The ‘Kabubble’ is bursting

by Maya Evans (as printed for Labour Briefing

When I first visited Kabul in 2011, I thought it was a city on its knees. It had endured decades of war, starting with the Russians in 1979, followed by the Mujahideen civil war, crushing brutality under the Taliban and then the US/NATO invasion. At the start of ‘Enduring Freedom’ in 2001, the population of Kabul was 1.5 million. Today, with 13 refugee camps inside the city, its population stands at 5 million. Kabul’s already basic infrastructure, hugely stressed, can’t cope with an increased population. 

Recently referred to as the ‘Kabubble’, because it escaped direct fighting between the Taliban and foreign troops, the city viewed from high above can appear like a buzzing metropolis – racy, almost seductive from a distance, cars dodging around each other, a hive of activity under a thick fug of tan dust. But back on the streets, you realise why Afghanistan has become one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Each war has left its scar: bullet-riddled buildings, dilapidated Persian compounds, bombed out palaces, Communist housing and crumbling Soviet industrial buildings, fallen grandeur from the 1960s-70s peaceful hippy trail days. Potable water is increasingly difficult to access, burning rubbish for fuel stains the air and open street sewers ensure the population, daily, breathes high levels of faecal matter. 

Attacks by the Taliban and IS are now weekly. The Kabubble has expanded rapidly to accommodate soaring demand. At present it’s at bursting point and the prospects show little sign of relief.

The number of Afghans being deported back to Afghanistan has massively increased in the last year with many European countries deeming Kabul as a safe location for returnees – a policy based on the NATO narrative that post-2014 Afghanistan is ‘mission complete’. That line is hardly feasible, but since the country has dropped out of western media, most don’t hear about the weekly attacks within Kabul which normally claim between 20 and 70 lives. The most recent was an ISIS attack on a military hospital claiming the lives of 49 children, women, men and staff. As with many Iraqis today, many Afghans now half look back at life under a brutal authoritarian regime as a time which at least had stability.

In October 2016, the EU signed a deal with the Afghan Government obliging them to accept unlimited numbers of Afghan asylum seekers. A leaked memo suggested stripping Afghanistan of its aid if the government did not cooperate. Afghans constitute the second- largest group of asylum seekers in Europe, with 196,170 applying last year. Meanwhile neighbouring countries, Pakistan and Iran, have announced plans to remove Afghan refugees from within their borders, and estimates put that population at around 3 million. All will be returned to Kabul, a city which at best is crawling along.

To visit a Kabul refugee camp was one of the most extreme experiences of my life – crippling poverty, streams of open sewers, limited access to clean water, stoves fuelled by plastic and very little chance of escape. The camps are by no means a stop-gap for the 1.2 million internally displaced. 

As Afghanistan heads towards a fourth decade of war, the majority of Afghans have truly had enough. Those who can afford to leave do so. People have long given up on the US/NATO puppet Afghan government largely made up of those warlords who will cooperate with the international community. The Taliban are said to have gained control of 35% of the country in just over a year, and they are now being joined by ISIS which is reportedly spreading across the country while also carrying out largescale attacks within Kabul. The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan recently reported an increase in casualties, with 3,498 civilians killed and 7,920 wounded in 2016. Severe poverty almost automatically creates high crime. For Afghanistan, within a decade, 7% of the population has become addicted to opium; warlords profit from this condition. 

The Afghan people have nowhere to go. They are trapped between a rock and a hard place. Foreign immigration policies don’t take responsibility for the repercussions of their bombs which leave families bereaved, homeless and displaced. The ‘Kabubble’ which is expected to receive a flood of refugees is already bursting. Peace is still a long way off.

Stop Deportation to Kabul

Sitting with the Afghan Peace Volunteers in the Border Free Centre in the Afghan capital, I picture a glossy advert: 

Kabul: central Asia’s best kept secret. 

“Will you miss out on the journey of a lifetime? Millions are flocking to take advantage of the Afghan haven. Free one way ticket on your 18th birthday.”

by Ellis Brooks

Kabul must have quite a draw given the millions of people its way headed. The secret is of course that almost none of them are travelling by choice. 

The UK government has fought hard to be able to deport failed Afghan asylum seekers, and now regularly charters flights to expedite the process. The Afghan government pleaded with the UK not to resume deportation; human rights organisations protested; the UN and World Bank said it would further destabilise the country; but the Home Office cheerfully began enforcing departures in March 2016.

Part of the basis is that, while the rest of the country is riven with increasing violence from the Taliban and Islamic State, Kabul is safe. Safe enough to deport you even if you have no family or friends here; safe enough even if you’re not from within 500 miles of the capital; safe enough even if you’ve only just turned 18 with no experience surviving in Kabul. 2,018 young people who arrived in the UK as child asylum seekers have been deported to Afghanistan since 2007.

But Kabul is safer than the rest of Afghanistan the way the frying pan is safer than the fire. Attacks and intimidation in the capital are frequent. Abdul Ghafoor, who runs Afghan Migrants Advice and Support Organisation (AMASO), told us “It’s not a suitable time to deport this number of Asylum Seekers back to Afghanistan.

“Kabul is no safe city…. They’re attacking ethnic minorities. The mosques are not the safe, the schools and educational establishments are not safe. Who are the victims? Afghan civilians.”

In this city, even day-to-day decisions like whether to attend a friend’s graduation ceremony or Friday prayers become a security question. Nationally, the war has worsened with 3,498 civilians killed in 2016 according to UNAMA.

There’s no economic security either. There’s already sky-high unemployment and more vulnerable people than can be supported. It’s not that the people in Kabul aren’t resilient; just to survive here takes more strength than I have. The Afghan Peace Volunteers themselves support hundreds of street children and poor families battling the odds.

But Kabul is a city of 1.5 million now accommodating 5 million people. Meanwhile, more than a million refugees from neighbouring countries are being sent back to Afghanistan. On top of this, in 13 camps around the city there are 1.5 million Afghan civilians displaced by violence. Amnesty International describe many thousands “in makeshift shelters, where overcrowding, poor hygiene and harsh weather conditions” lead to widespread disease. Many have died in the cold this winter. It is to this poor excuse for a haven that Europe is set to deport a further 80,000 people.

Abdul calls the deportation policy a “lose-lose situation” because European countries are spending millions to force out asylum seekers who, when confronted with the danger and vulnerability of life in Kabul, will migrate again despite the risks of making the journey.

At the knock-down rate of $4,000, you entrust your life to traffickers to get you over land and sea to get somewhere safer, even if only a little. Abdul described to us the abuse, enslavement and death such a journey risks, telling you all you need to know about how desperate you’d need to be.

In addition to the counsel and support AMASO offers, Abdul’s running a safe house for recent deportees to Kabul, but keeping up with the influx looks set to be impossible.

He’s asking European countries to re-evaluate their unreal attitude to Kabul in the light of the facts. “I went to a meeting inside the European compound and the officials were wearing body-armour,” he says. “So imagine how safe it is in Kabul.”