Afghans, the Refugees’ Refugees

The New York Times, May. 30, 2016

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KABUL, Afghanistan — 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.

On a visit one afternoon last month, it took some time for my eyes to adjust to the darkness under the bridge. Then I saw the bodies splayed over other bodies on top of islands of trash. In between the mounds of wasting men flowed trickles of water carrying garbage and excrement. Ahmad — he wouldn’t give a last name — guessed that about half of Pul-i-Sokhta’s 200 or so residents were recent deportees.

According to the United Nations’ refugee agency, UNHCR, there were more than 3.8 million Afghan refugees in 2001. The number had dropped by the mid-2000s, a time of hope that came with the presence of NATO forces in Afghanistan. But as the security situation deteriorated, the number of refugees swelled again, reaching some 2.6 million by the fall of 2015.

Most Afghans who flee go to neighboring 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 E.U. statistics.

Some 5.8 million Afghans have voluntarily returned to Afghanistan since 2002 under a UNHCR repatriation program. But many have also been forced back: 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 Organization, told me in Kabul last month.

When Ahmad first set out a decade ago, he headed for London, where he hoped to “work, send money home — study, even.” That trip cost him $1,500, a fortune on his tailor’s income. He made it as far as Greece before being picked up by the border police and sent back to Afghanistan.

He left again. And again. And again. Each time he was sent back. At home, he would work 16-hour days to save up for the ever-increasing smugglers’ fees and then set off again.

Ahmad’s most recent deportation tipped the scale in favor of fatalism. “This last time, I really lost hope. There is nothing anywhere for me,” he said, a glass pipe wedged above his right ear.

Across the bridge, in a bare subterranean office, a ruddy, overweight man who called himself Humayoon told me he had been working as a smuggler for 25 years. He boasted that business had never been better. His network employed 70 men, he said, and each took home $100,000 a year. Every month, the operation ferried 150 Afghans into Europe. He said he knew 50 other rings that did the same.

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.”

By shutting down the Balkan route — from Nimroz to Italy, via Iran, Turkey and Greece — the new E.U. regulations are only setting migrants on more perilous journeys, according to Sebqadullah Omidi, a travel agent in Kabul who told me he regularly received calls from customers asking about alternative itineraries.

Whether the situation in Afghanistan today still formally counts as war, and whether you call them migrants or refugees, the men and women who are leaving Afghanistan are driven away by insecurity, as they have been for years.

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 neighbors. 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 brothers 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 Defense 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 millions of dollars here.

But 2015 was the deadliest year for Afghan civilians since 2009, the year the United Nations began systematic documentation. According to UNHCR, voluntary returns “reached historic lows” during the first quarter of 2016,partly because of worsening security.

“Kunduz fell in the north; it may fall again,” Said Hussain Alimi Balkhi, the Afghan refugee minister and a rare official to break from the Ghani line, told me last month. “Daesh is beheading men in Jalalabad, just two hours east of Kabul. There is fighting in Helmand. There is fighting in Uruzgan.”

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.

Read at nytimes.com.