Growing up poor in Afghanistan’s Logar Province, Mohammad Khalid always wanted to be a doctor, and his family supported him. They sold some precious farmland and would even forgo meals in order to save the money that helped him through medical school.
Khalid graduated in 2013, but his family’s joy was short-lived. Crippled by war, Afghanistan’s economy is in a shambles and so is its medical system. Khalid struggled to find work, finally taking a non-medical job with an international NGO, which pulled out of the country months later.
See accompanying photo feature: Afghans on the road to Europe
Khalid became desperate. Like an increasing number of Afghans, he decided to flee his war-torn homeland. He paid a human smuggler $7,000, which his family had managed to borrow. The smuggler would take him on a well-trodden route across the border from Nimruz Province into Iran, then Turkey, and onward to Europe.
He left at the beginning of October.
“Three weeks later, Khalid came back,” his mother said, between sobs. “But in a coffin.”
Khalid died in a village in Iran near the Turkish border, apparently from exhaustion and dehydration after a long journey on foot. One of the men travelling in the group with Khalid found a phone number for the family in his back pocket. The human smuggler guiding the group arranged for the body to be sent back to Nimruz in a coffin, which his family then collected.
The number of Afghans making the journey to Europe has increased drastically over the past year. But the journey is fraught with danger.
There have been reports of migrants being violently attacked by bandits as they attempt to cross Iran. Health authorities in Nimruz, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, told IRIN they had treated people who returned with gunshot wounds inflicted by Iranian border police.
If they do make it to Europe, they face an increasingly cool reception, even in Germany which has until now been the most welcoming country. Interior Minister Thomas de Maizière announced last week that Germany would tighten its policy on dealing with asylum applications from Afghans. He said many claiming asylum are from Afghanistan’s middle class, and they should stay home to help rebuild their country.
Yet the situation in Afghanistan only appears to be getting worse. President Ashraf Ghani, who took power a year ago, has so far been unable to rein in corruption or enforce government control over much of the country. Emboldened by the withdrawal of most American troops, the Taliban is mounting a resurgence 14 years after being driven from power. The Islamic State, or ISIS, has also been making inroads, while pro-government militias abuse and extort civilians.
The war’s civilian toll this year is “projected to equal or exceed the record high numbers documented in 2014”, said a report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan: 1,592 people were killed and 3,329 injured in the six months to June. There are no official statistics available for the period since June, when government forces have been engaged in heavy fighting with the Taliban in northern Afghanistan.
The number of people fleeing the country has increased along with the violence. Afghanistan is second only to Syria in the number of its people arriving in Europe via the Mediterranean, according to the UN's refugee agency, UNHCR. Afghans made up 19 percent of the nearly 800,000 migrants and refugees who have arrived by sea to Europe so far this year, equivalent to about 150,648 people.
In 2013, European Union countries received 22,580 asylum applications from Afghans, according to UNHCR. Last year that number rose to 39,140.
In the first nine months of this year alone, Afghan asylum applications to EU states shot up to 88,205, according to UNHCR. The increase was particularly steep from the middle of the year, with 5,505 applications in April, followed by about 9,000 in May, and 13,215 in June.
While most Afghan asylum seekers enter Europe via Greece, having taken boats from Turkey, most are heading for Germany. The country has taken in considerably more migrants and refugees than any other European country, and Afghans comprise the second highest number of asylum claims, after Syrians.
Germany’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Markus Potzel, told IRIN that 82,817 Afghans arrived in his country so far this year, of whom 31,051 came in October alone. The approval rate for asylum claims by Afghans is 43 percent, but Potzel said authorities are “overwhelmed” with processing claims, and there is a serious backlog.
Potzel estimated that total arrivals to Germany could reach a million by the end of the year. The government and the public are worried that Germany’s institutions cannot handle such an influx of migrants and refugees, and that the country will be unable to integrate them.
“The mood among the population has changed,” he said. “Instead of welcoming them, people are more and more afraid.”
Potzel said Germany understands the reasons people are leaving Afghanistan: “bad security, bad economy, bad prospects, no trust in the National Unity Government”. That is why Germany is keeping soldiers in Afghanistan longer than expected and spending about 430 million euros a year on economic development. “However, we expect the Afghanistan government to take more effort to convince their youth to stay here and rebuild their own country," he said.
Afghanistan’s ministry for refugees and repatriations is attempting to do just that: two months ago it launched a public awareness campaign warning people of the dangers of attempting to get into Europe.
“The route to Europe is risky and full of dangers,” says an Afghan in Austria in an interview posted on the ministry’s Facebook page. “I spent all the money I had saved and now I am stuck here.”
The campaign doesn’t yet appear to have had much effect, judging by the hundreds of people lining up each day outside the Central Passport Department in Kabul. The department is now issuing 2,000 passports each day, compared to the 700 it issued daily just seven months ago, according to an official who asked not to be named as he was not authorised to speak to media.
People applying for passports told IRIN they were well aware of the risks of travelling to Europe but were willing to make the trip anyway.
“There is so much violence in Afghanistan,” said 35-year-old Hashmat Ali, standing in the queue with his three young children. “If I stay here, I will die anyway. So, why not take a chance?”