Afghans, the refugees’ refugees

Pakistan Observer - - OPINION - May Jeong

WHEN Ah­mad was de­ported from Turkey early this year, he came to live un­der a bridge called Pul-i-Sokhta, in the western part of the city. The bridge, which spans a dried-up riverbed, has been an un­of­fi­cial meet­ing place for drug ad­dicts for years. But re­cently men like Ah­mad — men who cashed in their lives in Afghanistan for a chance at some­thing bet­ter else­where, men who were be­trayed by for­tune and forced to re­turn — have been con­gre­gat­ing here, to smoke up, shoot up, pil­fer and beg. Most Afghans who flee go to neigh­bour­ing Pak­istan and Iran, but in­creas­ingly they have also headed far­ther west.

More than 178,000 Afghans ap­plied for asy­lum in Europe in 2015, almost four times the num­ber for the pre­vi­ous year, ac­cord­ing to EU statis­tics. Last year, nearly 260,000 un­doc­u­mented Afghans were de­ported from Pak­istan and Iran alone. Rein­te­gra­tion can be so dif­fi­cult that the vast ma­jor­ity of Afghans who are sent home leave again within two years, Ab­dul Ghafoor, the head of the Afghan Migrants Ad­vice and Sup­port Or­gan­i­sa­tion, told me in Kabul last month.

In Septem­ber, the Euro­pean Union an­nounced that it would take in refugees only from Eritrea, Iraq and Syria. Ear­lier this year, the Bri­tish govern­ment said it would be­gin de­port­ing Afghan asy­lum seek­ers whose pe­ti­tions had been de­nied. I asked Hu­may­oon whether the re­cent deal be­tween the Euro­pean Union and Turkey, which is de­signed to curb illegal im­mi­gra­tion into Europe, would stem the tide of refugees. “The way is al­ways closed,” he said laugh­ing, “but then there is al­ways a way.”

In north­ern Kabul, an­other Ah­mad, this one an army of­fi­cer, ex­plained why he and his brother, also a soldier, left for Ger­many last sum­mer. Ah­mad and his fam­ily are Pash­tun, and when the six of them moved to Kabul from their home vil­lage in Kan­da­har a few years ago, they chose to live in a gated com­mu­nity with other Pash­tuns. But Pash­tuns are the Tal­iban’s tra­di­tional base, so this also meant liv­ing among peo­ple who were close to in­sur­gents or were in­sur­gents them­selves. Ah­mad’s fam­ily got used to putting up with hos­til­ity from neigh­bours. But then one day Ah­mad lent his car to a friend, and the friend was shot dead at the wheel. Ah­mad and his soldier brother set off for Ger­many shortly af­ter that.

The trip cost $14,000 each, or about four years’ worth of wages. It took them about a month to com­plete. They lived on raisins and al­monds through many treks. They en­tered Bul­garia hid­den in a herd of cows. From there, they walked to Ser­bia. Then they took a bus to Aus­tria and a train to Ger­many. What Ah­mad found in Ger­many dis­mayed him: A lawyer told him that his re­quest for asy­lum would take years to process, and that he would not be able to work in the mean­time. He strug­gled with learn­ing Ger­man. Fac­ing the prospect of liv­ing con­fined in a camp, Ah­mad re­turned to Afghanistan with his brother early this year and re­ported back for duty as a pla­toon com­man­der.

Soon af­ter, a younger sib­ling was stopped on his way to school and told to con­vey a mes­sage: “Tell your broth- ers to leave the army. Oth­er­wise next time we will kid­nap you.” Ah­mad told me this story last month at his fam­ily’s home, sit­ting in a draw­ing room with elab­o­rate wain­scot­ing, sur­rounded by por­traits of uni­formed men with close-cropped hair­cuts. “We can­not even go buy bread with­out a pis­tol,” he said.

Yet Pres­i­dent Ashraf Ghani has been try­ing to con­vey a mes­sage of vic­tory: At a re­gional con­fer­ence in De­cem­ber, he said the Afghan Se­cu­rity and De­fence Forces “have not only held to­gether” but “are learn­ing fast.” He needs to cast Afghanistan’s re­cent tra­jec­tory as a story of hope over fear in or­der to claim suc­cess for his em­bat­tled govern­ment. So do the Western gov­ern­ments that have spent bil­lions of dol­lars here. It’s a ra­tio­nal choice for Afghans to want to leave all that be­hind. But the Ghani ad­min­is­tra­tion and Euro­pean gov­ern­ments can’t al­low it: That Afghans are more des­per­ate than ever to leave home is too stark a re­minder of the many ways in which the West has failed Afghanistan. May Jeong is a free­lance writer based in Kabul.

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