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Afghans have been fleeing their homeland for decades, seeking to escape almost continuous warfare and grinding poverty. In recent years, hundreds of thousands of Afghans have sought their future in Europe. But last year the number of asylum applications lodged by Afghans in the European Union fell by 75 percent, even though the security situation at home worsened and economic prospects were no brighter. Some people attribute the drop to a campaign that the European Union has launched to disabuse potential migrants of their illusions about life in Europe. Only a third of applicants actually get asylum, radio and TV spots point out, and many migrants die en route. The campaign also reminds listeners that EU countries are forcibly repatriating failed asylum seekers now, and returnees are telling stories of just how hard a migrant’s life is. In the past, Afghans would embellish – or invent – tales of their successful life in Europe to impress their relatives. Now a much grimmer reality is sinking in, and would-be migrants are thinking twice, it seems.
Zahedullah Sumarkhil had every reason to flee Afghanistan in 2014, in the vanguard of a wave of migrants that would soon flood into Europe.
He was a policeman. Taliban assassins on a motorcycle in his hometown of Jalalabad had staged an ambush that left his brother and a cousin dead. He knew he would be next.
“My mother said ‘Just go,’ ” recalls Mr. Sumarkhil, a compact man with a well-trimmed beard. “I fled to Germany to save myself.”
He traveled across Iran on foot for a month, suffered an attack by Bulgarian police dogs, and skulked in train toilets to avoid detection by officials. All the while he dreamed of a safe promised land.
But his saga – like that of a growing number of Afghans – ended back where it began. Sumarkhil was forcibly deported to his homeland last July, the victim of a controversial repatriation agreement between Kabul and the European Union.
Afghan and EU officials say the 2016 deal has dampened Europe’s appeal for would-be migrants, prompting them to think twice about taking the clandestine and often dangerous road west. Returnees are telling discouraging tales of the hardships they have suffered. One apparent result: European asylum requests by Afghans were down 75 percent last year.
But Sumarkhil is not deterred. He is still hunted by his brother’s killers and he is unemployed. All the men who were deported with him are already on their way back to Europe, he says. Unless he finds a job soon, he will follow them.
“Even my mother asked ‘Why did you come back?’ ” he says.
The Afghan government would like to stop its citizens leaving the country in the first place. But that is a tough ask. Refugees have been fleeing Afghanistan since the Soviet invasion 40 years ago, when the most recent cycle of civil war and foreign intervention there began. Currently about 2.5 million Afghans – 7 percent of the population – live outside their country, almost all of them in Pakistan and Iran.
And there are a lot of forces still pushing people out, from a poverty rate of 55 percent and 24 percent unemployment to a deteriorating security situation.
Afghan government control or influence over its territory is shrinking, according to a US military report at the end of October, and now extends over little more than half the country. Casualties among the security forces over the past six months were the highest ever recorded for a similar period.
A survey last year by the Asia Foundation found that 39 percent of Afghans would leave their country if they had a chance, with insecurity and unemployment the main motivations.
“Asking or encouraging people to come back, or asking people not to leave, is proving to be more difficult than ever before,” says Khyber Farahi, a senior adviser to the Afghan president on migration issues.
The Afghans who left en masse in 2015 and 2016, heading to Europe, believed the blandishments of smugglers who painted a rosy picture of life in the West and charged an average of $5,000 to $7,000 each.
“Nobody knew what was actually waiting for them. Everybody said, ‘Let’s move now, the doors are open and tomorrow they will close,’ ” recalls Masood Ahmadi, the national manager for returns and reintegration for the UN’s International Organization for Migration.
Friends and relatives who had already reached Europe hardly ever told them how dangerous the journey could be, or how difficult life there often proved, says Mr. Ahmadi. Afghan pride would not let them admit failure.
Even if the situation is dire, “I am not going to communicate the right picture … back to my friends, to my family,” Ahmadi explains.
“Instead I will be sending false information, saying that I have a very good job, I have a very good house, I have a very good car. And this will unfortunately encourage more and more people to migrate,” he says.
Showing 'the ground reality'
So the European Union has started to disseminate a bleaker picture of migrant reality.
An EU-funded media campaign is highlighting the risks that migrants run en route and their low chances of getting asylum in Europe; only 33 percent of Afghan applicants in the second half of last year were successful.
In radio programs and TV spots that began airing early this year, Afghans testify to the dangers and uncertainty of migrating. They highlight the risk of impoverishing yourself and your family, and even of dying, compared with the virtue of staying to rebuild the country.
A theater group was dispatched to villages, acting out worst-case scenarios in easy-to-understand playlets, and a telephone hotline – which has so far received 460,000 calls – was set up to answer questions and give information about asylum with realistic and generally discouraging advice.
The campaign is designed to carry the message that “the Europe they imagine in their mind is not true, that a plane will pick them up and they will live well,” says Anwar Jamili, country director for Equal Access Afghanistan, the organization that runs the program. Clearly noted, he points out, is the fact that migrants risk being deported from Europe or any point along the way.
“It is difficult to measure the impact” of such publicity, says Pierre Mayaudon, the EU Ambassador to Afghanistan, but “the conclusion was that … it touches the minds of people that may have wanted to go.” The campaigns have raised awareness of “exactly the ground reality,” he adds.
That reality struck hard for Hosay Aryoubi, a headscarved art student with maroon lipstick, who decided to leave Afghanistan with her brother in 2014 out of fear that the situation in Kabul was just going to get worse.
They ended up paying $17,000 for transport and German visas, Hosay spent six months in a Russian jail, and both their asylum applications were eventually rejected. But Ms. Aryoubi chose not to appeal the decision. By then she was disgusted by what she calls “the bad conditions” in which most Afghans lived in Germany and preferred to come home.
“When people ask my advice I tell them all my story,” she says now. “I will never leave, even if the situation gets worse and worse. I have experience.”
Aryoubi came back of her own volition. If she hadn’t, she would have been liable to deportation as a rejected asylum-seeker.
Not many Afghans have suffered that fate. Only 1,017 were forcibly returned from Europe between 2015 and 2017 while more than 10 times that number came home voluntarily, according to IOM figures.
But the mandatory repatriation scheme is controversial because critics say that it returns migrants to war zones, even if the program is meant to apply only to people from areas of the country that are deemed safe.
“The situation is not appropriate” to bring people home anywhere in Afghanistan, says Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the well-respected Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul, an independent think tank. He cites the latest assessment by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees that even the capital is not safe for returnees. The German government’s security assessment, he charges, is “deeply flawed … tailoring facts to justify its policy” of deportations.
When they happen, forced repatriations are widely reported in the Afghan media, and although relatively few people are affected by them, they send a powerful signal, says presidential adviser Mr. Farahi.
They have “the largest impact” on would-be migrants, he believes. “The thing is not how many … you send back, but how many you can prevent from making the decision to go,” Farahi says.
The deportations are “a message,” says Mr. Mayaudon, the EU ambassador: “Don’t try in vain.”
Whether because that message is getting through, or because grim reports by Afghan returnees of dangerous journeys and a cool reception are sinking in, the number of migrants heading to Europe has dropped enormously.
Some 180,000 Afghans applied for asylum in an EU member state in 2016. Last year that figure fell by 75 percent to 45,000.
Dream of escape
You might expect Mariam, whose ill-starred effort to resettle her family in Sweden cost her the lives of two sons, to understand why fewer people are making the kind of trip she risked.
When her husband died, Mariam’s brother-in-law demanded she marry him. When she refused he chopped off the fingers and thumb of her right hand with a hatchet. Mariam (not her real name) decided to flee. She sold property and paid a smuggler $25,000 to get her and her four young children to Sweden.
In Turkey a smuggler gave her a counterfeit Japanese passport with a Swedish visa, but her children had no documents. The smuggler convinced her to fly to Stockholm, promising that he would send her sons overland. In fact, they disappeared.
It turned out that the children had been caught at the Greek border, thrown into a Turkish camp for migrants, and eventually deported to Kabul.
When Mariam heard that news she abandoned her Swedish asylum request, received $4,500 in resettlement money, and flew home. Her two older children died shortly afterwards from tuberculosis.
But even this tragic failure has not killed her dream of moving abroad to escape the Taliban, whom her former brother-in-law has enlisted to kill her on the false accusation that she converted to Christianity in Sweden.
Though she would only take a legal path to exile next time, “I have too many problems,” says Mariam, her disfigured right hand covered by the tail of her headscarf.
“If someone found me a visa … I would leave immediately with just the clothes on my back.”