Afghans, the refugees’ refugees
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.