth-exchange program. Begun in 2004, YES invited hundreds of Afghan students to the U.S., but around half those students fled to Canada to claim asylum. NPR recently quoted embassy officials saying they want to restart the YES program, but only if they can ensure that students won't jump the program for asylum purposes.

The Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the United States -- part of the U.S.-Canada Smart Border Action Plan -- aims to prevent people from filing for asylum in a country other than the one they initially entered, potentially stemming the flow unless a family member there has agreed to sponsor them.

Apart from the no-dependents rule for students, mature applicants are considered more committed to the programs and thus reliable. Dr. Maria Beebe of Afghan eQuality Alliances at Washington State University told blogger Bob McCarty about having a more selective criteria to ensure the return of Afghan students:

"So, for example, we can say only directors and assistant director levels would be considered. At that level, we will also get the older (more mature) students who have children and will have more compelling reasons to go back to Afghanistan."

Detractors might argue that such an approach contradicts the aim of providing an equal opportunity to all talented Afghans -- and particularly lets down Afghan young people, its potential future leaders -- in higher education. On the other hand, the no-dependents rule becomes irrelevant if mature single students enter into relationships with non-Afghans and decide to remain with their partners abroad.

-- Malali Bashir