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

Afghans Vote With Their Feet

Ahead of 2014 foreign troop pullout, asylum claims in Europe up 30 per cent due to civil war fears.
By Khan Mohammad Danishju

The number of people leaving Afghanistan rose sharply last year, in large part because of fears about what will happen after NATO-led foreign troops leave in 2014, officials say.

More than 30,000 Afghans sought asylum in Europe in 2011, according to Mohammad Nader Farhad, spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, in Kabul. The figure was a 30 per cent increase on the previous year’s figure of 23,000.

The total figure for emigration is likely to be considerably higher, as many Afghans enter foreign countries through smuggling networks and do not formally seek asylum on arrival.

“After ten years of foreign forces being present in Afghanistan, the country is still among the top three states in the world for numbers of refugees,” Farhad said.

More than five million Afghan refugees still live in neighbouring Iran and Pakistan, and are reluctant to return because of the ongoing security concerns, he said.

Many live in the two countries illegally, and UNHCR tries to prevent them from being forcibly repatriated, he added.

According to Islamuddin Jorat, spokesman for the ministry of refugees and repatriation, only about half the Afghans living in Pakistan and Iran have valid legal documents.

Waves of refugees left Afghanistan from the 1980s onwards, as Soviet occupation and mujahedin resistance were followed by a brutal internecine warfare in 1992-96, and Taleban rule after that.

Since United States-led forces ousted the Taleban administration in 2001, some 5.7 million Afghan refugees returned, according to The Associated Press. The vast majority came back in the first five years. The numbers have since fallen, with about 60,000 refugees returning last year, about half the number recorded in 2010.

Rising emigration may reflect numbers of people going abroad in search of work, but Jorat attributes much of the increase to fears about what happens once the foreign troops go. There are real concerns that Afghanistan might descend into the kind of bloodshed it experienced during the 1992-96 civil war.

“They are worried that wars will break out among the various factions which were responsible for the civil war, and which remain in power just as they did in the [early] 1990s,” Jorat said.

Kabul resident Wahidullah, who lives in the Kolola Pushta area of the capital Kabul, said his brother Hamidullah left for Greece five months ago, taking his wife and two children with him.

When the Taleban were in power, they put Hamidullah in prison, and he decided to leave because he was concerned for his family’s safety after the troop withdrawal.

“He was worried that a civil war would start and the Taleban would return,” Wahidullah said.

Shah Wali, 60, a former soldier, encouraged his son Sekandar to leave four months ago for similar reasons.

“We all know that the situation is going to deteriorate after foreign forces withdraw, and that businesses will collapse,” he said. “We have lived through very hard times, and the future looks dark and terrible."

“I’ve sent my son abroad so that he can at least support us financially if things get worse.”

Leaving Afghanistan, especially to go to western countries, can be an expensive process, requiring false papers and payments to thriving networks of human traffickers.

It can be a perilous undertaking. In December, a boat full of Afghan and Iranian asylum seekers sank off the Indonesian island of Java, and more than 160 were feared dead, The Sydney Morning Herald reported at the time. Thousands of others are thought to be detained abroad, with little known about their welfare.

Jorat said travelling to Europe could cost up to 25,000 US dollars, which many people raised by selling their homes in Afghanistan.

Estate agents say property prices have tumbled in Kabul as residents rush to sell their homes to pay for their flight, or to transfer the money abroad.

“Five months ago, a house would sell for 300,000 to 450,000 dollars in the Taimani or Kolola Pushta areas [of Kabul], but prices have fallen to 200,000-250,000 dollars,” Yama Sadat, an estate agent in Kolola Pushta, said.

Rohullah Ahmadzai, head of investment promotion at the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency, says foreign investment is also falling, largely due to concerns about the withdrawal. (See also Afghan Investors Scared by Kidnapping Wave on uncertainty in the business community.)

Observers say the exodus of people and capital reflects the failure to stabilise and rebuild Afghanistan over the last decade.

Hamidullah Faruqi, an economic and political analyst, argues that foreign aid has failed to build economic infrastructure or transform people’s lives, and has instead fostered a culture of corruption.

“Opportunists have swallowed up a large portion of the funds,” he said. “Both international agencies and the Afghan government are mired in corruption. No attention has been paid to fundamental activities or economic infrastructure.”

As a result, he said, “People think their lives will get worse after the foreign troop withdrawal. and they have begun emigrating.”

The Afghan army and police will take over responsibility for security once the NATO troops withdraw, but some people believe they are not up to the task.

Insurgent attacks in Kabul and other cities on April 15 highlighted weaknesses in the security forces – specifically a failure to anticipate and prevent the infiltration of men and weapons. (See Afghan Forces Criticised After Kabul Battles.) 

For people like Rahimullah Malekzai, a 53-year-old Kabul resident, the security forces could end up being part of the problem, given that they include many members of the old militias which battled one another in the early 1990s.

“If NATO leaves Afghanistan, these forces will be the first to attack people and property,” he said. “The public doesn’t have faith in the security forces’ abilities, integrity or adherence to the law. If they believed these forces could protect their lives, and properties, they wouldn’t be forced to emigrate.”

Khan Mohammad Danishju is an IWPR-trained reporter in Kabul.