Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghans Continue to Flee

A lasting peace may be the only way of stemming the flood of Afghan asylum seekers.
By Danish Karokhel

They are attacked, robbed and tortured yet thousands of Afghans are still lining up to make the perilous journey to the United Kingdom.


While fear of the instability in their country prompts many to leave, their main motivation for going is financial. Afghan refugees believe they can make more money in Britain, their principal destination, than they could ever dream of back home.


However, even if they can afford to pay human traffickers and if they survive the dangerous journey, their future is no longer guaranteed. Now that an uneasy peace has settled on Afghanistan after 23 years of conflict, many refugees can no longer argue that their lives are under threat in their homeland.


In one recent high-profile case, a young Afghan family living in Britain was deported to Germany - their original destination after fleeing the Taleban regime in 2000 - after a seven-month legal battle for the right to remain in the UK.


Many western countries have been asked to turn Afghan asylum seekers away and to assist in their repatriation. The Kabul transitional administration, meanwhile, is currently working on ways of preventing people leaving in search of a better life abroad.


“If peace and security comes to Afghanistan, many refugees will be sent home within two years,” said Kabul resident Abdul Dayan, who wants to move to London. “Many people don’t want peace in this country because it will make it more difficult to leave.”


Hajji makes a living sending Afghans to London. From his base in the Pakistani capital Islamabad, he can organise trips by plane, car and even boat. “So far we have sent more than 300 people to London,” he told IWPR.


A direct flight to the British capital and the forged paperwork necessary to pass through customs will cost 1.7 million Pakistani rupees - nearly 30,000 US dollars. A route taking three planes is 1.4 million rupees, and six connecting flights 1.2 million. Poorer Afghans, who can only afford to travel overland, will pay half the cost of a direct flight.


“Now that flights are available from Afghanistan to Tajikistan, we send refugees there and they make the rest of the journey overland through Belarus, Ukraine, Austria, Germany, France, and then to London,” said Hajji. “The hardest part of the journey is the tunnel between France and England.”


Mohammad Sultan knows just how dangerous the Channel Tunnel can be. The Kabul University economics student recalled, “My two brothers paid 800 dollars to travel through this tunnel along with 20 other people. They were hidden in new cars, which were for being exported from France to the UK.


“Four members of the group died inside these cars because the oxygen levels are so low inside the tunnel. My brothers handed themselves over to the police when they eventually made it to London.”


The brothers were initially sent to a refugee camp but then allowed to stay with relatives in Britain, who guaranteed they would care for them.


Mohammad Wali was not so lucky. He spent six months on the road trying to get from Logar province, south of Kabul, to London. He borrowed 800,000 rupees to pay an agent who took him and his companions overland through Iran and Turkey to the border with Bulgaria.


However, they were caught crossing into Bulgaria, beaten up and set upon by police dogs. Eventually the agent secured their release and, despite their injuries, they vowed to carry on and attempted to cross through Greece.


“The Turkish police caught up with us again. Eleven of us jumped into a river to escape. Six of my friends drowned because they didn’t know how to swim,” he said.


The group eventually reached Herat in western Afghanistan, still wearing their hospital clothes. “With the help of the local people we reached our homes. But we were lucky. I saw many bodies lying in the snow on the way,” he said.


Afghanistan’s transitional administration claims it has taken many steps to stop people seeking asylum abroad. “The ministry of defence has ordered us not to issue passports to young men aged between 22 and 28 on the grounds that they must do compulsory military service,” said Khan Mohammad, chief director of the passport office at the interior ministry.


However, a number of loopholes remain. For example, a trade license, costing just 60 dollars, allows the holder to travel abroad on business. Ghulam Ali, chairman of trade licenses at the trade ministry, told IWPR, “So far 20,000 people have taken out these permits - but less than a thousand have started work.


“The others must have fled abroad. It is hard for us to know who is getting it for business and those who want it just to help them get out of the country.”


Danish Karokhel is an IWPR reporter.


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