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.”