An Afghan migrant walks among tents at a state-run camp for refugees and migrants in Schisto, near Athens, Greece, June 6, 2016.
Alkis Konstantinidis / Reuters

On a cold night in late February, Anayat Tajik stood at the Munich airport and watched as a charter flight took off for Kabul with 18 Afghans on board. The German government was deporting them, and Tajik was one of hundreds of people—most of them German citizens—who came to the airport in protest against the removals.

“I fear that I'll be next,” Tajik said. He is a 20-year-old asylum seeker from Baghlan, a province of Afghanistan that has been overrun by the Taliban.

Tajik’s concerns are, unfortunately, not overstated. Two weeks earlier, he received notice from the German immigration authorities that his asylum application had been rejected. At the airport that night, he told me he couldn't imagine what would happen to him if he were forced to return.

“Every Afghan here tonight is very afraid,” he said, holding a sign on which he had written in German, “Migration is not a crime.” “If it were possible for me to live in Afghanistan, I wouldn't have come to Germany. Afghanistan is my country.”

Few would consider any refugee lucky, but Afghan asylum seekers have emerged from Europe's refugee crisis with the least luck of them all. Since Chancellor Angela Merkel opened Germany’s borders in 2015, declaring that her country would welcome an unlimited number of refugees, Germany has absorbed over a million asylum seekers, more than all other European nations combined. Refugees and migrants continue to arrive in Germany at a rate of 14,000 per month.

After Syrians, Afghans represent the second-largest group of asylum seekers in Germany. According to data from the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, more than 127,000 Afghans and 266,000 Syrians applied for asylum in Germany in 2016. Yet Afghans are far less likely to be granted refugee status than their counterparts from Syria and Iraq. And unlike other rejected applicants, who come from relatively safe countries like Albania, Morocco, Serbia, and Turkey, Afghanistan is a war zone. Europe, however, seems to disagree.

According to German government data, only 48 percent of Afghan asylum seekers received refugee status in 2015, compared to 92 percent of Eritreans, 89 percent of Iraqis, and 96 percent of Syrians. Afghan applicants are recognized at a lower rate not only in Germany, but throughout Europe, said Martin Rentsch of the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR.

The drastic difference in recognition rates is baffling to human rights activists, who argue that Afghanistan is just as dangerous as Iraq. In 2016, Afghanistan saw the highest number of civilian casualties—11,418—since 2001, particularly in Kabul, the nation’s capital. A report released by Human Rights Watch in April found that Afghan children “were increasingly bearing the brunt of the bloody conflict,” accounting for one-third of all deaths. In recent months, the Taliban has won back significant territory from government forces, which are losing as many as 5,000 soldiers a month through casualties and desertion. The Islamic State (also known as ISIS) has built cells across the country and even captured Osama bin Laden’s former stronghold of Tora Bora earlier this month.

“At a time when civilian casualties remain high, with women and children suffering the worst of the violence, it is reckless of governments to claim that Afghanistan is safe for refugees,” said Horia Mosadiq, Amnesty International’s Afghanistan Researcher, according to an April press release. “On the one hand, Afghanistan is seen as a place where armed groups like the so-called Islamic State pose such a danger that the USA felt compelled to drop the world’s largest non-nuclear bomb. On the other, people who fled the conflict there are being told it’s safe for them to return. This is hypocrisy of the highest order.”

Germany began deporting rejected Afghan asylum seekers in December 2016. According to a spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry, 167 Afghans have been forcibly returned. The figure has since risen from when I spoke to her in May. Some 12,000 Afghans stand to be deported.

Human rights activists in Germany accuse Merkel, who is running for reelection in September, of playing politics with people's lives. They see these deportations as an effort to win back right-wing voters from the anti-immigrant Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) party, which has campaigned against Merkel’s liberal policies.

“Deportations during the election campaign are one area where they can show that they are strict on refugee policies,” said J. Olaf Kleist, a political scientist and senior researcher at the Institute for Migration Research and Cultural Studies. And Afghans, he said, are an easier target for government officials.

“It seems easier to deport Afghans as opposed to Syrians who have much more support in the German population,” Kleist said. “It’s virtually impossible to deport to Eritrea or Sudan which are more clearly unsafe and where people get more refugee status.”

So far, it seems that the government’s efforts to appear tougher on security are working. Since Merkel hardened her stance on refugees, support for the AfD has fallen drastically. In September 2016, the AfD had 16 percent support in national polls. The party is now polling at eight percent.

“The tragedy here is that while support for the AfD is declining, the refugees are the victims of a policy [that] is taking over AfD proposals and arguments,” said Bernd Mesovic, deputy director of Pro Asyl, a German humanitarian organization that has championed refugee rights in Europe since 1986.

Experts such as Jan Schneider, of the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration, say one factor behind Germany's drastically different acceptance rates for Afghan refugees, and its willingness to deport them, is its protracted involvement in Afghanistan. Although it opposed the war in Iraq, Germany sent troops to Afghanistan. This investment of time, money, and troops' lives, experts say, has made Germany reluctant to grant refugee status to so many Afghans, as it would be admitting that its work in Afghanistan did nothing to improve the situation there and may have even contributed to the violence and instability that persists to this day.

“If you’re engaged in a country for more than ten years, you’ve lost soldiers, you’ve lost civilians, you’ve tried to create safe zones, and then 12 years later you have people obtaining refugee status in your own country because their lives are still at stake, you’d have to abort the mission, it would mean utter failure,” said Schneider.

Other European countries were also involved in Afghanistan, which seems to explain why Afghans are being singled out not only in Germany, but across the continent. After nearly 15 years of military involvement, and billions of euros in aid, European governments seem unwilling to admit that Afghanistan remains embroiled in war. Germany and Austria have even launched information campaigns in Afghanistan urging Afghans to stay there.

Germany’s interior minister, Thomas de Maiziere, has confirmed the political nature of the EU’s treatment of Afghan refugees. “Huge sums of development cooperation funds have gone to Afghanistan…so we can expect that Afghans stay in their country,” he said at a press conference in October 2015.

In February 2016, de Maiziere visited Kabul and said that Germany would end its aid to Afghanistan if the influx of refugees to Germany continued. “We're staying here as long as it's necessary. But we also expect that that the Afghan population stays here,” he said. And yet, during his visit, a Taliban suicide bomber blew himself up at a Kabul police complex, killing more than 20 people.

At the Brussels Conference on Afghanistan in October 2016, the EU agreed to support efforts to rebuild Afghanistan with $15 billion in aid over the next four years. In exchange, the Afghan government promised to address corruption, political reform, and human rights. Kabul also agreed to “Joint Way Forward,” a deal to allow EU states to deport asylum seekers back to Afghanistan.

Human rights activists argue that Europe is failing to meet the requirements of the UN Refugee Convention, which affirms that refugees “should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom.” They also believe that Afghanistan’s corrupt political class will be the chief beneficiary of the deal with the EU. Afghanistan ranks among the most corrupt countries in the world, with Transparency International accusing Afghan politicians of stealing millions of dollars in aid over a period of 13 years, from 2002-2015.

From October 2016 through March 2017, I interviewed nearly a dozen Afghan refugees. None of them had obtained refugee status. Some were still waiting for the immigration authorities to decide their fate. All of them feared the prospect of returning to the homeland that they love but which has been ravaged by wars waged by the Western nations that they now seek refuge in.

When I met “Sam” for the first time, who asked me not to disclose his real name since his family still faces threats in Afghanistan and he risks being deported, he was wearing a gray scarf, a red sweater, and blue jeans. It was December, and he was in the office of Refugio Munich, an NGO that aids asylum-seekers and refugees. A soft-spoken 37-year-old from Paktia Province, Sam arrived in Germany in 2011. He still hadn’t gotten used to the cold. As we spoke, he held his hands together in his lap to warm them up.

Sam’s cousins worked for the Afghan government, he told me, which makes them a Taliban target. After his cousins helped thwart a major Taliban attack, they went into hiding. Taliban militants came to his house and demanded that Sam tell them where they were, but he refused. He had helped them flee the country. When the Taliban found out, they returned to Sam’s home in the middle of the night, pulled him from his bed, beat him, and took him away.

Sam managed to escape the Taliban and began his journey to Germany. It was an obvious choice, he said. Germany has been absorbing Afghan refugees since the Soviet invasion of 1979, during the Cold War. Back then, the German government embraced Afghan refugees.

“Germany had an… interest in helping these people because they were victims of the Soviets during the Cold War,” Mesovic said. In the eighties, he explained, “There was a policy of completely open arms. At that time you could get a decision on your asylum application in just a few weeks, and you didn’t even need a lawyer.”

Today, it can take months, sometimes even a year, for Afghans to receive a decision on their asylum applications. Eritreans, Iraqis, and Syrians typically receive decisions within weeks.

Sam applied for asylum as soon as he arrived in 2011, but was denied because the authorities did not believe his story. “They said he could live in another city or province in Afghanistan, where he would not be in danger,” said his psychologist who is treating him for PTSD. But, she said, “The Taliban would find him anywhere in Afghanistan. There is no safe place.” The Taliban’s network is spread throughout Afghanistan and the organization can easily find those who move to another part of the country, either through other Taliban members or civilians who are forced to collaborate with them.

Sam appealed this decision three times and was rejected every time. The legal process has cost him 4,000 euros, which he paid using money he made when he was still permitted to work. But in December 2015, he received a notice that he would be deported and his work permit was revoked. He still lives in the same refugee shelter outside of Munich at which he first arrived in 2011.

Although the government offered Sam financial incentives to return to Afghanistan voluntarily, he refused. According to a spokesperson at the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, 309 Afghans returned to their country through this voluntary program in 2015, and 3,326 in 2016. Sam will not consider returning voluntarily, he told me, because, “If I take a plane to Afghanistan, maybe the first or second day the Taliban will come for me, ask me what I did, where my cousins are. They would kill me. Or they’ll say ‘Fight for us,’ and if I say no, they’ll kill me.”

Sam wakes up every day with such worries looming over him because he could be deported without warning. According to volunteers at Pro Asyl, many of the Afghans removed so far had no idea they would be on a plane to Kabul until the day of their departure, when immigration authorities showed up at their refugee camp and told them to pack their bags.

Abdul Basir, a 32-year-old father from Kunduz Province, fled Afghanistan for Germany in September 2015, thinking that he might be able to get asylum there. Not only was the country’s generosity toward refugees well known at the time, Basir had been working for German organizations in Afghanistan since 2003, first as a translator, then as an office assistant, an office manager, and finally as a project officer. His most recent job was with the German Corporation for International Cooperation, which has been engaged in Afghanistan’s reconstruction since 2002. The company’s work is commissioned by the German government, and supported by various international institutions, including the World Bank.

Basir didn't want to leave Afghanistan, he told me in Munich, where he lived with his wife and two young daughters at the time in a shelter run by Caritas, Germany’s largest Catholic relief organization. But when Germany withdrew its forces in October 2013, Kunduz became an increasingly dangerous place. Between April to October of 2015, the Taliban engaged in a fierce battle with government forces for control of Kunduz.

"I love my people, and I was working to develop my country,” Basir said. “My family was always telling me to leave the German organization, not to work for foreigners. But I said I love my job, I cannot leave it. The best thing was that I was working to develop my own country. This was the thing I always wanted to do.”

But at 4 AM on September 28, 2015, a day he vividly remembers, he was awoken by the sound of gun fire. It was the Taliban, which had finally overrun the city. When the Taliban took over, Afghans like Basir who had worked with Western governments were most at-risk. Relatives with connections to the Taliban warned him that there was a target on his head. They told him he should leave Afghanistan as soon as he could. Although the Taliban announced on October 13 that it had withdrawn its forces from Kunduz, Basir explained that it still held power there unofficially through the people it controlled who may not have been officially in the organization, but were connected to it. Basir says that the threats from the Taliban continued well into October and that he was finally forced to leave the country on October 23, 2015, just weeks after a U.S. airstrike on a hospital in Kunduz operated by Doctors Without Borders killed 30 people, including one of Basir’s friends.

Unlike many male refugees who travel alone, Basir made the treacherous journey to Europe with his wife and daughter. On their way out of Kunduz, they passed two Taliban checkpoints. They narrowly escaped each one thanks to Basir’s wife, who pleaded with the militants to let them go, explaining that their three-year-old daughter in the car was afraid of the fighting. After they made it through the checkpoints, however, the land mines and IEDs planted along the main roads forced them to take small village paths. They traveled through Iran and Turkey before boarding a small boat filled with 35 people, but meant for ten, to Greece. It was constantly filled with water and Basir thought at times that they would not make it. They did. Basir, his wife and their daughter made finally arrived in Germany on November 18, 2015.

They filed an asylum application several months later, in May, and had their interview in September 2016, but heard nothing for months. They watched as the 350 people at the Caritas shelter dwindled down to 150. Most of those who moved out were Syrians who received refugee status. Most of those who stayed were Afghans. Every day Basir would visit a wall in the shelter where Caritas staff posted the names of those who had received mail. Nearly every day he was disappointed. But then in late May, his name appeared. The news that he had been waiting for had finally arrived and his application had been accepted. A few days later on June 1, a deadly terrorist attack in Kabul killed 150 people and wounded over 300. It was one of the deadliest ​incidents in the war in Afghanistan​, and it occurred just outside the Germany embassy, wounding two of its employees. Germany could no longer ignore the violence and ​the very next day​ temporarily suspended ​its​ deportations of Afghan refugees. Although it is unclear when Berlin will resume its policy of removal, it is clear that it will most likely continue at some point.​ And, while the deportation suspension ​may offer some relief, the low acceptance rates for Afghan asylum applicants still remains.

Basir understands that he is among the minority of Afghans who were granted asylum and that Germany is overwhelmed by the number of refugees that have taken up its offer of open arms. But at the same time, he continues to be baffled by that fact that Afghans who are fleeing the same kind of violence and persecution faced by Syrians and Iraqis should be refused asylum. He makes it clear that those who flee their homeland do so as a last resort. “I have to start everything from the beginning,” he said of his new life in Germany, “but I'm sure it will get better. It's just hard being far from my homeland.”

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  • YARDENA SCHWARTZ is an award-winning freelance journalist and Emmy-nominated producer based in Tel Aviv. Her reporting has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Time, Foreign Policy, and elsewhere.
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