Afghanistan Analysts Network – English


Afghan Exodus: Can the Afghan government deal with more returnees from Europe?

Jelena Bjelica Fazl Rahman Muzhary 13 min

In the first nine months of this year, over 5,000 Afghans voluntary returned to Afghanistan from Europe. The recent signing of an agreement between Afghanistan and the European Union to allow deportations of those who have not been accepted as asylum seekers means the numbers of Afghans returning from Europe will rise. AAN’s Jelena Bjelica and Fazal Muzhary have been looking into the fate of recent returnees, who may have gone heavily into debt to fund their trip, hearing from two young men who have just returned from Norway after trying to bicycle their way to a life in Europe.

People seeking to travel to Europe in a bid to find a better life have been trying the cold Arctic route to get to Norway. Photo: Tolo NewsPeople seeking to travel to Europe in a bid to find a better life have been trying the cold Arctic route to get to Norway. Photo: Tolo News

This dispatch is part of a joint migration series by AAN and the Kabul office of the German foundation Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES).

In early October 2016, Afghanistan signed four new readmission agreements, with Germany, Sweden, Finland and the EU. (2) These new agreements are a response to the large influx of Afghan asylum seekers in 2015 and 2016, with over a quarter of a million Afghans arriving in Europe in this period (see AAN earlier reporting on Afghan migration here and here). Germany, one of the main countries pushing for a deal, received the bulk of the influx, with 180,000 asylum applications by Afghans in 2015 and 2016.

The agreements were partly in response to the trouble European countries faced in getting the Afghan authorities to cooperate with the deportation of failed Afghan asylum seekers. The agreements have widely been interpreted as a signal that European countries intend to significantly accelerate the rate of forced and voluntary returns.

Voluntary and forced returns

On 24 February 2016, a group of 125 Afghans arrived in Kabul from Germany (see here). This was the first group of voluntary returnees from Germany, after Europe’s ‘migration crisis’ in 2015. Germany hosts the highest number of Afghan refugees after Pakistan and Iran (for the number of Afghan refugees in Germany for the last 13 years, see here). Apart from having their trips back to Afghanistan paid, the German government – in cooperation with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) – also provided each of the 125 returnees with 700 Euros to help with their reintegration. Around 70 Afghans from this group continued their journey to their home provinces; IOM also covered the cost of this second stage of the trip, as well as accommodation in guesthouses in Kabul ahead of the journey.

The rate of voluntary returns from Europe has been steadily increasing. Between 2003 and the beginning of 2016, IOM facilitated over 15,000 voluntary returnees from countries including the UK, Norway, Netherlands, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, France, Belgium and Australia, in other words, on average, a little over a thousand individuals per year. In the first half of 2016, over 4,000 voluntary returns including 440 families were assisted by IOM. In this period, the highest number of voluntary returns was recorded from Germany (51 percent) followed by Greece (26 percent) and Turkey (10 percent). The majority of the returnees belonged to the age group of 19-26 (40 percent, out of which 87 percent were male) followed by 27-40 (21 percent, out of which 74 percent were male).

In terms of the Afghan government’s stance when it comes to repatriations of Afghans from Europe, its focus so far had been on trying to prevent mass forced returns (or any forced returns at all). Recently, however, after a long negotiation process with the EU, the Afghan government had been forced to accept a series of readmission agreements in which it committed itself to readmit Afghan nationals who are found to have no legal basis for remaining in an EU member state (for more details see AAN reporting here). Although the agreements contain no indication of numbers (other than that it says that there will be no more than 50 non-voluntary returnees per flight in the first six months), an earlier leaked memo stated that “more than 80,000 persons could potentially need to be returned in the near future.”

The Afghan government does not appear to have a policy in place to deal with this potential influx of returnees from Europe, many of whom will have exhausted their economic means during their journey to Europe and their families may well have gone into debt or sold economic assets, such as land, to help send them (see previous joint AAN and FES study on this issue here Although there seems to be a document called the Comprehensive Voluntary Return and Reintegration Programme, (AAN has not seen the document, but an advisor with the refugees’ ministry mentioned it in a conversation), it is yet to be incorporated into the Strategic Solutions for Afghan Refugees programme, a regional multi-year initiative, which aims to help facilitate voluntary returns and sustainable reintegration, while at the same time providing assistance to host countries. The programme, moreover, would need to be funded and implemented by IOM, or another agency.

The government and the refugees’ ministry may also be overwhelmed with returnees from another quarter: already this year (figures from early September 2016), more than 225,000 Afghans have returned from Pakistan and 245,000 people become IDPs this year. This means that, already, over one million people are anticipated to be ‘on the move’ internally and across borders in 2016 (see UN Humanitarian Flash Appeal from September 2016 here). The returnees from Europe, who, so far, have come in far more limited numbers and get help from IOM, do not seem to have been a priority and the Afghan government seems to have relied on the fact that they are already receiving some support from their temporary hosts in Europe. But as their numbers rise, the issue will become more pressing.

This is particularly relevant, as public opinion will probably not respond favourably. Many Afghans believe their government is not doing enough to persuade European governments, as well as Pakistan and Iran, to allow Afghans to stay, as long as the country is still in conflict and the economy weak. Although forced returns from Europe have been limited, they are likely to pick up in the near future. Voluntary returns, already at an all-time high, are also likely to sharply increase (particularly as pressure grows in European countries). The concerns are what will happen to those returning in the near future, whether voluntary or forced.

AAN spoke to two recent returnees from Europe – Muder Khan from Khost province and Rahmatullah from Samangan – who spoke about the individual experiences of those who have tried their luck in Europe, but end up being returned home.

The travel to Europe: taking the Arctic route

Both of these returnees were young men who had travelled to Norway via Russia in the autumn of 2015. This was at a time when Afghans overtook Syrians in terms of numbers of arrivals in Norway. They travelled via what the Reuters news agency has referred to as ‘the Arctic route’. According to Reuters, almost 22,000 people sought asylum at Norway’s borders in the first ten months of 2015, including 7,858 from Syria and 4,079 from Afghanistan – with a record number of arrivals at the most northern frontier of 196 per day in November 2015 (compared to 10 arrivals throughout the whole of 2014). The Norwegian directorate of immigration even sent a tweet warning in November 2015 that single Afghan men who have legal papers to stay in Russia, risk being sent back to Afghanistan if seeking asylum in Norway (see here).

Muder’s story

Muder Khan, a man in his late twenties from Khost province, made use of the so-called ‘bicycle loophole – a legal loophole that allowed people to cross the remote Arctic Russian-Norwegian border by bicycle (described in a Guardian article here). He had found a smuggler in Gul Bahar business centre in Kabul and left money with a friend, who was charged with paying the smuggler once he safely arrived in Norway. He then first travelled to Russia on a 40-day tourist visa arranged by the smuggler and then crossed the border with Norway by bicycle, again on advice of the smuggler. This northern route, across the Arctic Circle, was much less busy and faster than the Balkan route was in 2015 and 2016. He recollected the journey he undertook in October 2015 in his interview with AAN:

I left Afghanistan for Europe in October 2015 and arrived in Norway in November 2015. Initially, I wanted to go to Germany… but in the end, my target was just to get to Europe and to find a safe place. First the smugglers told us that the way through Ukraine would be easy, because we could fly to Moscow and from there go to Ukraine and from Ukraine to Europe… I had a 40-day Russian tourist visa with me. When the Russian soldiers stopped us in Belgorod [near the Russian–Ukrainian border] they asked us where we were going. The smuggler had advised us to tell them that we were going to a wedding party. But the Russian border guards still detained us. We were held for three days and three nights; then they released us. When we got back to Moscow, the smuggler told us that the route through Norway was much easier and that we could easily get to Europe from there.

I spent ten days in Moscow, after I returned back from the border with Ukraine. After that we went Murmansk where we stayed for a few days. After ten days the Russian soldiers [probably referring to Federal Border Service guards] provided bikes for us and from there we biked onto Norwegian soil. The Norwegian soldiers [at the other side of the border] welcomed us. When we showed them our documents, they took our passports and after checking them they took us to a city.

Rahmatullah’s story

Our second interviewee, Rahmatullah, is a Shia Muslim from Samangan province whose family lives in Karachi in Pakistan. He chose to leave Afghanistan via the Arctic route in mid-September 2015. He said he was, “too afraid of the smuggling route through Iran,” hence had chosen the route via Russia. He shared the following story with AAN:

I wanted to go to Europe through Russia. First I went to Moscow by plane. From Moscow we went to Murmansk by plane and from there I got into Norway. I arrived in Norway in October 2015. I had not decided to go to Norway in the beginning. I wanted to go to Austria and that was also what I had agreed with the smuggler. But when we got to Moscow, I found out that some of my friends tried to go to Austria through Ukraine and had faced a lot of problems. These friends told me not to go to Austria. And then the border was also closed.

Refusal, deportation and arrival

Both men received a negative response from the Norwegian government after which both claimed they were detained (see here for an overview of Norwegian asylum procedure and here what happens if the asylum claim had been rejected). Rahmatullah did not give any details on how he was arrested by the Norwegian police, but he told AAN that he spent two weeks in detention, before he was sent back to Afghanistan:

After I got a negative response from the Norwegian government, the police put me in jail. The reason they gave was that whoever receives a negative response from the Norwegian government, tries to flee the country. They thought I would escape from Norway. Therefore they did not let me out of the jail at all. After that, I hired a lawyer for my case. An Afghan and three Norwegians helped me to pay for the lawyer who worked on my case. When the police put me in jail, they told me that they would deport me in two weeks. My lawyer sent my documents to the UN, but since there was too much workload on the UN workers, they could not deal with my documents. The lawyer told me that after I was sent back to Afghanistan, he would still follow my case. I was deported on 21 June 2016. Since then I have been in touch with my lawyer. He said he is still trying [to get him back to Norway].

After a month in detention, the Norwegian government also sent back Muder Khan. He told AAN the following story of his arrival to Norway and stay in the country:

When we got onto Norwegian soil, for the first three to four months, the police treated us well, but later they put us in small rooms; there were 15-20 people in one room and the rooms were very cold. Other people who were with me in Norway had their applications rejected very quickly, but I only got my answer after eight months. The reason they gave for the rejection was that, since I am living in Khost province, which is not a secure province, I should better move to Kabul city.

This is not a surprising answer. “The courts in Europe accept that many are in danger in their home provinces, but they argue that these people can be safe in Kabul,” Liza Schuster told AAN. Schuster is a lecturer at the City University of London, who has researched what happens to Afghans post-deportation. (See also her recently published article, in which Schuster questions European court decisions, and argues that Kabul is not safe for people to be deported back to the city).

Muder Khan explained to AAN how he was returned to Afghanistan, without making it fully clear whether he was deported or returned willingly. This is what he told AAN:

After I got the rejection, they put me in jail for a month [he is referring to a centre for deportees or asylum centre as the jail]. The jail cells were small. I was kept in the cell from eight in the evening till nine in the morning. After I spent one month in jail, the Norwegian government deported me [NB he used the English term and it was not clear if he meant the return was voluntary or force]. They didn’t ask me anything or say anything or promise anything. I thought: even if I resist and say that I don’t want to go back to Afghanistan, it will not change the decision of the Norwegian government. So I kept silent and they sent me back to Kabul.

Muder Khan was sent back on 3 September 2016, ten months after he arrived in Norway in November 2015.

Both men had spent a small fortune to pay for their travel to Europe. Rahmatullah, a cook who had worked for international media companies in Kabul since 2010, paid 17,000 US dollars to reach Norway. Since he returned in June 2016, he lives in Kabul on his own, while his family is still in Karachi. He has no job and no money to pay his debts. He told AAN:

I am not happy with my life, because I cannot freely walk in the city as other people can [he is referring to threats he said he received from locals in Samangan, because he worked with international organisations as a cook]. I am waiting for the response from my lawyer, I hope he will help me get back to Norway. If nothing happens I may go to Karachi and join my family. I don’t feel safe here and I don’t want to stay here.

Muder Khan worked as an interpreter and contractor with the American military in Khost and as a project supervisor with MEC, earning 600 US dollars a month. He paid 13,000 US dollars for his trip to Norway. He is in Kabul. He told AAN he cannot go back to Khost province:

I am going from one friend to another [staying in their houses]. I have no job at all. Currently I am in debt for 7,000 US dollars to my friends who helped me. I also sold a car to finance my trip to Europe.

Support for those who return

Those who choose to return voluntary with IOM assistance generally receive several benefits, as opposed to those who do not join the scheme. A facilitated return often includes travel costs and in-airport support with check-in and arrival (deportees get this too), a medical assessment before travel, including basic treatment and referrals, temporary accommodation in Kabul and onward transportation to the provinces, information provision and counselling, often a small cash grant to address the most immediate needs during travel and on arrival (clothing, communication etc), and more extensive post-arrival counselling services, if required. Finally, to ease the reintegration, voluntary returnees can receive additional support in the form of training, business start-up funds, job referrals, and schooling and living cost assistance. These programmes are designed to allow returnees to finish their education, to learn a skill (like carpentry), start small business, or find a job to help ease their reintegration.

Both Rahmatullah and Muder Khan said there was little help on offer. Muder Khan, for example, said:

The Norwegians paid me 350 US dollars for travel expenses in Afghanistan. The police who deported me told me I can also submit an application [for a reintegration grant] to the Norwegian embassy to provide me with 1200 US dollars, but I have not submitted it yet… The Afghan government did not support me and I have no budget to start a business with, but still I am looking to find a job.

Rahmatullah, it seems, got his 1200 US dollars grant from the Norwegian government immediately:

When the Norwegian police deported me to Kabul, they gave me 1160 US dollars. The Norwegian government also paid the expenses for a hotel in Kabul where I stayed for 14 days. The Afghan government did not give me anything; instead the Afghan police at the airport insulted me by using abusive words against me.

The size of the assistance grant depends on the governments that are sending back the migrants. For example, the UK government pays only 100 pounds to returnees, the German government around 700 Euros and the Finnish around 1000 Euros. The grant money is intended to help people get through the first couple of weeks or months after their return.

However, many people, like Rahmatullah and Muder Khan, have sold their belongings and borrowed a lot of money from family and friends, or moneylenders. After being forced to return to Afghanistan, if they are not plugged into a support network, they risk facing serious challenges. According to Schuster, “Those without networks face destitution, or worse, and are often forced to risk trying to return to the dangerous provinces [they had left in the first place].” Her research on what happens post-deportation found that, for these reasons, 80 percent of those who are deported, are likely to migrate again. Schuster, believes deportation represents a crisis that must be resolved. In a recent co-authored article (“What happens post-deportation? The experience of deported Afghans” with Nassim Majidi, Migration Studies journal) she argues:

If someone is deported before debts can be repaid, and if they are unlikely to be able to repay it post-deportation, there is a strong incentive to re-migrate, even if that means increasing the original debt. Debts, whether to family members or to more formal lenders, cannot be written off and those lenders recognize that their best chance of repayment is through financing re-migration.

Although, according to Schuster, most undocumented Afghans in Europe work in the shadow labour market, making minimal daily wages, for Afghans this still represents more money that many of them could make in Afghanistan. The chance of landing a job in Europe is thus considered insurance that they would be able to pay their debts and financially support their families.

Some European governments believe that media campaigns would change the way Afghans think. The German government, for example, has channelled money through the refugees’ ministry in an effort to try to stem the mass exodus of Afghans, with a social media and billboard campaign (from March 2015) (see here). It uses graphic images and messages aimed at discouraging those wanting to leave, such as, “Don’t go. Stay with me. There might be no return!” The number of Afghans leaving the country, however, continued to increase in the second half of 2015, and coincided with the opening of the Balkan route (see AAN report here).

The relatively unsuccessful media campaign resulted in a change of narrative of some donor countries, which started to consider re-shuffling the development aid towards the provinces which were sending the highest numbers of migrants to Europe to try, not only to prevent migration, but also help returnees to reintegrate. However, the Afghan government’s policy, which until recently was exclusively focused on defying readmissions, requires some fundamental reshaping and rethinking. Afghanistan has just received a pledge of 15 billion US dollars for the next four years at the Brussels conference on Afghanistan (see AAN recent reporting here), but with the government, and in particular the refugees’ ministry in denial of the problem, and not ready to cooperate, it seems that Europe would be a driver of the reintegration process itself.



(1) In the past 15 years, Afghanistan has signed memoranda of understandings on returns and readmissions with several EU/Schengen member states. These allow the countries to return or deport Afghans who failed in the asylum application. Including with France (2002), UK (2002), Netherlands (2002), Denmark (2004), Switzerland (2005), Norway (2005), and Sweden (2006, until 2009).

The EU and Afghanistan signed the readmission agreement on 2 October 2016 after a year of negotiations and several last minute hurdles – including, on the Afghan side, refusals to sign and an attempt to involve parliament. President Ghani and Dr Abdullah both backed the agreement, while Minister for Refugees Balkhi said Afghans migrants should be allowed to stay, regardless of whether their claims for asylum were accepted or not.

See AAN recent reporting here.



Refugee Returnees


Fazl Rahman Muzhary

More from this author