Afghan Refugees Suffer Perils of ‘Post-Conflict’

In light of leaked E.U. plans to return 80,000 Afghan asylum seekers, we explore the conditions that forced civilians to flee in increased numbers in 2015 – deemed the bloodiest year since 2001 – and the limited protection they are offered due to Afghanistan’s post-conflict status.

Written by Suchitra Vijayan & Francesco Conte Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

In 2015, more than 200,000 Afghans arrived in Europe fleeing violence in search of greater economic opportunity and better living conditions. The year was one of the “bloodiest on record since 2001.” In April 2015, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported that in the first three months of 2015 civilian casualties were 8 percent higher than during the same period in 2014.

In the early months of 2015, the number of Afghans displaced internally by conflict increased as the Taliban intensified its ground offensive. Over the course of the year, the security situation worsened in Helmand, Nangarhar, northern Baghlan and the Khost Province culminating in the capture of Kunduz in September 2015. In addition to escalating violence, two devastating earthquakes in October and December 2015 affected another 150,650 people across the country. More than 1.1 million people were internally displaced by the end of the year, with women and children mostly living in rural and semi-rural areas the most affected.

Amid this political instability and an increase in the number of Afghan nationals making the perilous journey to Europe, a leaked discussion document titled “E.U. Restricted” prepared by the European Commission has laid down a road map to deport more than 80,000 Afghans from Europe.

The European Commission plans to leverage the massive aid it provides to the Afghan government to implement the deportation of tens of thousands of Afghan nationals it considers as economic migrants. The paper states it considers Kabul and other urban areas as “safe spaces” where Afghans can return to “safety.”

While the mass deportations are yet to begin, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) states that there were 304 voluntary returns of Afghan nations in 2015 and another 125 early this year. Under Germany’s REAG/GARP return program, the German government pays the travel expenses for Afghans voluntarily willing to return home.

Given the dearth of protection for newer arrivals from his country, Dawood, who fled during the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, considers himself fortunate. (Francesco Conte)(Alfred Wegener Institute)

An interview conducted with H., a young Afghan man who recently returned to Afghanistan voluntarily from Germany, reflects the complex nature of articulating the Afghan crisis. H.’s family fled to Peshawar during the Taliban years. His family returned in early 2006 and now live near the Pul-e-Charkhi neighborhood in Kabul. During the course of the interview, H. repeatedly stressed that he was motivated to leave due to the deteriorating security situation in Kabul. He also spoke about the growing unemployment and endemic corruption in Afghanistan and, in contrast, the aspirations of a comfortable life in Europe.

A university dropout, H. claimed that he had not managed to find employment or a regular source of income in Afghanistan since 2010. He had worked as a painter, a guard at a cafe frequented by expats and as a part-time interpreter for a local security firm. With U.N. staff, expats and journalists now abandoning Kabul, even the part-time work he had managed to secure up until 2010 had decreased drastically by late 2014. Most of the money spent by the U.S. in Afghanistan profited the expats, rich Afghans, politicians and warlords while the majority of the country saw very little of the aid money.

H. started seeing people in his neighborhood leaving for Europe sometime in late 2014, and spoke about a large network of smugglers and agents in Kabul who facilitated the perilous journey to Europe. H. was introduced to a local agent through a family member who promised a visa to Turkey and further travel arrangements to Europe. This agent spoke about the success of Syrian asylum seekers fleeing to Europe, Germany’s open borders policy that guarantees work, easy citizenship and money on arrival.

The Turkish Embassy in Kabul charges $60 for a single entry visa, and $200 for a multiple entry visa for Afghan nationals. However, H. claims to have paid $4,000 to his agent for the same visa and another $3,000 for the onward travel to Europe. He borrowed from friends and his parents sold a small plot of land they owned to make the final payment. He flew to Turkey and then crossed into Greece, making his way up through Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria and finally to Germany with a group of young Afghans.

Arriving in Germany, H. found himself housed in a small apartment in the city of Neu Olvenstedt with five other migrants. During his time in Germany, H. was among 400,000 asylum petitioners waiting to be processed. Without work, he soon ran out of money and the government stipend was just enough for food. As more refugees and migrants arrived in his neighborhood competing for limited resources, skirmishes between various refugee groups and the locals became increasingly violent. After a brutal stabbing incident near his building, H. decided that it was time to return home.

Since his return, H. has struggled to find work. The Afghan government, he says, has done very little to help him reintegrate. While H. has decided to stay, he says he knows a handful of Afghans who have made two or three attempts to reach Europe. Sayed Hussain Alemi Balkhi, the Afghan minister for refugees and repatriation, stated in an official response recently that, “the Afghan government welcomes any voluntary returns of its nationals back to Afghanistan and will explore options to assist them as much as possible.”

It remains unclear what these “options” are.

Since his return, H. says he has noticed advertisements around Kabul asking Afghans to reconsider their travel to Europe. German embassy billboards debunk myths about easy citizenship and large cash payments upon arrival. Asked if he thinks these steps will control the flow of refugees to Europe, H. says that Afghans are scared for their future. “There is no country anymore. There are no schools, no jobs and no money. Corruption is everywhere. Everyone I know is making plans to leave somewhere.”

Every day, H. sees thousands of Afghans waiting outside Kabul’s only passport office trying to get the documents to allow them to leave the country. He believes that Afghans will continue to leave because of political instability and the worsening economic situation.

When asked what he thought about Europe’s plans for mass deportation of people it considers economic migrants, he says: “Does it matter if people die because of a bomb or die because there is no bread?”

This story was produced in collaboration with Warscapes Magazine.

Top image: A Hazara boy watches during a ceremony for beheaded Hazara victims, in Kabul, Afghanistan. (AP Photos/Massoud Hossaini)

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