Berlin, Germany – It took Zabihullah Karimi two months to make it from his native Afghanistan to Germany, where he arrived 15 months ago. He crossed mountains, fields, the Aegean Sea and militarised borders, dealing with dubious smugglers and dodging border guards along the way.
Yet two weeks ago, German asylum authorities informed him that he will be sent back to the war-torn country from which he fled.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
Although he filed an appeal, the 31-year-old asylum seeker fears that returning to Afghanistan will put his life in danger. Sitting on the floor of his modestly furnished room in a borough of eastern Berlin, he holds his rejection letter and recalls his decision to leave his homeland.
Karimi never imagined returning to Kabul, a city designated as safe by the German government. Before he left in the hope of reaching safety in Europe, he says he was urged by the Taliban to leave his job at a consultancy agency that worked closely with the Afghan Ministry of Defence – or face death.
“I told [the German authorities] the whole story, and now I’ve received a letter saying I can go and stay in Kabul [because] it’s secure,” he tells Al Jazeera, shaking his head.
“It’s not secure. Every day there is a suicide attack [and] attacks on groups [of civilians],” he continues. “Even the president’s palace is not secure.”
Germany has tightened asylum regulations and plans on expediting deportations after receiving more than a million refugees and migrants in 2015 and hundreds of thousands more the following year.
In January, hundreds of people protested at the Frankfurt Airport when the German government deported 26 Afghans back to Kabul, the Afghan capital, as part of a memorandum of understanding with the Afghan government.
Although three German states have temporarily halted deportations to Afghanistan, the government plans on returning 11,900 Afghans. In December, 34 rejected asylum seekers were sent back to Afghanistan.
According to the United Nations, civilian casualties in Afghanistan reached a record high in 2016, with 11,500 civilians killed or wounded. Of that total, one third were children.
The German government hopes to deport hundreds of thousands back to several countries in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Africa in 2017.
“In 2016, some 700,000 applications for asylum were made, and almost 300,000 were rejected. We want to deport these people swiftly,” Peter Altmaier, the head of the Chancellor’s Office and the government’s coordinator on refugee affairs, told local media last month. “Otherwise it hurts the credibility of our country and its laws.”
‘We almost died’
Karimi says he braced himself for death several times while en route to Europe. While crossing the first border during his journey, he says a couple of refugees were killed or injured when Iranian border guards opened fire on his group in the dark of night.
“Someone went to light a cigarette and [a guard] saw it,” he recalls. “They killed my aunt’s brother-in-law.”
After making it to Turkey and setting sail on an overcrowded dinghy bound for Greece, he recalls feeling certain he would die when the engine stopped working halfway. But as the waves grew and fear overcome the passengers, a Turkish military helicopter arrived and hovered over them.
“He said there’s a boat coming and [we should] just wait,” he recalls. “I said, ‘We will die and you [tell us] to just wait.'”
A rescue boat eventually showed up and returned the passengers to the Turkish coast, where they waited until the following day to try again. They made it safely on the second attempt.
From there, Karimi moved from a Greek island to the mainland, through the Balkans and central Europe until he reached Berlin.
He says the deportations won’t just put his life at risk but will result in the deaths of many Afghans who need protection outside their country.
In January, Germany announced it would start returning newly arrived asylum seekers back to Greece in mid-March as part of the European Union’s so-called Dublin rules, which require asylum seekers to apply in the first EU country they enter.
Germany’s decision has been widely criticised by rights groups owing to the harsh conditions and overcrowding in the refugee camps of Greece, where more than 60,000 refugees and migrants have been stranded since the EU-Turkey refugee deal last March.
PRO ASYL, a Germany-based human rights group that advocates for refugees in Europe, has lobbied against deportations and returns to Greece. Last week, they delivered to the German government a petition with more than 50,000 signatures calling for more refugees to be relocated to Germany.
“Tents, a lack of food, a lack of medical treatment – it’s an ongoing humanitarian crisis [in Greece], but it’s fabricated by the EU,” says Karl Kobb, PRO ASYL’s director of European affairs.
“There’s enough space and enough facilities [in Germany] to welcome all of them trapped in Greece. It would show a commitment to refugee protection and a European approach based on solidarity.”
Ulla Jelpke, a spokesperson for Germany’s Die Linke (The Left) party, criticised German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s shift in policies towards refugees since initially declaring Syrian asylum seekers welcome no matter which EU country they entered first.
“Germany absolutely has to take responsibility and accommodate these people here and help them proceed with their asylum procedure, even if they [first registered] elsewhere,” Jelpke says.
“The refugee issue has been instrumentalised as a political tool the [German government’s] coalition parties are using against each other.”
‘They’d kill my whole family’
Naser Hashemi, 22, was a member of the security forces back in Afghanistan, where he served in the Herat province. In late 2015, he says he decided to leave the country after receiving threats from the Taliban.
“They [the Taliban] sent me a letter, and then they sent a letter to my family,” he tells Al Jazeera. “They wanted me to leave the job … otherwise they’d kill my whole family.”
Because his brother-in-law had already been killed by the Taliban, Hashemi says he knew the threats weren’t empty.
Last month, German authorities declined his application for asylum, giving him an opportunity to appeal within two weeks or leave the country within 30 days.
“I just want to study and work and eventually join the police,” he says. “I am thankful to the German people for helping me over the last year.”
Hashemi concludes: “If I go back to Afghanistan, the Taliban will kill me … At night, they still come to [our] village. They told my father they know I’m in Germany.”
Follow Patrick Strickland on Twitter: @P_Strickland_