Kabul, Afghanistan – Sitting in an underground coffee shop in the heart of Kabul, Akhtar tried to describe the dreams and hopes he had held for the future, but was overcome with tears.
“My parents had sent me here to get an education with a hundred hopes …” he said as he buried his head in his hands, weeping.
He had big plans – with a visa in hand, he was about to take off for Iran the following week. Akhtar is educated, with a degree in economics and a job, but he said he had no choice but to leave everything behind.
He had travelled here from Ghazni Province, roughly 120km southwest of Kabul – a hub of Taliban activity. Back home, the Taliban had been hounding him for a while, Akhtar told. They gave him two options: work for them or get a job – not one involving the media or foreigners – and hand over his earnings.
It’s a common and effective tactic, he said, adding that he worries for his family back home. Akhtar hadn’t told his family he was leaving, afraid it would put them at risk. The 23-year-old was too concerned for his safety to reveal his real name.
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The road ahead is treacherous. Akhtar won’t stay in Tehran longer than a couple of days before heading for Europe. He hopes to make it to Germany where he has some friends and two cousins.
He’ll have to pay thousands of dollars in borrowed funds to smugglers to reach Turkey. If he doesn’t get deported from Iran or shot at the border, from Turkey he’ll have a deadly, watery traverse to Greece, during which over 400 people have already died this year alone.
“I’m worried, but I’m not scared. The fear I feel here is far worse,” said Akhtar.
“There, I hope to grow, to continue my studies, even if they knock me back a couple of years. I want to work to help my family,” he said.
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), Afghans make up the second-largest group of asylum seekers in Europe now – Syrians remain the largest.
Yet, there is no guarantee Akhtar will make it even as far as Turkey – roughly 3,000 Afghans leave for Turkey through Iran every day, of which 2,000 are sent back, according to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Refugees and Returnees (MoRR).
‘I’m still a human being’
Data from Afghanistan’s Directorate of Refugees and Repatriation indicates that a total of 544,016 Afghans returned voluntarily or were deported from Iran in 2015 – a notable increase from 306,392 the previous year.
Mohammad was one among the thousands to be deported back to Afghanistan. He also did not want to use his full name for security reasons. The 28-year-old told Al Jazeera that he had been unemployed for nearly three years, and about six months ago, he had reached a point of desperation and decided to leave the country. He borrowed money from his brother in hopes of making it to Europe.
According to Afghanistan’s Central Statistics Organization, the unemployment rate in Afghanistan spiked by 15 percent between February 2015 and February 2016, raising the rate of the jobless to about 40 percent.
Mohammad, who is an artist by training, did not limit his job search to the arts, but despite his efforts, he was unable to find work like many young men of his age. He is left demoralised and disappointed. “I’ve studied and trained for years, and it’s all been for nothing. If I can’t sell my paintings, what’s the point? Without an income, it’s all a waste,” said Mohammad.
He was first deported back to Afghanistan upon his first attempt to cross Iran, around five months ago. Three months ago, he returned to Iran by climbing over a border wall at Nimruz. He traversed Iran travelling in cramped vehicles driven by human smugglers, shoved in the undercarriage of a bus. He was even beaten by the smugglers. But, ultimately, the Iranian authorities arrested him and sent him back.
“An Iranian cop would think nothing of kicking me and calling me ‘a piece of Afghan filth’,” Mohammad said. He recognised that travelling illegally put him at some risk, “But I’m still a human being …” he said. “We may be Afghan, but even we know we have some rights in this world.”
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His second attempt drove him mad and that he “just can’t face that again”.
“I’m not going to try and leave again,” Mohammad said.
Returning to an unsafe home
For many of those who do manage to reach Europe, the journey is often not worth the destination.
MoRR estimated that 145 Afghans voluntarily returned or were deported from European countries in 2015, with Sweden, Germany and Finland planning to deport more in the coming months. In fact, the IOM told Al Jazeera it assisted the return of 960 Afghans from Europe last year.
Returnees and potential returnees must surpass a complicated political arena. Afghanistan has said it will not accept deportees as they would be returning to places that are unsafe. As more European countries adopt harsher policies in dealing with the refugee crisis, the returnees are becoming a sticking issue between Afghanistan and EU governments, explained Laurence Hart, chief of IOM’s mission in Afghanistan. The Afghan government has rejected numerous requests from European governments to deport Afghans.
As forced deportation is time-consuming, some European governments are looking to “voluntary returns” as a shortcut – incentivising asylum seekers to drop their applications and return.
“The position of the Afghan government is one that accepts the return of its nationals, [as long as] there’s a reintegration package attached to it – meaning financial support to start a business activity,” Hart said.
Over the past 15 years, only 1,500 skilled Afghans qualified for such repatriation with the help of the IOM, which provides an internationally-funded repatriation package. The package is not necessarily in the form of cash, but could include logistical support and entrepreneurial advice for income-generating activities.
Most returnees go back because they did not qualify for refugee status and decide to return home rather than live abroad illegally. Afghans comprise the majority of those returning due to the conflicts afflicting the home countries of a large part of the other refugees in Europe.
“Syria was a no-go for returnees, Iraq is patchy, but Afghanistan seems to be the perfect area for return, despite the fragile, conflict [-affected] environment,” explained Hart.
Although Afghanistan is ranked as the world’s least peaceful nation on the Institute for Economics and Peace’s Global Peace Index of 160 countries, “there is a perception that Afghans are more qualified and can contribute to the rebuilding of their country”, according to Hart.
Better here than there
Policies that discourage asylum seekers from travelling to and settling in Europe do effectively encourage some refugees to return home.
Khaled Ghaznawi said it took him 45 days to reach Frankfurt from Kabul, and about 40 days to decide to leave and return home.
During his difficult journey, the engineering student walked 13 hours through the mountains in northern Iran to reach Turkey. There were 63 people on the first boat he got on trying to reach Greece across the sea.
“We sank around 15 minutes into the trip and were rescued by the Turkish coastguard,” the 28-year-old recalled. The second boat, an inflatable raft, carried 38 people. That one reached Greece. Ghaznawi then walked through Serbia and Austria before making it to Germany.
“I paid three different smugglers – $500 to get from Kabul to Iran, $800 from Iran to Turkey, and then $1,000 to get to Greece,” he told Al Jazeera.
But once in Frankfurt, Ghaznawi lost hope.
“I found out that I might have to wait a year before I would be accepted and could start my life,” he said, adding that he was housed in an old dining hall with 45 others on the outskirts of town and forbidden to enter the city centre.
“It seems they want to discourage people from staying … My mistake was to go, and I corrected that by returning.”
On February 24, Germany returned 125 Afghan asylum seekers, with Germany’s interior ministry saying that they “had no prospects to stay in Germany”.
Three days later, Afghanistan’s Tolo News Agency reported that, according to the country’s ambassador to Germany, over 1,000 asylum seekers there are willing to return.
Ghaznawi voluntarily returned in December, giving up on a better education and better job prospects. He discourages people from more stable cities, such as Kabul, from going.
“They give you no hope,” said Ghaznawi.
“However ruined the future here might be, it’s still better than being there.”
Follow D. Parvaz on Twitter: @dparvaz