KABUL, Afghanistan – Shahpoor feels like he lost precious years of his youth migrating to Europe and wishes he could get the time back.
“I left my education behind and I lost my personal capital,” says the 22 year old, who is now back in Afghanistan. “I have a kind of depression right now, since I returned from Europe, because I now understand that the world hates Afghans. We do not have respect anywhere abroad as Afghan citizens.”
During our multiyear research and recent study interviewing Afghans along the migration trail, many people told us that leaving Afghanistan was their only solace from the painful effects of years of conflict, including a lack of consistent and quality education, bleak financial prospects, persecution based on their identity, threats to personal security and the pressure to provide for their families.
While the decision to leave on a clandestine journey is drastic, many Afghans believe it will solve their problems. But large numbers of Afghans who are refused asylum in Europe, as well as refugees in neighboring Iran and Pakistan, are currently being sent back to the country and face worsening problems on their return.
Many young Afghan men we interviewed had mental health problems before leaving Afghanistan, and the psychological trauma caused by their treacherous journey and rejection in Europe made their condition even worse.
Young returnees have lost time, years of education and confidence. Some find themselves alone, without family or professional networks to rely on for support. With little left after the financial and social sacrifices they made to migrate, resuming a normal life in Afghanistan becomes nearly impossible.
Samim’s problems began when he started working with foreign troops in Afghanistan. He was involved in an accident that he believes was intentional – a threat to him because of his access to U.S. personnel. “I understood that some people wanted to warn me, so I would give them information about the American camp,” the 23 year old explains.
Like other Afghans we interviewed, leaving was Samim’s last resort. He tried to work multiple jobs – selling his paintings, driving a taxi – but the economic downturn damaged his prospects. He fled to Europe, but was not granted asylum and has since returned to an isolated existence in Kabul.
“Now, my friends have left, my parents have died and I live alone. My two sisters live abroad,” he says.
Returning to instability
Many young returnees are terrified to live on their own once back in Afghanistan, and told us of security threats that could prove fatal. Without a reliable justice system in Afghanistan, it is difficult to keep track of the number of returnees killed in family disputes, or sectarian and political hostilities.
Others are simply shunned. Mahdi, a 19-year-old Afghan originally from Bamyan, 60 miles (100km) west of Kabul, sleeps in a different place every night. He traveled to Europe from Iran, where he later grew up, but was returned to Afghanistan, where he has citizenship, but no support system. His family is still in Iran, and he has no friends in Kabul.
“I speak with an Iranian accent so people make fun of me, especially in governmental organizations. When I went to get a “tazkera” (national ID card), I faced many difficulties. I don’t have work,” the teenager says. “If I had the money, I will leave again.”
Rashid is even younger than Mahdi. The 15 year old from Parwan province, eastern Afghanistan, traveled to Greece on his own because he wanted to pursue an education in Europe. His family was initially against his plan, but as the security situation got worse they finally conceded.
But he found himself stuck in Greece and eventually signed up to return voluntarily to Afghanistan through the International Organization for Migration (IOM). “Before going to Europe I was thinking that it is a very good place, but it was not,” he said. “It was like a hole that you fall into.”
Bahram, also 15 years old, returned to Kabul but is considering leaving again as the conflict worsens. “I will leave Afghanistan for Europe again, once I feel the borders are reopened,” he says. Bahram is most afraid of kidnappers and criminals in Afghanistan. “They have already attempted twice to kidnap me, and I even have physical injuries,” he says.
Some adult men find it difficult to face their families upon return. Hussain, 27, was deported back to Afghanistan from Finland, via Turkey. When he arrived home, his family didn’t know of his deportation and was initially happy to see him. But the mood quickly changed. They now remind him daily of the financial sacrifices they made to get him to Europe. It was not the first time he was deported. In fact, his family spent $10,000 on his two failed migration attempts. He first went to Sweden, where he spent 10 months. The second time, he traveled with his brother from Iran to Finland. Ashamed to confront his family, he has stayed away since his return, seeking shelter in a tailor’s shop.
Some Afghans we interviewed, like Samim, had received limited help from the U.N. to set up new lives in Afghanistan. Their ability to do so will determine whether they stay in Afghanistan. “IOM bought a grocery shop for me which I am running right now,” Samim says. “If Afghanistan gets better, I would never move again. However, if the situation gets worse, I will leave again and go to a European country.”
Even though they have failed in the past, many young men who face hopeless conditions at home will try to make the journey again. The returnees we spoke with said the loss of family ties and financial capital, combined with the security fears in Afghanistan, made it impossible to have a fresh start. Their experiences in Europe have left them feeling bitter. Wherever they go, they feel unwanted – by governments in Europe, and their families and communities at home.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.