iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) — For Taibah Abbasi, the goal was always the same: school.
When she was 9 years old, she remembers staring out the window in Tehran. The longing she felt was painful.
“It was so hard to watch the other children and especially girls wearing their uniforms and going to school and I was just staying back at the window,” Taibah recalled to ABC News on a recent afternoon, at a burger joint in Trondheim, Norway. She didn’t even know what those little Iranian girls did when they arrived at the school building, but she wanted to join.
She asked herself at the time, “Have I not the right to go to school? Are we not the same?”
They were not, she learned, the same under Iranian law.
As an Afghan refugee born in Iran, her education during those years consisted of reading children’s books with her mother, and occasionally attending an informal class with other refugee children in someone’s home. At the age of 12, Taibah had never seen the inside of a proper classroom.
She’s now a senior at Thora Storm High School in Trondheim. Six years after setting foot inside a real school, she’s staring at a future on the outside, again.
The Norwegian Immigration Board of Appeals has revoked Taibah’s refugee status and residency permit. In a letter seen by ABC News, the Norwegian government has issued her immediate deportation orders to Afghanistan — a country she has never been to. Taibah now has less than a week to leave the country or they will forcibly deport her.
Taibah arrived in Norway in 2012 alongside her 14 year-old brother, Yassin. Traveling on foot, the small 12-year-old girl cried most of the way through Europe. Her brother, forced into the role of protector, promised her they’d find a new life where she could go to school.
“I don’t know what countries we were in. I just followed my brother because I trusted him,” she said. Their specific route was a blur.
“I remember he said the way to have a good life is hard … and he told me if you want to get a successful life you should go through all the difficulty,” she added.
Yassin, now 20, told ABC News, “I did everything I could to help her along, keep her happy on the way. I just told her, we are going to have a happy life and we are going to a place where you can study, and make friends.”
When they arrived as unaccompanied minors, the two children were granted refugee status and residency permits immediately. A couple months later, the rest of the family arrived and they began life in Trondheim, Norway’s third largest city. It’s a beautiful coastal, progressive city, near the middle of the country with a population of 200,000.
Taibah learned the language quickly and like a normal teenager, got a job at a burrito restaurant after school.
ONE OF THOUSANDS
There are about 3,500 asylum seekers in Norway, although estimates vary due to status changes which makes the population hard to track. Since 2015, Norway and other European countries have deported more than 13,000 Afghans who have sought asylum, according to Amnesty International and the E.U. During the same period, the United Nations reclassified Afghanistan from “post-conflict” to “active conflict,” and saw civilian deaths hit an all-time high in 2016.
In October of 2016, the E.U. signed a declaration with Afghanistan, the “E.U.-Afghanistan Joint Way Forward,” designed to facilitate the return of Afghan nationals from Europe to Afghanistan. According to Amnesty International, the E.U. and its member states pledged about $6 billion in aid to Afghanistan over the next four years. Both sides denied that the agreement was conditioned in any way on development aid provided to Afghanistan.
Between 2015-2016 “there was an impression that large numbers of people were arriving and that something needed to be done,” Anna Shea, Amnesty International’s researcher and adviser on refugee and migrant rights, explained. “So, the European Union negotiated with the government of Afghanistan a deal that would facilitate the return of Afghans from Europe to Afghanistan and there was tremendous amount of pressure on Afghanistan to accept this.”
According to Amnesty International, Afghanistan’s minister of finance, Eklil Hakimi, told the Afghan Parliament in 2016: “If Afghanistan does not cooperate with E.U. countries on the refugee crisis, this will negatively impact the amount of aid allocated to Afghanistan.” And Afghanistan can’t survive without development aid; nearly 70 percent of the country’s annual income depends on international donors, including Norway and other European countries. Behind Germany, Greece, Sweden and the United Kingdom, Norway sent the fifth largest number of asylum seekers to Afghanistan in 2016.
In a leaked E.U. document from March 2016, E.U. agencies acknowledge Afghanistan’s “worsening security situation and threats to which people are exposed,” as well as the likelihood that “record levels of terrorist attacks and civilian casualties” will increase. But at the same time, in spite of those conditions, agencies said that “more than 80,000 persons could potentially need to be returned in the near future.”
“It’s pretty clear from leaked documents that came out of these meetings … that Afghanistan was being pressured to accept this deal at any cost and in exchange for large amounts of aid from the European Union and member states,” Shea noted.
She added, “Afghans were potentially an easy target for deportations. Afghanistan is itself a massively dependent on foreign aid and Europe would be able to negotiate these returns more easily with a country like Afghanistan than other countries.”
According to Amnesty, European countries, including Norway, universally agreed that returning Syrian refugees to Syria was “politically unpalatable.”
The United Nation says about 100 civilians were killed every single day in Afghanistan in 2017.
Since the beginning of 2018, more than 200 people have been killed in Kabul and Jalalabad, where a Save the Children facility was attacked on Jan. 24. By the numbers, Kabul is currently the most dangerous province for civilians. Aside from the dangers of suicide attacks, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that 9.3 million people required humanitarian assistance in 2017.
“European governments have the authority and the power to decide right now that it is too dangerous to return anyone to Afghanistan and to put a temporary halt on all these returns,” Shea said.
Amnesty International launched a political action campaign, and Norway, which is not a member of the E.U., voted against halting deportations in January.
Despite repeated requests, Norway’s interior ministry had not provided ABC News with a comment at the time of publication. But in an interview last year, Norway’s minister for justice, public security and immigration defended the country’s tighter immigration and asylum policies.
“We send people back to Afghanistan if they are not in need of protection,” Sylvi Listhaug told The Spectator, a British weekly magazine. She pointed to Norway’s increase in foreign aid which helps refugees abroad.
“We should think about all refugees, do as much as we can for as many as possible,” she said, adding, “It is the wrong answer to have a policy to have a lot of people without need of protection coming to our countries as asylum seekers.”
As for any backlash against the country’s new policy, she responded, “I don’t give a damn, and that’s because this is the right thing to do.”
NO LEGAL OPTIONS
Nearly six years later, Taibah feels a mix of betrayal and bewilderment. Thinking back on the day she entered the country, she was relieved. And hopeful.
“We met some people who told us we were going to take care of you. Here is safe,” she said. “Yes, they said, here is safe, here you will be taken care of. Don’t worry.”
She still trusts that person, that nameless Norwegian immigration official, who made that promise.
“I still remember – he asked again, ‘Is that your big dream?'” she recalled now. “And I said ‘Yes … my big dream is to go to school.’ And also,” she said, swallowing hard, “to become a doctor.”
Her immigration lawyer, Erik Vatne, said they have exhausted the legal options in Norway. When the family’s status was revoked, they appealed to the Immigration Board of Appeals. Denied, they took the case to the District Court and won. But the government appealed that decision to the High Court and the Abbasi family lost their case.
“This is a family who has lived in Norway for six years who have done exactly what the Norwegian authorities have been telling them to do. They have learned the language, they have gone to school, they have been working, they have been part of the local community,” Vatne said.
Vatne said the High Court’s decision not only goes against international law but also again Norwegian law. In short, “the decision is illegal.”
“As a Norwegian, I feel ashamed. .. And as a lawyer, I would say I’m shocked,” he added.
Norway’s Supreme Court has refused to hear the family’s case so Vatne appealed once again to the same immigration board that rejected them in the first place. On Feb. 19, they received the final rejection in the mail. The letter from the government said the family had to leave the country by March 11, 2018, or they would be deported against their will.
“What else do you want?” Taibah wants to know from the government. She is utterly exhausted.
“We did what Norway asked for. We have been integrated. This is our life. This is our home,” she said.
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