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These Migrants Say Uncle Sam Owes Them Asylum

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Before he climbed aboard the rubber raft that brought him to Europe this month, Behzad Habibi, a former translator for U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan, tried to escape his country the legal way. In his hometown of Herat, he’d received death threats from the Taliban for serving as an interpreter to the American military, and under a U.S. law passed in 2009—the Afghan Allies Protection Act—Habibi felt he was entitled to asylum in the U.S. But his application came up short: He was missing a recommendation letter from a U.S. military officer, and his visa was denied.

He wasn’t alone. Among the thousands of Afghans and Iraqis who aided the American war effort in their countries—usually as translators, drivers or guides—most were left behind as the U.S. forces withdrew. This summer, amid the mass exodus of migrants from the Muslim world, they have gotten a fresh chance to seek refuge in the West. But the U.S. has taken no new steps to accept them, focusing instead on the vast numbers of people fleeing the civil war in Syria.

Since 2011, when the Syrian civil war began, the U.S. has accepted only about 1,500 refugees from Syria, a drop in the ocean of roughly four million people who have fled that country in the last four years. Under increasing pressure from Europe to do more, Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday that the U.S. would boost its intake of refugees to 100,000 per year by 2017, up from the current yearly limit of 70,000. Kerry made the announcement while visiting Germany, which expects the arrival of more than 800,000 migrants this year, quadruple the number registered in 2014.

To help deal with the influx, the U.S. will focus on finding additional space for Syrians, Kerry told reporters in Berlin. But he made no mention of the Iraqis and Afghans who are also pouring into Europe. Their chances of getting to the U.S. have never been great. Starting in 2008, the U.S. passed a series of laws intended to grant special immigrant visas (SIVs) to the local guides and translators who helped the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan. But these laws have been woefully implemented: The U.S. State Department acknowledged in 2012 that out of more than 5,700 Afghans who applied for these special visas, only 32 received them. Many of the others have since turned to far riskier means of escape, and they are not hard to find among the hundreds of thousands of migrants arriving by boat in Europe over the last few months.

Waad Turki-Abed is another case in point. Soon after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, he says he agreed to work for U.S. forces as an informant in Baghdad, divulging the positions of militants leading the fight against coalition forces. Later that year, the Shi’ite militias in the Iraqi capital took revenge against Turki-Abed and his family by murdering his nine-year-old daughter. “They killed her because I worked for the Americans,” he says.

When TIME met Turki-Abed in early September, Greek coast guards had just pulled him aboard their patrol vessel in the Aegean Sea, rescuing him and 46 other migrants from the overcrowded dinghy they were using to cross from Turkey to Greece. Turki-Abed, sporting a greying goatee and a T-shirt that said On The Road, was among the few fluent English speakers among them. He said it was the second time in a decade that he’d been forced to flee his home because of war.

In 2007, as U.S. troops prepared to pull out of Iraq, Turki-Abed fled to Syria with his wife and son, settling in Damascus as refugees. Five years later, a different war came to Syria, and as the fighting intensified around the capital this summer, his 16-year-old son Noor set out on the migrant trail toward Western Europe. He called his parents in Damascus nine days later to say he was about to cross by boat from Turkey to Greece, and then Noor stopped answering his phone. After a few anxious days spent waiting for news, his father set out to find him. “I already lost a daughter,” Turki-Abed said aboard the Greek coast guard vessel. “I don’t want to lose my son.”

Folded and stuffed into his fanny pack is a copy of a letter from the U.S. military command in Iraq, certifying that he worked for the allied forces as a guide. Though his first priority is to find his son along the migrant trail, Turki-Abed, who is 56, says he then plans to present the letter to the nearest U.S. embassy and apply for refugee status for himself and his family. “If the U.S. helps us, then we will go to America,” he says.

These Photos Show the Massive Scale of Europe’s Migrant Crisis

Greece Migrants
Syrian and Afghan refugees warm themselves and dry their clothes around a fire after arriving on a dinghy from the Turkish coast to the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, early on Oct. 7, 2015. Muhammed Muheisen—AP
migrant refugee greece
A migrant who recently arrived across the Mediterranean Sea from Turkey, watching a ferry in the port of Mytilene, Lesbos island, Greece, on Oct. 5, 2015.Zoltan Balogh—EPA
refugees migrants Lesbos Greek islands
An Afghan wades to the shore after arriving in an overloaded rubber dinghy on the coast near Skala Sikaminias, Lesbos island, Greece, Oct. 1, 2015. Filip Singer—EPA
Syrian refugees Lesbos Greece
Syrian refugees are covered with life blankets upon arriving to the Greek island of Lesbos, after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey, on Sept. 28, 2015. Aris Messinis—AFP/Getty Images
migrants refugees Lesbos
Migrants and refugees arrive on Sykamia beach, west of the port of Mytilene, on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean sea from Turkey, on Sept. 22, 2015. Iakovos Hatzistavrou—AFP/Getty Images
Croatia Migrants
Migrants and refugees board a train by climbing through the windows as they try to avoid a police barrier at the station in Tovarnik, Croatia, on Sept. 20, 2015. Manu Brabo—AP
Croatia Migrants
A Syrian refugee boy cries while he and his family try to board a train at the station in Tovarnik, Croatia, on Sept. 20, 2015.Manu Brabo—AP
migrants hungary serbia border clash
A migrant holds his child during a clash with Hungarian riot police at the Horgos border crossing in Serbia, on Sept. 16, 2015.Sergey Ponomarev—The New York Times/Redux
migrants serbia
Migrants sleep on a highway in front of a barrier at the border with Hungary near the village of Horgos, Serbia, on Sept. 16, 2015. Marko Djurica—Reuters
Hungary Serbia border
A wagon equipped with razor wire is placed at the border between Hungary and Serbia in Roszke, some 10 miles southeast from Budapest, Hungary, Sept. 14, 2015, to close the gap of the temporary border fence at the Horgos-Szeged railway line. Balazs Mohai—EPA
refugees migrants Lesbos
A refugee reacts from exhaustion while swimming towards the shore after a dinghy carrying Syrian and Afghan refugees before reaching the Greek island of Lesbos, on Sept. 13, 2015. Alkis Konstantinidis—Reuters
refugees migrants Hungary
Syrian people sleep inside a greenhouse at a makeshift camp for asylum seekers near Roszke, southern Hungary, on Sept. 13, 2015. Muhammed Muheisen—AP
Hungary Migrants refugees children
Syrian refugee Raed Alabdou, 24, holds his one-month old daughter Roa'a, while he and his wife hide in a field not to be seen by Hungarian policemen, after they crossed the Serbian-Hungarian border near Roszke, southern Hungary, on Sept. 11, 2015. Muhammed Muheisen—AP
refugees migrants macedonia
Migrants and refugees beg Macedonian police to allow passage to cross the border from Greece into Macedonia during a rainstorm, near the Greek village of Idomeni, on Sept. 10, 2015. Yannis Behrakis—Reuters
refugees migrants Morahalom Hungary
Migrants run over a motorway from a collection point that had been set up to transport people to camps in Morahalom, Hungary, on Sept. 9, 2015.Dan Kitwood—Getty Images
syrian refugee migrant hungary
A young Syrian man from Damascus tries to evade the Hungarian police by sneaking through a forest close to the Serbian border in Morahalom, Hungary, on Sept. 8, 2015. Dan Kitwood—Getty Images
refugees migrants Serbia
Migrants cross into Hungary as they walk over railroad tracks at the Serbian border with Hungary in Horgas, Serbia, on Sept. 7, 2015.Dan Kitwood— Getty Images
refugee migrant Lesbos
A refugee from Syria prays after arriving on the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos aboard an inflatable dinghy across the Aegean Sea from Turkey, on Sept. 7, 2015. Angelos Tzortzinis—AFP/Getty Images
syrian refugees migrants greek coast guard
A migrant scrambles to climb back aboard a rubber dinghy full of his fellow Syrians as they try to cross from Turkey to the Greek islands on their way to claim asylum in the European Union, late on Sept. 6, 2015.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
syrian refugees migrants greek coast guard
A Syrian migrant aboard a flimsy rubber motorboat hands his one-month-old baby to Greek coast guards, who have arrived to rescue the boat full of migrants from dangerous waters near the border between Greece and Turkey, early on Sept. 7, 2015.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
Greece Migrants
A young Syrian boy is wrapped with a thermal blanket as he arrives with others at the coast on a dinghy after crossing from Turkey, at the island of Lesbos, Greece, on Sept. 7, 2015.Petros Giannakouris—AP
Greece Migrants
Refugees and migrants wait to cross the border from the northern Greek village of Idomeni to southern Macedonia, on Sept. 7, 2015. Giannis Papanikos—AP
Migrants walk along rail tracks as they arrive to a collection point in the village of Roszke, Hungary
Migrants walk along rail tracks as they arrive to a collection point in the village of Roszke, Hungary, on Sept. 6, 2015.Marko Djurica—Reuters
migrant refugees train macedonia
Migrant families ride a train from Gevgelija to the Serbian border in Macedonia, on Sept. 4, 2015.Dan Kitwood—Getty Images
Italy Migrants refugees
Migrants crowd the bridge of the Norwegian Siem Pilot ship sailing along the Mediterranean sea, on Sept. 2, 2015. Gregorio Borgia—AP
Aylan Kurdi boy drowned
A Turkish gendarme carries the body of Alan Kurdi, 3, who drowned along with his brother Galip, 5, and their mother, in a failed attempt to sail to the Greek island of Kos, in the coastal town of Bodrum, Turkey, on Sept. 2, 2015.Reuters
Migrant crisis
Dozens of refugee families, mostly from Syria, camped near the Keleti train station in Budapest, Hungary on Sept. 2, 2015.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
Migrant crisis
A Syrian migrant bids farewell to the Hungarian volunteers who welcomed him upon his arrival in the European Union in Szeged, Hungary on Aug. 30, 2015.Yuri Kozyrev—NOOR for TIME
refugees migrants Hungarian-Serbian border
A father of a migrants family is arrested by the local police near the village of Roszke on the Hungarian-Serbian border on Aug. 28, 2015.Attila Kisbender—AFP/Getty Images
Syrian migrants cross under a fence as they enter Hungary at the border with Serbia, near Roszke
Syrian migrants cross under a fence as they enter Hungary at the border with Serbia, near Roszke, on Aug. 27, 2015. Bernadett Szabo—Reuters
Hungary border fence migrants refugees
Hungarian soldiers install a wire fence at the border between Hungary and Serbia near Hercegszanto, 115 miles southeast from Budapest, on Aug. 25, 2015. Tamas Soki—EPA
syrian migrant refugee girl greece
A little girl from Syria looks out of a bus as the ferry she arrived in is reflected in the bus window at the port of Piraeus, Greece, on Aug. 25, 2015. Petros Giannakouris—AP
Macedonian police clash with refugees at blocked border
Children cry as migrants waiting on the Greek side of the border break through a cordon of Macedonian special police forces to cross into Macedonia, near the southern city of Gevgelija, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia on Aug. 21, 2015.Georgi Licovski—EPA
Calais migrants
Gendarmerie attempt to prevent people from entering the Eurotunnel terminal in Coquelles, Calais, France on July 30, 2015.Rob Stothard—Getty Images
Kos Migrants Greece
Life vests and a deflated dinghy are seen on a beach on the Greek island of Kos, following the arrival of Afghan immigrants, on May 30, 2015.Yannis Behrakis—Reuters

But such pleas for help often run up against U.S bureaucracy. Habibi, the Afghan translator, says it would have been impossible for him to get all the documents required for a special immigrant visa. In 2011, the Taliban came to his home in Herat and threatened to kill him and his family if he worked one more day for the Americans. “My boss, a captain, called me and asked why I don’t come,” recalls Habibi. “I told him I can’t come to work anymore. It’s too dangerous.” Even traveling to the American base to receive the captain’s recommendation letter could have cost him his life, he says.

So he laid low and waited for his next chance to flee, this time illegally. Early this summer, as the tide of migrants heading toward Europe intensified, his parents began scrounging together the money for Habibi to leave as well. The most dangerous part of the journey was also the most expensive: human traffickers charge more than $1000 to bring migrants from Turkey to Greece on rubber boats. But the most difficult part was saying goodbye. “It’s f—ing hard to leave home, leave everything,” he says, his English tinged with the profane vernacular he picked up from U.S troops.

On Sept. 4, when his boat came ashore on the northern coast of Lesbos, one of the Greek islands nearest to Turkey, Habibi said his plan was to make it to Europe for now, most likely to Germany. But ultimately he wants to settle in the U.S. and bring his parents over from Afghanistan. “After all this,” he says, looking around at sea and the boat he had just used to cross it, “the Americans owe me.”

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