Foreign Wars

Strangers in a Homeland

In Kabul, one of the world’s most dangerous cities, one man works to help Afghan migrants return to a place they never knew.
Sally Deng

In February 2019, after his third attempt and as many failures to secure asylum in Sweden, Alijan Safari, along with a dozen other deportees, was put on a flight bound for Kabul, Afghanistan. Safari grew up in the Behsud district of the Maidan Wardak province, ninety miles south of Kabul, but had only been to the capital once in passing, at the age of ten. Now, nearly a decade later, he was flying back to a city he barely knew, one that, while in his home country, was all but foreign to him.

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In 2001, when Safari was still a toddler, US-led NATO forces invaded and toppled the Taliban-run government of Afghanistan. By summer 2009, in the power vacuum created by the Taliban’s removal, violent clashes between two of the country’s ethnic-minority groups—the Hazaras, which included Safari’s family, and the Kuchi tribe—reached a crescendo, displacing more than 2,500 families from the area. Safari’s father was killed in the fighting. His mother, fearing for his life, decided he would be safer in Europe and entrusted him to neighbors who hoped to settle there. With the help of a loose network of migrant smugglers, the group left for Iran, then traveled to Turkey, where Safari set off on his own for Greece, selling the bangles his mother had packed for him to help pay the rest of his way. Safari traveled by car, on the subway, on trains, by foot—from Hungary to Serbia to Austria to Germany. He headed for Sweden, where his father’s second cousin lived and promised to help Safari reach his intended destination—Canada—where Afghan asylum seekers often achieved more favorable outcomes with their cases.

Key Findings

  • Afghan refugees have always faced wildly unpredictable odds for asylum in Europe.

Safari arrived in Malmö, Sweden, in 2012. He stayed with his father’s second cousin and prepared for his journey onward to North America, but the smuggler with whom they had made arrangements was arrested and the trip never took place. To his surprise, Safari was barred from seeking asylum in Sweden. Following the European Union’s Dublin Regulation, migrants can only apply for asylum in the country where they register their arrival in Europe—in Safari’s case, Hungary, where his fingerprints had been collected. Nonetheless, he remained in Sweden. Then, in 2015, the EU temporarily suspended this requirement, paving the way for Safari’s application in Sweden, where he had by then learned to speak the language. According to Safari, his first application was rejected on the grounds that he was unable to prove that he was indeed an Afghan, and allegations of misrepresenting his age. He appealed the decision and was denied again in September 2018, with authorities again questioning his country of origin, and determining that his asylum claim lacked merit. His second appeal was rejected in January 2019.

Key Findings

  • Approval rates for Afghan asylum claims range anywhere from 24 percent in Bulgaria to 98 percent in Italy.

With no further recourse through the immigration courts, Safari had to make a decision: risk deportation, along with a possible reentry ban, or return to Afghanistan of his own volition, under the EU’s Assisted Voluntary Return program, qualifying him to receive funds to help him reintegrate back in Afghanistan. Safari opted to return voluntarily, with plans to use the money to head for Europe again.

The year prior to Safari’s return, the United Nations office in Afghanistan logged the country’s highest-ever recorded number of civilian deaths in the country—nearly eleven thousand—along with the highest number of child fatalities. In June 2019, the Institute for Economics and Peace, an Australian nonpartisan think tank, labeled Afghanistan the world’s “least peaceful” country, overtaking Syria. Kabul, meanwhile, remained the country’s most violent city.

Key Findings

  • In the United Kingdom, the Independent Asylum Commission found that a “culture of disbelief” deterred asylum officers from hearing refugees’ testimonies without prejudice.

Descending into Kabul, Safari felt nothing but dread. His mother and brother were surviving on the charity of others in the city; now, Safari would be an added burden. He worried his stay in Europe would mark him as someone with ties to the West, and therefore to money, making him an easy target for the Taliban or those looking to kidnap anyone potentially worthy of ransom. It felt strange to be returning to a city he had no real connection to—if anything, home was in Behsud, not Kabul. But with ninety miles of impassable violence between them, Behsud and Kabul may as well have belonged to separate worlds.

Safari’s brother was there at the airport to greet him. They recognized each other from photographs they’d shared over the years. It felt good to be reunited with family, but Safari chafed at the choice he had had to make between family and everything else: security, opportunity, education. He had hoped that the financial assistance promised by Swedish authorities would help sustain him as he planned his next journey out. By the time his paperwork was in order, however, he had missed the deadline to claim the funds. As the days wore on, he began to panic.

Key Findings

  • Countries hope that deportation serves as a deterrent against “irregular migration.” Yet 80 percent of those who return opt to try again within two years.

A Swedish activist who had been helping him shared a phone number and recommended that he call a man named Abdul Ghafoor, who was in Kabul and was known among the community of asylum seekers to have helped refugees in similarly impossible situations. Safari contacted Ghafoor and explained his situation—how his family had spent their entire savings getting him to Europe, but now, back in a country whose economy was in free fall, with civil war threatening on all sides, he wasn’t sure how he would make it. What could he do? Ghafoor listened, asked a few questions, and in the end, he agreed to help.

Key Findings

  • Countries such as Norway still consider Afghanistan safe enough for deportees and returnees — despite rising rates of violence in urban areas.

Ghafoor himself had previously sought asylum in Norway but was deported in April 2013. Three years prior, he had been living and working in Peshawar, Pakistan. He had moved there with his family from Ghazni province, south of Kabul, having fled sectarian violence in which the Taliban and others among Afghanistan’s Sunni majority targeted the Shia Hazara community. In Pakistan, Ghafoor’s family was subject to even worse violence, which led Ghafoor to set out for Europe on his own (his family would follow once he was settled). Following a route similar to Safari’s, Ghafoor eventually landed in Norway.

Key Findings

  • By mid-year 2020, according to a UN report, Kabul had the second-highest number of civilian casualties in the country.

Norwegians often asked Ghafoor what it was about their country that attracted him. For him, as for so many others, his choice hadn’t been a sentimental one. “Norway was the last country I could come to,” he would tell them. “This was the best I could do. After this, there was the Arctic.”

After his asylum case was rejected—the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration did not consider his case to be credible and deemed Afghanistan safe enough to return to—Ghafoor decided to stay in Norway, spending most nights lying awake, anticipating a raid on the camp where he was living.

Eventually, Ghafoor was deported to Kabul, a city he didn’t know and where he had no contacts to call upon. His family and friends were either in Pakistan or Ghazni province, almost five hours away. This dislocation is a common problem among returning Afghan migrants. As many as four million Afghans live in Pakistan or Iran, sometimes for years, on temporary work permits or with no legal status at all. Many of their children are Afghan citizens in name only, and effectively grow up as members of an adopted country. Those among them who set off for Europe and are deported are sent back to Afghanistan—technically their country of origin but in actuality a land they barely know.

Sally Deng

Ghafoor had been among the first Afghans to be deported from Europe during the most recent refugee crisis that peaked in 2015, and was one of the few who documented his experience of deportation through a blog he started shortly after his return. He was a skilled narrator, and soon Ghafoor’s name spread among immigration activists and asylum seekers. Ghafoor began to receive calls from migrants all over Europe, asking for his help on asylum cases and, in many instances, for guidance on what to do upon landing in an unfamiliar home country. In those early days, European diplomats in Kabul showed great interest in Ghafoor’s mission, and even offered him financial support. Their interest, however, was more precisely rooted in having him act as a deterrent rather than a provider of pragmatic support. When Ghafoor refused to state his objective as “preventing irregular migration” as a precondition for receiving funding, donor countries rescinded their commitments. “What the governments wanted was a propaganda tool,” says Liza Schuster, an expert on forced migration and professor at City, University of London, who works closely with Ghafoor. What Ghafoor wanted to do—what refugees needed—was to offer practical tips on how to survive the desert, on what to pack for a boat ride across the Mediterranean, on where to find pro bono lawyers or activists who could help with appeals, on whom to call when there was no one left to call. When these refugees returned to Afghanistan as deportees, there was no policy or institution—and certainly no political will—to help them reintegrate. To them, Ghafoor was a kind of one-person social safety net. In 2017, when the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental body associated with the United Nations that provides immigration services, announced that it would no longer assist deportees with housing, allowance, or transportation, the task of tending to the deported fell largely on Ghafoor.

The vocabulary of deportation is filled with euphemisms: forced removalforced repatriationinvoluntary returns—all of which represent the same process of moving someone against his or her will, an activity the International Organization for Migration considers to be “not in line with human rights.” Its position to refrain from assisting with deportations on principle meant that anyone being deported now had even less support.

In February 2014, with small donations from various activists and eventually with funding from Lush, a UK-based cosmetics company, Ghafoor and Schuster rented a sparsely furnished room on the fifth floor of a walk-up in western Kabul, set up a printer and small gas heater, and launched the Afghanistan Migrants Advice & Support Organization (AMASO), the only organization with the stated purpose of helping Afghan deportees. “What AMASO really wanted to do was to give neutral information to people to enable them to make the best decision for themselves,” Schuster says, “whatever that decision might be.”

Ghafoor and Schuster continued their work as they had before, fielding phone calls from distraught refugees who had been arrested or were facing deportation. Ghafoor would greet them at the airport, help them find a place to stay in a guesthouse he opened for this purpose, and help them navigate the labyrinthine bureaucracy on both sides— with the Europeans to secure whatever assistance they had promised and with the Afghans to facilitate obtaining whatever documents were required in order to reestablish roots and residency. Ghafoor also wrote to journalists about the plight of Afghan migrants, trying to call attention to the issue, with little luck—2014 was still in the early days of the migration crisis in Europe, when the issue had not yet devolved into the historic emergency it would become later.

The most frequent queries Ghafoor received were from European governments wanting to know if Afghanistan was safe enough to use as a return destination for asylum seekers whose claims were denied. His answer, he says, was an unequivocal no. And yet, despite his advice, and despite the Afghan government’s position that deportations back to the country should be temporarily suspended, they continued. “The main reason for immigration is insecurity,” then Minister of Refugees and Repatriation with the government of Afghanistan Sayed Hussain Alemi Balkhi told me. “The Afghan government wants [European] governments to stop deporting until we have security in the country.” Balkhi acknowledged his government does not have the wherewithal to halt deportations.

Ghafoor’s primary objection was to the EU’s habit of deporting Afghans back to Kabul regardless of where within Afghanistan they were from, and despite the violence that ravaged the city. The fact that European governments went to great lengths to protect their own nationals there—shuttling diplomats between the Green Zone and the Kabul airport by helicopter, or renting armored vehicles for $5,000 a month—seemed only to add insult to injury. For its part, the US Department of State issued a Level 4—Do Not Travel advisory (its most severe) for Afghanistan on the very same day it created the four-tiered system in January 2018, warning potential visitors of “crime, terrorism, civil unrest, kidnapping, and armed conflict.” Even today, if travel to the country is unavoidable, instructions on the department’s website recommend drafting a will before departure. Several European countries have issued similar warnings.

There is no province in Afghanistan that has escaped the war in recent years. (Indeed, as of last year, the Taliban controlled seventy-five of the districts in Afghanistan, contesting an additional 187.) The Taliban were dictating school curricula in Pul-e-Alam, forty miles from Kabul, just as there were Taliban-run checkpoints in the province of Bamiyan, traditionally considered the safest in all of Afghanistan.

As for Kabul, the EU destination of choice for deportations to Afghanistan, in August 2019, EMERGENCY, a humanitarian NGO that runs a surgical center for war victims there, logged its highest admission rate of all time. By mid-year 2020, according to a report from the United Nations, the capital city had the second-highest number of civilian casualties in the country. Despite the ongoing peace talks, or perhaps as a result of them, rates of violence in urban areas have been increasing. These assassination campaigns, designed to inflict maximal terror and targeting civilians in urban areas, killed more than three hundred people in 2020 according to the New York Times.

Afghan refugees have always faced wildly unpredictable odds for asylum in Europe. Those who aren’t granted asylum are returned to a country where they are exposed not only to the daily dangers of a war zone but also the strong suspicion with which other Afghans view all things associated with the West, and which can bring about deadly scrutiny. A common ritual after a refugee returns is for neighbors and relatives to pay them a visit, wanting to see whether they have changed. “People are wondering, ‘Is he still a good boy?’” according to Schuster. And the answer to this question matters greatly in a country like Afghanistan, Schuster continued, “where all you have is your reputation.”

In fact, many human-rights organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, argue that sending migrants back to Afghanistan violates the principle of non-refoulement, codified in three UN Conventions, which, taken together, “prohibit the return to a risk of persecution and the return to a risk of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” according to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights.

And yet countries such as Norway still consider Afghanistan safe enough for deportees and returnees. What’s more, stubborn biases still shape many asylum proceedings. In the United Kingdom, for example, little has changed since the Independent Asylum Commission conducted an audit of the asylum system, wherein it found that a “culture of disbelief” deterred asylum officers from hearing refugees’ testimonies without prejudice, and that “the adversarial nature of the asylum process (though not inherently unfair) stacks the odds against the asylum seeker seeking sanctuary.”

Institutional skepticism and adversarial processes continue, in part, out of the hope that deportation serves as a deterrent against what states call “irregular migration.” And yet 80 percent of those who are deported or voluntarily return opt to try again within two years. According to Schuster, “they remigrate because the reasons that caused them to flee in the first place remain unchanged or have become worse.”

To be sure, by the time Safari made his case to Swedish authorities, Europe’s capacity to take in refugees had been strained to the limit, due in large part to the Syrian refugee crisis. The question was whether these circumstances made asylum claims like Safari’s—from chronically violent and unstable states like Afghanistan—any less deserving. Asylum decisions, at their core, are founded on humanitarian principles. The struggle has been how best to adhere to those principles while also taking into account the very real constraints of finite resources—never mind the actual will, desires, or needs of the host country’s own native population.

Modern-day asylum law has its origins in the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, with 145 countries joining as signatories. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, the Refugee Convention has gone on to inspire and form the foundations of each individual member-state’s laws about refugees. In recent years, however, with resurgent nationalism, nation-states have begun to emphasize the sovereignty aspects of the UN’s charter instead, striking out on their own individual paths in handling matters related to migration and refugees. What was intended to be a unified, standardized approach toward the world’s most vulnerable populations instead became fractured. This necessarily resulted in disparate outcomes for substantially similar asylum claims depending on one’s geography.

Afghans have suffered from this fragmented response to their arrival: Approval rates for Afghan asylum claims in Europe range anywhere from 24 percent in Bulgaria to 98 percent in Italy; and a lack of consensus among European governments over the definition of “safe” has meant that both the asylum verdicts and the fate of those who are rejected occur through processes that appear arbitrary and capricious.

In the five years or so since the peak of the European migration crisis, Ghafoor had hired two employees to help him handle the overwhelming volume of work connecting Afghans returning from Europe to vital services, walking them through the arduous, often hostile homecoming that awaits them.

One such person was Zaman Zarifi, a welder and father of three who had been deported to Kabul in May 2017, after spending two years in the Netherlands. The Zarifis had left Kabul in 2015, for reasons of “work, security, war, and poverty,” as Zaman told asylum officials. He mentioned a brother who had been murdered, but named unemployment as the biggest “push factor” for his departure. Having sold their home, car, and metal workshop, the Zarifi family—Zaman, his wife, Aziz Gul, his sons, Ali Reza and Mohamed Reza, and daughter, Zahra—left Afghanistan via Iran; two months later, they wound up in Holland.

Families typically represent more compelling candidates in the refugee hierarchy in the eyes of European officials. What’s more, the Zarifis, like many Afghan refugees in Europe, were members of the Hazara ethnic minority, whose history of persecution in Afghanistan is well documented. Despite all this, and despite Afghanistan’s dire security situation, the Dutch asylum agency concluded that the Zarifis did not qualify for asylum.

The asylum office raised doubts about specific details of Zaman Zarifi’s story, including why he hadn’t pressed official charges against his brother’s alleged killer, and why there hadn’t been an official investigation or autopsy report on his brother’s murder.

Zarifi appealed the decision, which was denied. While a second appeal was underway, in 2017, immigration police showed up at his door and informed him and his family that they were being deported. Zarifi insisted they had appeals still pending, which should have prevented their deportation. Nonetheless, the family was loaded into a van and driven to the airport. “They wouldn’t let me wear my shoes,” Aziz Gul recalled. The Zarifis were then flown to a nearby detention camp, where they were held for two weeks before being sent to Kabul. Two police officers escorted each member of the Zarifi family. Aziz Gul, who had protested the loudest, traveled in shackles. Once in Kabul, the Zarifis were handed over to the Afghan police, who drove them to a guesthouse, where they were allowed to stay for a short while. By the end of their time there, Zaman still hadn’t been able to secure work or permanent housing, and so refused to leave. Shortly thereafter, the police arrived again to evict them.

A childhood friend of Zaman’s rented a house for the family, but there were no schools for the children nearby. A former colleague came to the rescue, finding the family another home, and when that house became untenable—sewage water rose from the street and seeped indoors—the same friend found yet another house, shared with two other families, with one bathroom for all thirteen occupants. The Zarifis slept and ate in a small room, using a roll of baize to keep against the cold of the cement floor. They endured the winter by occasionally burning sawdust, a common way of keeping warm in Afghanistan. Eventually they connected with Ghafoor, who could only organize a fundraising campaign for the family, which yielded some money to pay for basic provisions such as food. As with other deportees, he provided them with foreign language lessons, which included English as well as Nordic languages. In this way, despite the odds, he continues to address, in whatever small ways he can, a humanitarian emergency that far outweighs his resources.

After returning to Kabul in 2019, Alijan Safari spent his days visiting the office of the Afghan Center for Excellence (ACE), an organization that, through various subcontracts, disburses financial assistance to returning migrants.

ACE symbolizes the kind of nesting doll of contracting and subcontracting that has come to define many aspects of the war economy in Afghanistan. It was contracted by International Returns and Reintegration Assistance, which itself was a project of the European Return and Reintegration Network, which reports to the European Commission—all innocuous-sounding organizations that have tended to leave the recipients of its benefits confused and bereft. (ACE also had contracts with the Etisalat Telecommunication Group Company, to run its call center, and the US Department of State, to teach female Afghan entrepreneurs how to use the accounting software suite QuickBooks.)

Once the process of allocating funds was taken over by ACE, what was already a prolonged endeavor extended into a nine-month wait, an impossibly long time if you are not sure where you sleep that very night. Safari was in constant communication with Ghafoor, who advised him on whom to contact and how to find them. When he wasn’t navigating these administrative errands, Safari would see anyone at all who would meet with him—the few friends he had, a distant relative—in search of work. Afghanistan, like much of the world, operates on a trust economy, in which kinship and other personal relationships function as currency. Without personal ties, it is nearly impossible to secure employment or housing. In times of war, people tend to coalesce around family, however closely or widely defined. Having endured violent conflict for generations, Afghan society is especially prone to organizing itself along ethnic, tribal, and occasionally geographical lines. (Safari eventually was paid the equivalent of $2,500, which he, his mother, and his younger brother lived on for nearly a year.)

Safari had few extended family members to visit; many of them had either been killed or had left the country. Out of eight uncles on his father’s side, five had died in the war. Among his mother’s brothers, one has migrated to Iran and another was killed on his way back from Ghazni, in central Afghanistan. Most of his friends from childhood had all dispersed across the safer, more prosperous world, including Iran, where they pieced together a living as day laborers.

That so many millions of people have chosen to flee their countries attests to the imbalances—economic, environmental, political—that have destabilized the planet such that any true resolution is at least a generation away. “Refugees are a symptom of a system that has failed,” Schuster told me. In the meantime, those with the slimmest advantage flee.

Indeed, the act of leaving is an act of privilege. The truly destitute do not have the wherewithal—the funds, the connections, the tenacity, or the luxury of imagining other possible lives—to set off for an uncertain future, however beset they are by their circumstances.

Safari was aware of his privilege. He was also aware that, while he may have lost his father and years of his life, he still had his limbs and his wits. And for that he was grateful.

By winter 2021, Safari had found a job at a friend’s chicken farm, which allowed for subsistence living. For his part, Zarifi continued to visit the local square in search of a job, returning on most days disappointed. Officially, the war had ended, and so had the migration crisis, though life in Afghanistan continues to be shaped by these ineluctable forces. Despite the tens of billions of dollars spent on reconstruction projects during the war, there seemed to be few prospects for Safari or Zarifi or countless others like them. In a way, their fates could be seen as examples of how various European bureaucracies have struggled to execute faithfully the spirit of international laws designed to protect the rights of asylum seekers. Indeed, the Swedish Migration Agency, for example, referenced UN findings to support the claim that certain provinces in Afghanistan were safe enough to return asylum seekers to. However, in the first half of 2020, the very same UN office cited by the agency reported more than 3,400 civilian casualties in Afghanistan, making the country host to “one of the deadliest conflicts in the world for civilians.”

In March 2019, the European Commission announced that the refugee crisis was over. What it neglected to consider, however, were the externalities of the decisions to close borders, the private fate and aftermath of a highly publicized crisis. According to Ghafoor, chartered flights of deportees continue to arrive in Kabul every month or so. When we last spoke, he was planning to relocate to a larger office to meet rising demand. “We are hiring,” he told me. “We have to.”

About the reporter

May Jeong

May Jeong is a reporter at Vanity Fair.

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