Afghanistan News and Views


ON MIGRATION, AFGHANISTAN: Dying to Get to Europe | Inter Press Service

They are not just data or numbers for statistical calculations. They are desperate human beings fleeing wars, violence, abuse, slavery and death. They hear and believe the bombastic speeches about democracy and human rights and watch the many images of welfare and good life in Europe. They are so desperate that trusting the promises of human traffickers comes almost naturally to them. After all these human traffickers are the very people who lure them to

Source: Dying to Get to Europe | Inter Press Service


AFGHANISTAN: To be born a women to burn in hell

Afghanistan is the only country in the world where the rate of female suicide is higher than that of men, and in the province of Herat almost 100 women a year burn themselves alive. 


Same Old Story for Woman 1Yanet Medina Navarro


The olive eyes of Shaista peep between the bandages covering her burnt body, for she, like so many other Afghan women from the city of Herat, decided to escape her life by way of fire.

Shaista arrived at the hospital burning between wisps of hair and fabric, and her 19-year-old body is now a landscape of lava.

Tears seep between the gauze and the passageways of her blistered skin. Compassion is the closest thing to love that she will experience, and the hands of the man who changed her bandages are amongst the few that didn’t strike her.

She set herself on fire for a crime she didn’t commit, one that doesn’t exist, or one that everyone else appears to see except her. Her crime was being born a woman.

mujer velo islam musulman pixabayAccording to the British organisation Oxfam, 8 out of every 10 Afghan women suffer either physical, sexual or psychological violence.

In 2015, the Independent Afghan Commission for Human Rights registered 5,132 gender crimes and between April and June 2016 the Ministry of Women’s Affairs reported 600, but many go unreported.

The women who go to the police are at risk of being raped before being returned to their families. Those who escape for more than 48 hours face accusations of adultery, the punishment for which is either facial mutilation or death. Passed between relatives, offered to others to pay debts or settle disputes, raped and subjected to acid attacks in the streets; these women lose their mental stability and take their own lives in the most brutal way.

They usually come from lower social groups and as they don’t have access to guns or money to buy barbiturates, they drink rat poison, hang themselves, jump into rivers or set themselves on fire.

religion mujer vejez anciana viej pixabayAlthough the families declare a ‘domestic accident’, it is easy to identify a suicide, as the majority are aged between 14-21 years old and are soaked in kerosene, when in fact most people use firewood or gas to do the cooking at home.

85% of Afghan women are unable to read or write and thus out of ignorance believe that they will die quickly. But instead they suffer for days before dying. Many pour boiling oil over themselves or drizzle it over their abdomen in order to raise attention to their plight, but sometimes the flames envelop them.

80% of those who arrive in hospital perish because of a lack of means to treat them, and if they do survive, they suffer lifelong consequences, for it is difficult to follow a course of treatment whilst carrying water and looking after numerous children.

Almost 40 years of war brought with it misery, poor health and lack of governance, under which the patriarchal system flourished; a system which made Afghanistan an open-air prison for women, causing them irreparable psychological damage.

Mujeres afganas y violencia1The country’s laws tolerate tribal codes and 60% of girls under the age of 15 are forced to marry men double their age, according to the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan.

Studies from the UN Fund for the Development of Women reveal that the majority of widows sell their bodies or turn to begging in order to survive, and 65% of them see suicide as the only solution to their misery.

Herat, once known as the Pearl of Khorasan, is today a ghost town, with a horizon dotted with adobe houses, obsolete war munitions and faces hidden from the world behind the grille of a burka.

After a week in hospital, Shaista’s mother-in-law escaped with her to hide her at home, as her son simply didn’t deserve the shame of a suicidal wife.

Salma a woman's journey 11Almost a month after the fire, she returned with wounds all over her body and without any feeling in her arms due to large necrotic areas. She did, however, survive – one of life’s cruel jokes.

Now with the same fears as before, scars from the fire on her skin and with only one arm to carry her daughter, Shaista is back in the place that she so wanted to flee.

Photos: Pixabay   –   (Translated by Eleanor Gooch)


AFGHANISTAN: Afghanistan: Ghani, Hekmatyar sign peace deal


Afghanistan: Ghani, Hekmatyar sign peace deal

President Ghani inks deal with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in first peace treaty since the war with the Taliban began in 2001.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has formalised a peace treaty with Hezb-i-Islami, an armed group led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a deal the government hopes will lead to more agreements with other fighters.

Hekmatyar also signed the agreement on Thursday via a video link into Kabul’s presidential palace. The ceremony was broadcast live on television.

It is the first peace treaty the Afghan government has completed since the war with the Taliban began in 2001.

READ MORE: Hekmatyar’s never-ending Afghan war 

The accord with the largely dormant Hezb-i-Islami has been welcomed by the international community as a possible template for any future peace deal with the Taliban, who have been fighting to overthrow the Kabul government for 15 years.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry issued a statement on Thursday, praising the deal.

“Pakistan has consistently emphasised that there is no military solution of the conflict in Afghanistan. Politically negotiated settlement through an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process is the most viable option for bringing lasting peace and stability to Afghanistan,” the statement said.

It also said the deal was encouraging and wished achievement of durable peace to Afghanistan.

Years after Taliban, central Afghanistan remains neglected

The president of Afghanistan said earlier: “This is a chance for the Taliban and other militant groups to show what their decision is: to be with people and join the respected caravan of peace, like Hezb-i-Islami, or confront the people and continue the bloodshed.”

Ghani also pledged to lobby the US and the UN for the lifting of international sanctions on Hekmatyar, who was designated a “global terrorist” by the Washington for his suspected ties to al-Qaeda and the Taliban.

Once international sanctions are lifted, Hekmatyar is expected to return to Afghanistan after 20 years in exile. He is believed to be in Pakistan.

The head of his delegation in Kabul, Amin Karim, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that he believes the sanctions could be lifted within weeks.

File: Gulbeddin Hekmatyar was designated by the US as a “global terrorist” in 2003 [Reuters]

Once branded the “butcher of Kabul”, Hekmatyar was a prominent anti-Soviet commander in the 1980s who stands accused of killing thousands of people when his fighters fired on civilian areas of the capital city during the 1992-1996 civil war.

Human Right Watch, the New York-based watchdog, last week branded Hekmatyar “one of Afghanistan’s most notorious war crimes suspects” and said his return would “compound a culture of impunity” that has denied justice to the many victims of warlords’ forces.

The 25-point peace agreement gives Hekmatyar and his followers immunity for past actions, and grants them full political rights.

READ MORE: Hezb-i-Islami armed group signs peace deal

In a speech greeted with chants of “Long Live Hekmatyar” from his supporters, who had gathered in the presidential palace, he called on the Afghan government to start peace talks with the Taliban.

“I call on all sides to support this peace deal and I call on the opposition parties of the government to join the peace process and pursue their goals through peaceful means,” Hekmatyar said in his message.

Afghan government signs peace deal with armed group

“We hope that the day comes when foreign interference has ended, foreign troops have departed fully from Afghanistan, and peace has been achieved.”

Alexey Yusupov, Afghanistan director at the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Foundation, a German think-tank, said the deal was highly symbolical but it was unlikely to result in a peace agreement with the Taliban,

“Although you could say Hezb-i-Islami is the second largest insurgent group, their importance for what is going on in the Afghan battlefield this year is fairly non-existent,” he told Al Jazeera.

“The peace deal, although … showing that there is something that the Afghan society and Afghan political actors can actually achieve without foreign mediation and intervention – and this is something very important – that doesn’t mean that we will see a decline in violence, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that a real peace process with the Taliban will happen any time soon.”

The Taliban did not immediately comment on the agreement.


AFGHANISTAN: Condoms and conflict: imams defy Taliban to spread contraception

Maeva Bambuck and Sedika Mojadidi in Mazar-i-Sharif



The imams, the Taliban and the condoms – video by Maeva Bambuck and Sedika Mojadidi

On a crisp autumn morning in northern Afghanistan, a group of imams in elegant turbans and with cultivated beards listen to a seminar about the merits of a lubricated condom.

An array of contraceptives around him, Dr Rahmatuddin Bashardost, a programme manager for Marie Stopes International (MSI), then moves on to talk about birth control injections.

Some imams take boxes of condoms for themselves, others take them to distribute to their congregations. “It would be very good if we could show people that there are four or five kinds of birth control methods,” says one imam. The others nod.

In culturally conservative Afghanistan, it is often left to local imams to deal with delicate social issues such as family planning. It is not, however, that simple. Those who advocate what are seen as modern ideas, including contraception, can fall foul of the Taliban. “Imams like myself disappear and no one asks about them,” says Mansour Mahsoom, one of the clerics involved in the programme.

Foreign aid to Afghanistan has dramatically increased access to healthcare and family planning, but despite reproductive health campaigns through public service announcements and healthcare providers, only 22% of Afghan families use contraception.

Cultural and economic barriers have kept both maternal and infant mortality rates the highest in Asia, with 67% of mothers giving birth at home, often because their husbands forbid them to go to hospital. The relentless pressure to bear many sons, a sign of high economic status, sometimes ends in tragedy.

One in 50 Afghan women dies of causes related to pregnancy. Five years ago, MSI and the UN Population Fund realised the most effective way to decrease mortality rates was to reach men through mosques. They set up partnerships with local imams and their wives to change reproductive practices in their communities.

The Qur’an supports the use of contraception to allow women breaks between pregnancies to nurse their children. It states: “The mothers shall give suck to their offspring for two whole years.” Another passage says: “Allah desires to lighten your burden, for man was created weak.”

Most Afghans, however, are not aware of this. Instead, the Taliban threaten imams for collaborating with a western occupying power. Some have received anonymous phonecalls and letters.

The Taliban are returning fast, so fast that the US announced last month that it would halt the pullout of its remaining troops. The insurgents’ brief takeover of Kunduz in early October was bad news for the imams. Afghan forces may have retaken the city, but growing sectarian violence has made any promotion of western medicine and practices too dangerous for now.

The 200-year-old mosque Imam Mahsoom presides over is the focal point of his community. Each day after prayer, scores of men and boys ask him for advice on health, money, jobs and family issues.

“These men are primarily farmers. They’ve known only war and guns and weapons,” the 36-year-old scholar says. “It takes time, but I’ve been able to encourage them to take their wives to the MSI clinic for treatment and medicine.”

At MSI’s clinics, women have access to prenatal and postnatal care and contraception at reasonable prices. Condoms cost two Afghanis (2p) the birth control pill 15 and Depo-Provera injections 30.

For women in the countryside, who are seldom allowed out of the house, the injection only requires them to make the journey to the clinic every three months.

MSI has reached out to 6,000 imams and their wives so far. With their help, it estimates that it averted 1,646 unintended pregnancies in 2014, up from 199 in 2008. Last year the charity even noticed the wives of local Taliban members coming to its clinics for consultations.

An atmosphere of fear, however, surrounds the programme. For a time, the imams were comfortable distributing condoms outside their mosques. Today threats from the re-emergent Taliban forces mean they all have given up the practice.


AFGHANISTAN: Dirty Money in Afghanistan

At a money market in Kandahar Province, November 2012.

At a money market in Kandahar Province, November 2012.  AHMAD NADEEM / REUTERS, by Javid Ahmad, Sept. 7, 2016

In 2015, the profits generated by Afghanistan’s illicit economywere worth more than $1 billion. Drug trafficking, smuggling, unregulated trade, and fraud in procurement contracts are encumbering the country’s economic development and funding the terrorist groups that undermine its stability.

Money laundering plays a crucial role in supporting this criminality. Yet over the past decade, the government has not been able to do much to crack down on it: of the many clear cases of the practice that have appeared, only a few have been prosecuted. The problem is a product of several factors, including lax financial and customs controls, inadequate expertise in the Afghan government, high-level opposition to change, and weak enforcement mechanisms.

The hawala system is appealing to Afghans seeking to shield ill-gotten gains from the state.

Chief among the roadblocks, however, is the nature of Afghanistan’s capital flows. Most of the country’s economic activity is informal, and data provided by the Ministry of Finance suggest that only 35 percent of the financial flows within the country are legal. Unregulated cash transactions and remittances through the country’s traditional money transfer system, a network of brokers known as hawala, are the rule. According to the Financial Action Task Force, an international anti-money-laundering body, more than half of all transactions in Afghanistan involve hawala brokers. Ordinary Afghans do not have many other options: although the country’s banking sector has grown significantly in recent years, most commercial banks are still concentrated in its cities. For many Afghans, hawalabrokers, whose services often leave no paper trail, provide services that are cheaper and more convenient than their counterparts in the official banking sector.

Largely because of its informality and opacity, the hawala system is also at the center of Afghanistan’s troubles with money laundering. Many brokers are unlicensed, operating without oversight in violation of domestic laws and foreign exchange regulations. Making matters worse, the line between the official banks and the hawala system is blurry. Hawala brokers often keep bank accounts and use bank transfers to pay other brokers abroad, and Afghan banks have used the system to send money to the country’s remote areas. This makes it nearly impossible for the government to determine which funds sent through the hawala system are above board and which are not. Together with the hawala system’s lack of formal limits on the size of transfers, such factors have made the system appealing to Afghans seeking to shield ill-gotten gains from the state.

Those who profit from Afghanistan’s massive narcotics sector are the biggest beneficiaries. In 2015, Afghanistan’s opium economy was worth some $1.5 billion, or around seven percent of the country’s GDP. A large part of this money ends up in the hands of the Taliban and other insurgent groups: according to the United Nations, in 2015, at least ten percent of the earnings from poppy cultivation in Afghanistan’s eastern and western provinces financed such organizations. In Afghanistan’s opium-rich provinces, according to the World Bank, more than 80 percent of the proceeds generated by the drugs trade run through the hawalasystem.

Cracking down on the laundering of drug money through the hawala system is especially difficult because in many cases, the transactions involve the exchange of goods as well as cash. In northern Afghanistan, for example, traffickers, abetted by Afghan officials who are willing to look the other way, load trucks bound for Central Asia with drugs, precious stones, and metals. The exporters of the illicit cargoes disguise the profits they reap from their sale by importing goods instead of transfering money in return, paying the government’s import tax at the border, and disguising their ownership of the imported goods by laundering the funds from their sale through shell companies and hawala brokers. The shell companies then invest the proceeds into normal commercial activities, such as real estate investments. These kinds of exchanges are extremely difficult to trace.

The ease with which drugs cross Afghanistan’s borders speaks to the broader difficulties that Kabul has had with customs control. In the past, traders managed to avoid border inspections by paying off customs officials. That problem has diminished recently, mostly thanks to changes President Ashraf Ghani has made to Afghanistan’s customs system. Yet powerful officials still flout a rule requiring that they declare cash worth more than $20,000 at the border; in recent years, they have carried millions of dollars out of the country.


Over the past decade, Afghanistan has successfully prosecuted only a handful of money-laundering or terrorism-financing cases. Between 2011 and 2014, the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Center of Afghanistan (FinTRACA), a financial intelligence unit, referred several cases to the country’s attorney general, but none were brought before the courts, and the authorities did not issue orders to freeze or seize assets in any of them. For its part, FinTRACA has never sanctioned a bank or hawala broker for regulatory breaches or for violating anti-money-laundering or terrorism-financing laws. And no hawala brokers have reported suspicious transactions to FinTRACA, even though all of Afghanistan’s financial entities are legally required to do so. What is more, money laundering is still treated as a minor offense in Afghanistan: it is punishable by an imprisonment of between two and five years or a fine of between $1,000 and $7,000.

Those who profit from Afghanistan’s massive narcotics sector are the biggest beneficiaries.

Afghanistan’s National Unity Government is taking on this problem with an approach that is tougher than its predecessor’s. In June, Ghani established an Anticorruption Justice Center to investigate and prosecute high-ranking officials, including former cabinet ministers and governors, suspected of graft—a move that, predictably, has angered many current and former officials. So far, the center has reviewed over 150 corruption cases, and it is preparing a number of prominent ones for prosecution. The government has also strengthened its ability to combat money laundering and terrorism financing. It has amended the laws that criminalize both practices, requiring the attorney general to order asset freezes against people involved in either offense as soon as the authorities have determined their involvement. Kabul is working to improve the ability of Afghanistan’s various government agencies to coordinate their efforts on money-laundering and terrorism-financing cases and is trying to improve compliance in the banking sector by increasing the government’s oversight of bank transactions. It has also computerized the government’s revenue and customs departments, both of which had been at the center of official corruption.

In recent months, Afghanistan has ramped up its inspections of hawala brokers and has strengthened its hawala licensing program so that it will punish brokers who do not regularly report suspicious transactions to the authorities by, for example, temporarily stripping them of their licenses. The program has also made it easier for the government to monitor and seize assets involved in money-laundering offenses. These efforts have been supported by a three-year, $45 million IMF grant aimed at bolstering Afghanistan’s banking laws and anticorruption regulations. More broadly, the government has overhauled the judicial sector, replacing more than 600 judges, removing 20 percent of the country’s prosecutors and 25 percent of customs officials from their posts, and prohibiting many others from leaving the country.

Harvesting opium in a poppy field in Farah Province, May 2009.

Harvesting opium in a poppy field in Farah Province, May 2009.

Ghani’s moves have raised the hopes of many, but some powerful Afghan—from former cabinet officials to local strongmen—have pushed back against his reforms to protect their own interests. Since the reform push still lacks deep domestic support, the backing of Afghanistan’s international partners, particularly the United States, will go a long way to making it a success.

The government should work with its international partners to better train Afghanistan’s judges, prosecutors, and regulators. It should also tighten its control of Afghanistan’s borders and continue to back FinTRACA’s efforts to fight money laundering and terrorism financing. Fixing Afghanistan’s problems will not only require cleaning up the drugs, real estate, procurement, and import-export sectors—it will demand dismantling the illicit financial flows that support law-breaking in all of them and threaten the country’s stability.


Afghanistan, Between India and Pakistan

thediplomat_2016-08-18_20-48-30-386x258, August 19, 2016, Ajibullah Noorzai

Afghanistan, a landlocked country, is located in a strategic location, connecting Central Asia to South Asia and East Asia to West Asia. For centuries, it functioned as the economic corridor for the Silk Road and other ancient trade routes in the region. The political rifts and instability in Afghanistan are often attributed to its strategic location, since major powers have always tried to control Afghanistan in the interest of spreading their political, economic, and ideological hegemony in the region.

Despite being a member of the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War, the confrontations between the two main power blocs had dragged Afghanistan into hostilities, turning it into a battlefield. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Afghanistan was left alone, drifting into civil war among different guerrilla Mujahideen groups, supported by the neighboring states. Eventually Pakistan managed to nurture and sponsor the Taliban that then controlled most of the country until they were overthrown by the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan in 2001.

Since their independence, India and Pakistan have been engaged in a protracted mutual hostility, with each country seeking to enhance its security and self-protection. To this end, they have acquired nuclear weapons, purchased sophisticated military technologies, and partnered with powerful states. Moves by one of them would cause the other to feel suspicious and insecure. However, the main reason behind the escalation of a spiral of distrust and hostility is due to the misinterpretation of motives and intentions by the decision-makers in both countries. As a result, both New Delhi and Islamabad seem to be trapped in what international relations scholars would describe as a security dilemma. This has borne costs, such as direct military conflicts between the two countries or, more recently, smaller skirmishes.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.In the post-Taliban era, besides other donors in Afghanistan, India has played a significant role in the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan by providing development assistance worth $2 billion, focusing primarily on infrastructure development, institutional capacity building, agriculture and food security, health, education, and scholarship programs. In contrast, Pakistan, itself being dependent on the security and development assistance of the United States and China, had not been in the position to provide substantial contributions to Afghanistan. Pakistan has however been wary of India’s active role. In other words, Islamabad considers a stable, friendly, and cooperativeAfghanistan only beneficial when it is under its influence and with limited Indian ties. Pakistan perceives India’s development contributions in Afghanistan as part of New Delhi’s strategic encirclement policy, counteracting Islamabad’s strategic depth policy.

However, Afghanistan does not expect Pakistan to meet India’s development assistance, but to stop harboring and supporting the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and other terrorist groups. Time and again, President Ashraf Ghani, in the strongest words possible, urged Islamabad to put an end to its undeclared war and crack down on the sanctuaries of the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network on their soil. Ghani, in an interview withPakistan’s Geo News last month, reiterated that Afghanistan is not part of any one country’s strategic depth, nor is it going to be anyone’s dependency. Whoever has tried this in the past has failed, Ghani warned. He also assured that he will not permit his country to be used for the destabilization of other countries – particularly the neighborhood. However, he emphasized that as a sovereign state, Afghanistan is free to strike partnerships with any state without posing a threat to others, which is the essence of regional stability and prosperity.

In the past decade and a half, Afghanistan, with the partnership of neighboring states, inked a series of regional infrastructure projects — among them the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) Pipeline and the Central Asia-South Asia Electricity Transmission project. Both are not only pivotal for the future of Afghanistan, but also for other signatories in the region. As a landlocked state, it ultimately gained direct access to Chabahar port with the partnership of Iran and India. This port should by no means be seen as a competition to other efforts in the region—especially the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor—but a necessity for regional trade and economic cooperation.

Pakistan’s strategic depth policy has not only failed but also brought Islamabad in a critical situation in which it will not be able to continue its duplicity – supporting and harboring the Afghan Taliban, Haqqani Network, and other insurgent groups in its soil, while also expecting to receive U.S financial support.  Washington, has already showed its frustration by withholding $ 300 million in military assistance. If Islamabad does not change its policy,U.S Congressmen and former U.S diplomats suggested not only to cut off the overall financial support but also impose economic sanctions to push Pakistan into a North Korea-type of isolation. Islamabad must take action to win the support of its oldest military ally, who has provided military and development assistance for decades. Islamabad should also acknowledge that Kabul has the sovereign right to establish partnerships with other states; it should not be wary of, doubt, or exaggerate the presence and cooperation of the United States and India in Afghanistan.

New Delhi is equally part of the paradigm in Afghanistan because of its development contribution and security assistance. Islamabad often claims that the Indian and Afghan intelligence agencies jointly support the Baloch separate movement. Thus, considering the sensitive security environment in Afghanistan and the region, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech during the Indian independence day, highlighted Pakistan’s atrocities and oppression in Balochistan and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, while refusing to acknowledge parallel atrocities and human right violations in India-administered Kashmir. This will further aggravate security challenges in Afghanistan as Islamabad will remain vigilant and suspicious of India’s active presence across the porous and insecure border.

Since taking office, President Ghani tried to establish good relations with Islamabad but his rapprochement efforts didn’t succeed. Being trapped between India and Pakistan, Kabul is also to some extent part of the problem, since President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah have not been able to tackle the epidemic corruption in the security sector and have appointed incompetent officials from their political camps. In the past few months, moreover, Kabul witnessed a range of horrific and brutal attacks that have borne a high toll. Thus, Kabul should take responsibility for ensuring security and stability throughout the country rather than blaming neighbors for its incompetency. Ghani and Abdullah have been unable to work together on the agreed national reform agenda that the National Unity Government was formed on back in 2014. Abdullah recently criticized Ghani for not consulting with him on key decisions; their unity is at the brink of dismantling while only less than two months are left before the 2016 Brussels Conference on Afghanistan.

The murky relations between these three neighbors in South Asia will have direct implications on the peace, security, prosperity, and stability of the broader region. India, Afghanistan, and Pakistan must understand that basing policy on illusions and supported by unrealistic rhetoric will deepen mistrust. Instead, they must pursue rapprochement by addressing differences between them, strengthening state-to-state partnerships, and further confidence building measures.

Najibullah Noorzai is a researcher and development analyst. He worked for the European Union and the United Nations in the areas of rule of law, counter-narcotics, and anti-corruption in Afghanistan. He tweets @NajNoorzai.


AFGHANISTAN: Kabul’s women seek refuge indoors after a series of acid attacks


NAFISA NOURI … “I CAN’T BREATHE WELL. I HAVE BURNS INSIDE MY THROAT. “, by Fariba Nawa, Aug. 10, 2016   —   In early July, the citizens of Kabul were faced with a confronting sight. Armed with a loudspeaker, novice rapper Elinaa Rezaie hit the streets, lifted the front of her burqa and displayed a bandaged face to passersby in the Pul-i-Surkh district of the city.

Rezaie stood before the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission building, protesting violence against women and the acid attacks she and others feared. That day, Nafisa Nouri, a wife and mother of two girls, was hospitalized after an attack. Nouri’s 7-year-old daughter Parinaz and another female relative of the family also suffered burns to their bodies and face from the acid.

Mobilzed by her anger, Rezaie rapped against the government’s weak response to violence against women. “I went to visit the acid victims in the hospital to tell them I feel their pain,” Rezaie told Women in the World. “Then I decided to demonstrate … because the rest of the world seems to have forgotten about us.”

The 22-year-old joined the chorus of women activists who have been warning of an abandoned international campaign to curb violence against women in her country after the U.S.-led coalition ousted the Taliban in 2001. Afghan women say they can no longer depend on outsiders or the Afghan government to help them. They can leave the country — thousands have escaped — or find ways to defend and protect themselves. Some women say their goal is rarely about gaining rights but staying alive and healthy amid rapidly deteriorating security, that is allowing heinous methods of violence such as acid attacks — which the Mujahideen spearheaded — to re-emerge.

Hizb-e-Islami, a former Mujahideen faction led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who the Afghan government recently welcomed as foe-turned-partner, threw acid on women wearing Western dress four decades ago. In 2008 in Kandahar, and last year in Herat, men on motorcycles used squirt guns to spray acid on schoolgirls in protest of education for females. The crime is more common in Pakistan and India than Afghanistan.

Women’s rights advocates say assaults in public in urban centers have become bolder in the last two years. But many of the recent attacks in the capital seem to involve personal rather than political motives, said Gholam Dastagir of Kabul police. In Kabul, at least three separate acid attacks against women were reported just in July, according to local Afghan news reports. The aim of attackers may be to punish women who might refuse a suitor, or insist on going to school or want a divorce. Families may not report the attack fearful of gossip and isolation.

Nouri, the acid victim, told Women in the World from the hospital that she was walking home with her family after visiting her brother for Eid when a man threw a bottle of acid at them from behind. The chemical poured down her face, disfiguring her and endangering her eyesight and hearing. She said she didn’t know why anyone would attack her.

She cries from the pain and said she can still smell the acid on her face. “I can’t breathe well. I have burns inside my throat. I still have nightmares about what happened, and I’m tired of being blamed for what happened to me,” Nouri, 27, said on the phone.

This attack and other incidents of reported rising violence in Kabul in the last year have created an atmosphere of heightened fear, activists from Women for Afghan Women and Women for Women International say. Neighbors and relatives often blame women for inciting the attacks instead of demanding justice, victims say.

The Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission reported a seven percent rise in violent assaults against women — from 1,394 to 2,579 — in the last two years in Afghanistan. But these statistics can mean that women are more empowered to report violence, not necessarily that the number of incidents are growing, said Horia Mosadiq, Afghanistan’s researcher for Amnesty International. “We know for sure that there’s more fear,” Mosadiq said. “But some of the systemic use of violence and attacks against women’s rights activists and women in public offices by Taliban have always been our concern.”

The Taliban have claimed responsibility for numerous assassinations of women across Afghanistan in their fight against the Western-backed Afghan government, although the hardline group has denied attacking women with acid.

That fear is disrupting women’s already limited freedoms in Kabul, said activist Frozan Marofi, who travels to dangerous parts of the country to meet with women and discuss economic and health empowerment. She receives frequent anonymous death threats on the phone and was rescued by male neighbors as two men threw punches at her on the street near her home a year ago.

Marofi said women in Kabul are changing their daily routine to protect themselves. Students and professionals who enjoyed a relatively urban lifestyle stay indoors more often, some have stopped wearing makeup, cover their faces and wear full body veils. They no longer take taxis in the dark or stroll in the evening, and some say they have a hard time even trusting co-workers and classmates.

“Girls are killed, then thrown in a creek, brothers burn sisters, infant girls are murdered,” Marofi said. “There’s no accountability, no follow-up of what happened from the police or media. This just creates fear and worry.”

Marofi said women’s rights are on the back burner for Afghanistan’s international supporters. While Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his wife Rula stand firmly for gender equality, the lower ranks in law enforcement and the judiciary don’t consider violence against women a serious crime, she said. Even when culprits are arrested, they pay bribes and are either freed or receive light sentences.

Yet women in Kabul continue to work, go to school and some, like Rezaie, confront the violence. Two dozen demonstrators joined Rezaie holding signs that said “Where’s my face” and “My sin is not being a woman.”

But two weeks after the acid attacks, Nouri complained that no one had been arrested for the crime that has her screaming in agony still. She borrowed $10,000 from friends and relatives to receive treatment in India where she is now soon to undergo surgery.

Manizha Naderi Parand of Women for Afghan Women, a New-York based nonprofit with women’s shelters in Afghanistan, said one way to tackle the apathy is to protest like Rezaie. But Afghan women need more allies, including men.

“Demonstrations are great. But they have to be much larger and systematic than this,” Parand said. “The problem is people don’t feel safe enough … people are afraid of bombings.”

Rezaie said her protest with a symbolic bandaged face probably didn’t have much of an effect, but she had to do something to fight the violence.

“Last year, I had more peace. It’s getting worse every year. This year, I’m afraid every day,” she said.


AFGHANISTAN: Afghan men have a responsibility to fight for women’s equality


Noorjahan Akbar: “Equality for women is not a threat to men. It is only a threat to sexism and good men must join the effort to making equality a reality.”, By M. Nadeem AlizaiJune 13, 2016  —  For years the Afghan policymakers have blamed insecurity for hampered development activities in the country. The picture they project is incomplete and full of flaws. As per statistics of Ministry of Public Health, suicides in Afghanistan exceed deaths by war and homicide combined annually. Instead of plugging the loopholes, Afghan lawmakers, leaders and high-ranking officials are distorting the facts.

In other words they have turned a blind eye to the reality that accelerating the development process requires full participation of women as they account for half of the country’s talent base. Unfortunately, some elements in the parliament, religious circles and the power corridors have created barriers to women’s empowerment. The development process of the country is stalled by gender discrimination. Women can play a more active role in development of the country if their rights were protected. There is no denying to the fact that empowering women demand joint efforts towards fighting discrimination in its various forms. Respecting women’s rights and their empowerment lay in the best interests of Afghanistan.

Talking on the super serious issue of gender equality, Noorjahan Akbar said that even before war, gender-based violence was rampant in the country.

Ms Noorjahan Akbar is women’s rights advocate and has been named one of Forbes’s “100 Most Powerful Women of the World”—an achievement for both Afghan women and men. The list of her achievements is lengthy. With a Masters in Journalism and Public Affairs from American University, she is not only writing on women’s rights but also engaged in multiple campaigns to end gender-based discrimination. She is the founder of Free Women Writers.

In an exclusive interview with Kabulscape, she suggested that the legislators should approve the Law on Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW) without change to serve the purpose.

The following is an excerpt from the interview:

Kabulscape: How can we protect Afghan women’s rights?

Noorjahan: First and foremost, we should talk about security. It is the number one concern for women around the country and it doesn’t just concern the Taliban and extremists, but also street harassment, and other forms of violence and threats women face in public. Without women’s active participation in all areas of public life, we cannot expect women’s situation, or the country’s situation for that matter, to improve. Without female doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, police officers, etc. it is hard for women to make progress and change cultural and social norms. This is why we need to focus on improving women’s security. Terrorists are a serious threat to our security, and so is public harassment of women. Terrorist attacks and sexual harassment in public spaces discourage women from participating in the society in meaningful ways. By fighting both, we can ensure not only women’s increased participation, but also a better life for all of us.

Kabulscape: How important is the role of religious scholars in protecting women’s rights?

Noorjahan: Religious leaders can help improve women’s situation by not promoting sexist and backwards interpretations of religious texts. They have a responsibility to speak out against gender-based violence (including forced and early marriage) and other forms of oppression of women that are not protected by religious laws, but rather by religious figures who have little awareness of religious text and promote hate and sexism.

Kabulscape: How can media play effective role in safeguarding women’s rights?

Noorjahan: By promoting positive female role models. Our girls have a right to see that they can succeed and that women can be powerful agents of change. While reports on gender-based violence can be effective in raising awareness about the problem, the most important way in which media can empower women is by promoting positive images of women’s participation in society and fighting the stigma associated with strong women working in public.

Kabulscape: Do you think that women’s rights violation is an old phenomena or result of the over three decades of war in Afghanistan?

Noorjahan: Both contribute. We cannot argue that before war Afghanistan was a safe haven for women. Even before war, we had gender-based violence, girls didn’t have access to schools, women were not allowed to work outside, and polygamy was rampant. However war has exasperated violent crime against women and it has increased child marriage and many other problems. The root of misogyny is the same regardless.

Kabulscape: It is said that many female lawmakers are not interested in protecting women’s rights. Do you agree?

Noorjahan: To some degree. I think it is important to realize that female lawmakers are attacked more than male ones. They are observed more closely so they are more careful about what they can and can’t do. They are held to a different standard from male lawmakers. However no one can deny the fact that many of these female lawmakers made it to the parliament because of women’s votes and they have a responsibility to protect women’s rights using their position, but the same goes for all law makers. Women made a high percentage of voters for all of them. They should all realize that women are also their constituents and they must take women’s needs and rights into account. For that to happen we also need to increase accountability and transparency and we need to put real pressure on our lawmakers to stand with us.

Kabulscape: How can female parliamentarians protect women’s rights?

Noorjahan: Voting for a female Supreme Court judge would be a good start. Passing EVAW without changing it is another important thing they can do.

Kabulscape: What will be a good strategy to empower women?

Noorjahan: Investing in women’s education and economic empowerment. These two are of the most important factors for gender equality. When women make their own money or are acknowledged for their unpaid financial contributions at home, they are more likely to be decision makers and more likely to decide the course of their own lives. When women are educated, they are more likely not only to get jobs, but also to stand up for their rights and the rights of other women.

Kabulscape: Do you think that increase in female literacy rate will help to overcome the issue of violence against women?

Noorjahan: Yes. Increase in literacy can make it possible for women to learn about their rights according to the law and demand those rights. It also opens doors for employment, economic empowerment, creating networks of support with other women, and advocating for equality. Illiteracy is the number one obstacle to creating a real grassroots movement of women in Afghanistan.

Kabulscape: In your opinion, what is the best approach to educate women and girls to fight for their rights on social, political and economical front?

Noorjahan: By investing in their education and giving them hope. So much of our news and public discourse focuses on the negative consequences of women’s empowerment (they idea is that if women are empowered, there will be a backlash that will hurt), but it is important to realize and promote the idea that if women are empowered, our entire communities are empowered.

Kabulscape: The tradition of ‘Baad’ or giving away of girls to settle a dispute is a serious hurdle for women to overcome. What would be the best way to fight this obsolete tradition?

Noorjahan: Religious leaders must speak up on this. Baad is not in Islam. It is a tradition that commodifies women’s bodies, opens them up to increased possibility of gender-based violence, and treats women’s bodies as men’s property. To end it religious leaders who have been promoting Baad need to correct themselves and end the mis-education. By the same degree a more fundamental way of ending this and other harmful traditions is by creating a culture of respect for women as full human beings- not sisters, daughters, wives, mothers, things for men- but full human beings. If we respect women as people we are less likely to sell them off or use their bodies to settle disputes.

Kabulscape: Many organizations claim that they are working for women’s rights protection but there is no visible effect of their work on lives of women, especially those living in remote areas. Many women see these organizations as business enterprises to get donations. How Afghan women can convey their grievances to the government in presence of such organizations?

Noorjahan: There are some organizations that are not honest in every sector, but because of the negative propaganda and sexism and attacks on women’s organizations, we only focus on women’s organizations when it comes to corruption. It is true there are some corrupt organizations that claim to work for women, but there are many great organizations as well and their work is unacknowledged, ignored and threatened. Media has been largely responsible for negative perceptions of women’s organizations, but women’s organizations also have to make a bigger effort to create real connections and networks with women in the grassroots level and prove themselves worthy of women’s trust.

Kabulscape: What shall be the approach of Afghan women to pressurize the parliament to approve the Law on Elimination of Violence against Women?

Noorjahan: It is important for the parliament to approve this law. I have campaigned for it. Many people have worked for it tirelessly, but at this point given the increased number of extremists in the Parliament, I think we need to focus our efforts somewhere else. I am afraid that if we bring it to the Parliament again, it will be changed into an anti-woman law with no substance. The signature by the president is enough for its implementation and this president will be here for a couple more years so I don’t think the law is facing threats. We need to focus our effort on implementing it and raising awareness about it to compact negative perceptions created by religious leaders who are anti-woman.

Not all men are rapist, violent or harassers- but nearly all men are silent when they see these atrocities and almost all rapists and harassers are men. This is a harsh reality, but to change it Afghan men have a responsibility to fight for equality and respect for women. A more equal society will serve not only women but all of us as it will allow us to live as full human beings and beyond restrictive gender roles. It will be better for our country as we will all be able to contribute to rebuilding it and it will be better for our children as they will be able to see respectful role models upon which to base their lives. Equality for women is not a threat to men. It is only a threat to sexism and good men must join the effort to making equality a reality.


AFGHANISTAN: Afghanistan political crisis: Entitlement vs democracy

The domestic dimension of the Afghan conflict is the absence of agreement among the elites on the framework and principles of political power, writes Moradian [Reuters]

Only legitimate, effective and sustainable politics can untangle the country from its multitude of challenges., 8/14/16, Opinion, by  — If war is the continuation of politics by other means, then the four-decade-old Afghan war has become one of the world’s most entrenched political puzzles, involving many actors and dimensions.

The growing political crisis within the Afghan National Unity Government is compounding the ongoing security and economic crises in the country.

According to the agreement that was brokered by the United States Secretary of State John Kerry, the National Unity Government would have to implement a number of electoral and political reforms by September 2016, including organising parliamentary elections and conveying the constitutional Loya Jirga, the grand assembly.

No meaningful step has been taken to honour those promises. Many are anxiously watching how Washington and the Afghan government will handle the looming September deadline.

Former President Hamid Karzai has begun expressing his desireto challenge Washington for the US’ perceived role in delaying the required reforms.

Moreover, Washington is consumed by its own electoral fever and its reliance over its leverage.

Unfortunately, the underlying causes and possible corrective measures are being overshadowed by Washington and Karzai’s macho duel, Ashraf Ghani’s clever strategy of delay and deception, and Abdullah Abdullah’s haplessness.

US’ doublethink approach

The US military intervention in late 2001 heralded a prompt victory over the Taliban and initiating a promising and inclusive political process. It also enjoyed an unprecedented local and international consensus and legitimacy.

However, soon Iraq proved more attractive to Washington and hence its diversion from the Hindu Kush mountains to the Tigris-Euphrates river.

The domestic dimension of the Afghan conflict is the absence of agreement among the elites on the framework and principles of political power.

That distraction was further worsened by US’ doublethink approach to Afghanistan. This Orwellian concept denotes the act of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct, often in distinctsocial contexts.

This was and continues to be manifested at three mutually reinforcing levels: the US’ internal decision making, its regional policy and Washington’s approach to the Afghan political scene.

From early 2002 to date, Washington remains undecided as why, how, and for how long it should remain committed to Afghanistan.

There has been an unfinished struggle between the US policy community’s strategic approach to Afghanistan and the White House’s calendar-based impulse.

OPINION: Ethnic polarisation – Afghanistan’s emerging threat

Regionally, the US remains confused about its regional partners and adversaries. Pakistan was designated as US’ major non-NATO ally, while the most lethal Afghan terrorist group, the Haqqani network, was described by the US’ most senior military officer in 2011, Admiral Mike Mullen, as veritable arm of Pakistan’s military.

Washington’s handling of Afghan political milieu also suffered from a doublethink approach: promising to build a functioning democratic order while working mainly with corrupt actors and empowering ethno-nationalists.

Karzai’s multiple personalities

Karzai has become a globally-recognised politician and statesman. He sees himself as indispensable to Afghanistan’s stability and survival, while firmly believing in the political mastery of his fellow Pashtuns.

He neither advocates a suppressive theocratic order nor supports liberal secular dispensation. Such often-contradictory orientations have made him highly skilful and manipulative – a tribal, patriotic and cosmopolitan politician.

Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai [Getty]

Washington’s choices were a key determinant in the rise of Karzai. One can see two versions of him: Karzai I was when he was seen by Washington as malleable, charming and helpful between 2001 and the 2007-2008 period, when Washington not only sidelined his rivals but, more importantly, gave him “a winner-takes-all” strong presidential system with itsinstitutionalised ethnic hierarchy.

During this period, Karzai was the good guy and the Mujahideen leaders were seen as the bad guys.

Karzai II (2007-2008 and present) was mainly a product of Barack Obama’s Afghan policy, which was essentially premised on disengagement from the region. Karzai II became the bad guy, and peace with the Taliban was elevated as US’ salvation.

OPINION: The end of Pakistan’s double-games in Afghanistan

Karzai’s strategy has been essentially a combination of manipulation of rivalling power-brokers, charm-offensive of unthreatening constituencies and brinkmanship with Washington.

His reluctance to confront the Taliban and his role in engineering the 2014 presidential election in favour of Ghani are among his bitter legacies, while he is praised for his inclusive temperament.

Ghani’s double- pronged strategy

A former World Bank consultant and anthropologist, Ashraf Ghani shares a number of characteristics with his predecessor, while pursuing different strategies.

He sees himself as a saviour destined and determined to restore the Ghilzai Pashtuns’ lost political mastery against the Durrani Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns.

Washington must resist the temptation for personalisation of its challenges and strategies. The country does not need a saviour or an indispensable fatherly figure.

His strategy has been sidelining his electoral rival Abdullah Abdullah, favouring Ghilzai Pashtuns in political life by usingthe means of patronage and charm-offensive of the West.

In other words, there are two Ghanis: Ghani I, an authoritarian, tribal and divisive figure for the Afghan constituencies; and Ghani II, a reformist, modernising and visionary leader for Western and donor interlocutors.

For the latter, he projects himself as the good guy, while portraying Abdullah and Karzai as the bad guys.

OPINION: Afghan forces should learn from NATO’s mistakes

However, he continued to be haunted by the disputed 2014 presidential election. Apart from himself and his core supporters, there is hardly any constituency that considers him a clean winner of the 2014 presidential election.

Even the broker of the recent political agreement, Kerry has been quoted as saying, “If fraudulent votes were discounted, the gap closed significantly in Abdullah’s favour.”

It’s the politics, stupid

The domestic dimension of the Afghan conflict is the absence of agreement among the elites on the framework and principles of political power.

There are four broad approaches: Taliban’s terror campaign, former Mujahideen’s jihad dividends; ethnic entitlement and democratic politics. The ongoing and growing political crisis in Kabul is mainly waged by the two latter approaches.

Fortunately, there are important assets and opportunities that can help the country weather its turbulent transition from a constant struggle to reasonable stability and peace.

The massive participation of the ordinary people from all ethnic groups in recent elections has shown that the Afghans are striving for democratic governance, unlike their anti-democratic elites.

The Afghan constitution and the political agreement that gave birth to the Afghan National Unity Government provide a clear roadmap for the way forward.

Washington must resist the temptation for personalisation of its challenges and strategies. The country does not need a saviour or an indispensable fatherly figure.

Only legitimate, effective and sustainable politics can untangle the country from its multitude of challenges.

Davood Moradian is the director-general of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies, former chief of programmes in President Hamid Karzai’s office and chief policy adviser to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


AFGHANISTAN: Young people don’t see a future in Afghanistan, so they’re leaving


This mural on a blast wall in Kabul shows a picture of the perilous journey that hundreds of thousands of Afghans make to Europe each year in search of a better life. It was drawn by ArtLords activists during Art Activation Day, an event to bring awareness to the country’s brain drain problem and to encourage people stay in Afghanistan and invest in their society. (Omaid Sharifi/Omaid Sharifi), by Melissa Etehad, Aug. 12, 2016 — The well-educated, 20-year-old woman did not want to leave Afghanistan, but she said she had no choice.

After receiving death threats because of her work on women’s rights, she feared for her life and left in 2013 — feeling guilty, but intending to return after a few months when the security situation at home improved.Three years later, the young woman, now 24, lives in the United States and does not know when she will go back to Afghanistan. She told her story on the condition that her name not be used because of concern that her family in Afghanistan could be in danger.“I left because I didn’t feel safe anywhere,” she said. “Afghanistan doesn’t need another dead body or another dead woman.”She is one of a growing number of educated young people who, frustrated by their country’s growing insecurity and lack of job opportunities, have been leaving Afghanistan in record numbers.The woman, who earned her master’s degree in the United States, said that growing violence against women contributed to her decision to leave Afghanistan. Her parents agreed and told her not to return. In recent years, many of her friends have also left Afghanistan — partly because of the violence and the country’s depressed economy. “I know a lot of people who are leaving because they don’t have jobs and they are scared they can’t feed their children,” she said.

As a result of unemployment and the insecurity that has followed a resurgence of the Taliban after the withdrawal of U.S. and international forces at the end of 2014, Afghanistan’s economy showed minimal growth in 2015 — about 1.5 percent, according to the World Bank. Combined with increased fighting between government troops and insurgents, that instability is causing some of Afghanistan’s brightest young minds to flee the country.

“Everybody anticipated that this was going to be a problem because of the drop-off in the economic opportunity after the bulk of international forces were transiting out,” said James Cunningham, who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2011 to 2014. “Unfortunately, the government effort to reorganize itself to deal with the economy didn’t materialize as they had hoped.”

Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said that a large part of Afghanistan’s economy in recent years was built around the war, so brain drain was inevitable because a lot of jobs disappeared after the foreign troops left.

Although there are no reliable figures for the number of Afghans who leave each year, there was a mass exodus in 2015. Afghans accounted for 20 percent of the more than 1 million refugees who reached Europe’s shores in 2015, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, and nearly half of them were young adults.

As more educated young people pack up and leave Afghanistan, government officials, who are depending on the younger generation to rebuild the country, are becoming increasingly concerned.

Cunningham said it is important to find ways to encourage Afghans to remain in their country. “There are many people who are staying and continue to tough it out, and what they can do is quite noteworthy, actually,” Cunningham said. “My last year and a half in Afghanistan, I kept telling Afghan leaders that this was a really unique opportunity . . . and that they should take advantage of it,” he said of the country’s talented youth.

Shaharzad Akbar returned to Afghanistan after finishing her studies at the University of Oxford in 2010 and works in the project-management sector in Kabul. The 28-year-old says that even though she studied abroad and has relatives who left the country, she always planned to return to Afghanistan.

“We feel a sense of responsibility as people who are privileged with an education,” she said. “If we give up, who can we expect to stay behind?”

But she also understands the fears and frustrations of many of her peers. “Every morning when I leave the house, I don’t know if I’ll come back,” she said. “Every time I’m stuck in a traffic jam, I’m nervous about what could happen.”

Feroz Masjidi, an assistant professor of economics at Kabul University, also decided to return to Afghanistan after studying abroad. After finishing his studies in the United States on a Fulbright scholarship, Masjidi returned to Afghanistan in 2011. The 31-year-old said that he encourages his students to stay but that the government also needs to come up with more long-term solutions and help build confidence in the country so that Afghans will invest in it.

President Ashraf Ghani has made stemming the brain drain a priority. Last year, Afghanistan’s National Unity Government started a program called Jobs for Peace to stimulate more employment and restore faith in the economy. However, a lack of funding may limit the impact of this initiative, according to the World Bank.

The Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations started a social-media campaign to discourage people from making the trip to Europe, warning of the potential life-threatening dangers involved on the journey there.

Even if the government promises to create jobs for young people, it cannot change the fact that the economic outlook in Afghanistan is not promising in the near future, Felbab-Brown says. The World Bank estimates that gross domestic product growth will be 1.9 percent in 2016, which would mark the third year in a row it would be below 2 percent.

About 55 percent of the population is under age 20, according to the World Bank, and unemployment is hovering around 22 percent.

Bolstering the private sector and encouraging entrepreneurship are important steps toward lessening the brain drain, says Laurence Hart, the International Organization for Migration’s head of mission and special envoy for Afghanistan.

Young Afghans also have been involved in creating initiatives to motivate people to invest in the country. Omaid Sharifi, co-founder of ArtLords — a group that paints murals on blast walls around prominent buildings in Afghanistan — said that he wants to restore hope through the arts. Some of the group’s most popular murals feature giant eyes with the slogan “I See You” written near them, designed to fight government corruption and encourage transparency. Sharifi’s most recent project is aimed at tackling the brain drain problem.

“Thousands of young Afghans are leaving the country,” he said. “So I want to do an art activation day, where we paint nine to 10 murals in one day, have street art and also show a movie about immigration.”

Even for those like the young woman who left in 2013, Afghanistan is still home.

“I want to help out, and I want to participate in rebuilding [my country],” she said. “But I want to make sure if I die, it won’t be in vain. And right now, I’m not sure it won’t be in vain.”


AFGHANISTAN, ON THE MEDIA: Badakhshan’s journalists discuss media’s role in women empowerment, July 29, 2016 – Three experts on women empowerment and more than 60 journalists gathered at Feyzabad’s women’s centre to discuss the media’s role in women empowerment. The event was hosted by the Social Association of Journalists in North Afghanistan (SAJNA) and the Afghan-German Cooperation.

The result of the event was that media has a crucial responsibility in promoting women’s participation in society. It has the power to spread messages and raise awareness for the challenges women face. Most importantly, media has given women a voice which has allowed them to actively engage with the Afghan government, interest groups and society at large.

The meeting was attended by three Afghan experts Zofnun Hesam Natiq, Director of the Department of Women Affairs (DoWA) in Badakhshan, Najia Sorush, women’s rights activist and Nasima Sahar, representative of the Afghan-German Cooperation.

Natiq underlined the Afghan society’s need for women’s participation: “A country cannot develop in a sustainable way if half the society is excluded from the process.” She added: “Today, I would like to invite all Afghan media to help women in assuming their role in society. Let us show how capable, skilled and strong Afghan women are.”

Najia Sorush highlighted the crucial role media has played in the past in strengthening Afghan women: “Media not only changed the minds of women, but more importantly, it changed the minds of men as well. Men increasingly provide support for the women around them.”

Nasima laid out the Afghan-German Cooperation’s wide range of activities for women: “In Badakhshan, the German government provided funding for the construction of a dormitory for female students, a women’s garden and an education centre. Furthermore, in conducting internship and training programs for women in areas such as IT, English, tailoring, food processing and disaster prevention, the German government supports women empowerment as well.

During the second part of the media meeting, the Q&A session, the experts answered questions from more than 60 national and local TV, radio and newspaper outlets. When asked about her expectation in the media landscape, Zonfnun replied: “I wish to see more investigative and in-depth reports on gender-related topics, because it makes stakeholders realise that they are accountable for what they do”.

“Media Meetings 2016 – Afghan media for Social Responsibility” are a series of regular events held by the Afghan-German cooperation and SAJNA. The meetings bring together experts from the public sector, civil society, development organizations and the media to discuss important development issues.


AFGHANISTAN: Finally Standing Up to Pakistan

An Afghan National Army soldier holds tightly to a rocket propelled grenade launcher. Flickr/Georgia National Guard

An Afghan National Army soldier holds tightly to a rocket propelled grenade launcher. Flickr/Georgia National Guard, Adam Gallagher, August 4, 2016

In recent months, Pakistan’s pernicious Afghan policy has come under heavy criticism in Washington. In testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad noted that while most states have a gap between their declared and actual policy, “In the case of Pakistan, the gap is huge.” Indeed, “Pakistan’s current policy and conduct would better merit its inclusion on the State Department’s list of state-sponsors of terrorism,” the former envoy argued. With the Taliban now on the offensive, Khalilzad argued that “the Taliban’s resilience can be attributed above all to the strategic decision of the Pakistani military and intelligence services to provide sanctuary and support to these groups.”

With many on the Hill advocating for a cessation of U.S. assistance to Pakistan, Khalilzad also told lawmakers that the drone strike against Mansour has “created a golden hour to confront Pakistan” and force it to choose between its support for the Taliban and the Haqqani network, or its relationship with the United States, and the attendant economic and international support that it provides to Islamabad. Aziz’s surprising confession and the circumstances surrounding Mansour’s killing—let alone the host of other incriminating evidence—provide the perfect opportunity for the United State to increase pressure on Pakistan, ignore Islamabad’s dissembling and push for an end to support for the Taliban. After all, as Khalilzad notes, “Pakistani policy is the principal cause of the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan.”

The war in Afghanistan is now America’s longest, and it has spent more in inflation-adjusted dollars than on the Marshall Plan. Following a recent decision, President Obama will leave office with 8,400 U.S. troops in country, passing the baton on to the next president. Over the last fifteen years, the war effort has been consistently undermined by Islamabad’s duplicitous Afghan policy. There has been considerable hand-wringing within the Obama administration regarding troop levels, and much less public discussion of Islamabad’s role in Afghanistan. With an increasingly dangerous Islamic State wing, which recently just conducted the biggest attack in Kabul in years; Al Qaeda’s continued presence; and an unbowed Taliban, Washington is doing itself no favors by ignoring Pakistan’s support for extremist groups.

Long before Islamabad was even admitting that the Afghan Taliban were residing in Pakistan, Karzai cogently analyzed the Afghan war and a critical reason for its intractability, albeit without conventional diplomatic tact. If the next president hopes to bring the Afghan war to a close and leave the country on a viable path for prosperity and security, she or he will have to pressure Pakistan to change course. Just ask Hamid Karzai; he’s been saying so for years.

Adam Gallagher is a writer and editor based in Washington, DC. He is a senior writer for Tropics of Meta and his work has appeared in the Huffington Post, the National Interest, theDiplomat, and for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, among other outlets. He can be followed on Twitter@aegallagher10.

Image: An Afghan National Army soldier holds tightly to a rocket propelled grenade launcher. Flickr/Georgia National Guard


AFGHANISTAN: Afghan civilian casualties soar to record high, UN says

An Afghan man prays in front of the graves of victims of a suicide attack in Kabul,  July 25 2016 - Rahmat Gul/AP Photos

An Afghan man prays in front of the graves of victims of a suicide attack in Kabul, July 25 2016 – Rahmat Gul/AP Photos Kabul — Civilian casualties in Afghanistan soared to a record high in the first half of 2016, the UN said on Monday.

Children in particular are paying a heavy price for growing insecurity as the conflict escalates, said the UN report which comes days after the deadliest attack in Kabul since the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001.

Between January and June, 1,601 civilians were killed and 3,565 were wounded. It was a four per cent increase in casualties compared to the same period last year, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (Unama) said.

The casualties have reached their highest level since the UN began issuing its authoritative reports in 2009.

“Every single casualty documented in this report – people killed while praying, working, studying, fetching water, recovering in hospitals – every civilian casualty represents a failure of commitment and should be a call to action for parties to the conflict to take meaningful steps to reduce suffering,” Unama chief Tadamichi Yamamoto said.

The casualties include 1,509 children – or about one-third of the total, a figure the UN described as “alarming and shameful”. It was the highest toll ever recorded by the UN over a six-month period.

The statistics are a grim indicator of growing insecurity in Afghanistan as the Taliban step up their nationwide insurgency and the ISIL group seeks to expand their foothold in the east of the country.

The UN report said insurgent groups including the Taliban were responsible for the majority – 60 per cent – of civilian casualties.

But it also reported a 47 per cent increase in the number of casualties caused by pro-government forces, compared to the same period last year.

“The testimony of victims and their families brings into agonising focus the tragedy of … this protracted conflict since 2009,” said Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

“The family that lost a breadwinner, forcing the children to leave school and struggle to make ends meet; the driver who lost his limbs, depriving him of his livelihood; the man who went to the bazaar to shop for his children only to return home to find them dead.”

The report comes after the deadliest attack for 15 years in Kabul on Saturday killed 80 people and left hundreds maimed, an assault claimed by ISIL.

The twin bombings tore through crowds of minority Shiite Hazaras as they gathered to demand that a multi-million-dollar power line pass through their electricity-starved province of Bamiyan, one of the most deprived areas of Afghanistan. Those figures were excluded in the UN report.

But the assault illustrates the report’s finding that suicide bombings and complex attacks are now hurting more civilians than roadside bombs.

“Parties to the conflict must cease the deliberate targeting of civilians and the use of heavy weaponry in civilian-populated areas,” Mr Al Hussein said.

“There must be an end to the prevailing impunity enjoyed by those responsible for civilian casualties – no matter who they are.”

The report said that growing air strikes by Afghan forces also contributed to the rise in civilian casualties as new aircraft were deployed.

It also voiced concern over the human rights violations of pro-government militia groups, which act outside the law in some Afghan provinces.

* Agence France-Presse


AFGHANISTAN: A Rock Between Hard Places
New Book: “A Rock Between Hard Places-Afghanistan as an Arena of Regional Insecurity”
by Kristian Berg Harpviken And Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh

What has driven neighboring states to intervene in the Afghan conflict? This book challenges mainstream analyses which place Afghanistan at the center — the so-called ‘heart’ — of a large pan-Asian region whose fate is predicated on Afghan stability. Instead Harpviken and Tadjbakhsh situate Afghanistan on the margins of three regional security complexes — those of South Asia, Central Asia, and the Persian Gulf — each characterized by deep security rivalries, which, in turn, informs their engagement in Afghanistan. Within Central Asia, security cooperation is hampered by competition for regional supremacy and great power support, a dynamic reflected in these states’ half-hearted role in Afghanistan. In the Persian Gulf, Iran and Saudi Arabia fight for economic and political influence, mirrored in their Afghan engagements; while long-standing Indo-Pakistani rivalries are perennially played out in Afghanistan.

Based on a careful reading of the recent political and economic history of the region, and of Great Power rivalry beyond it, the authors explain why efforts to build a comprehensive Afghanistan-centric regional security order have failed, and suggest what might be done to reset inter-state relations.

Kristian Berg Harpviken is Director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).

Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh teaches at the Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), Paris, and is Associate Researcher at PRIO.

‘There are few more insightful analysts of Afghanistan’s region than Kristian Berg Harpiven and Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh. Their new book challenges us to rethink our received understandings of how Afghanistan might relate to, and be affected by, its neighbours, and should be required reading for all scholars, diplomats and international officials interested in the stability of Southwest Asia.’ — William Maley, Professor of Diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at the Australian National University; author of Reconstructing Afghanistan: Civil-Military Experiences in Comparative Perspective

‘A very useful review of regional politics at a time when Afghanistan’s neighbours are more important to its fate than ever before.’ — Antonio Giustozzi, author of The Army of Afghanistan: A Political History of a Fragile Institution


AFGHANISTAN: Pakistan plans talks with Afghanistan, UN agency over refugees’ return


Afghan refugees arrive to be repatriated to Afghanistan, at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office on the outskirts of Quetta, Pakistan, August 26, 2015. REUTERS/Naseer Ahmed

Reuters, Thursday, 30 June 2016

The number of Afghans voluntarily returning from Pakistan has plummeted this year

* Pakistan has world’s second largest refugee population

* Just 6,000 Afghans returned home this year, vs 58,211 in 2015

* Afghanistan says working with Pakistan to tackle refugee woes (Adds Afghanistan minister’s comment)

By Mehreen Zahra-Malik

ISLAMABAD, June 30 (Reuters) – Pakistan plans talks with Afghanistan and the United Nations refugee agency to move longtime Afghan refugees to camps at home, the foreign office said on Thursday, after the numbers of those returning plunged this year.

Pakistan has the world’s second largest refugee population, with more than 1.5 million registered, and about a million unregistered, refugees from neighbouring Afghanistan, most of whom fled the Soviet occupation of their country in the 1980s.

The U.N. says the number of Afghans voluntarily returning from Pakistan has fallen to about 6,000, well below last year’s 58,211, as violence worsens in Afghanistan, where the government and its U.S. allies are battling a stubborn Taliban insurgency.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry said it would immediately approach Afghanistan on the political and diplomatic fronts, while the ministry for frontier regions would engage with the U.N. refugee agency and Afghanistan’s ministry of refugees.

The talks would seek ways to ease “early returns as well as the possibility of shifting Afghan refugees gradually from Pakistan to safer and peaceful areas of Afghanistan, where the Afghan government should establish settlements,” the foreign office said in a statement.

Hussain Alemi Balkhi, the Afghan minister for refugees and repatriation, said, “We know that the refugees face harassment and hardship, and we are working with Pakistani authorities to address these problems.”

He confirmed plans for a three-way meeting on July 19 with Pakistan and the U.N. refugee agency.

On Wednesday, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif allowed the 1.5 million registered refugees to stay on for six more months.

The registration deadline extension came soon after officials told Reuters at least 500 Afghan refugees had been arrested in the northwestern border province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and deported as a security risk.

Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper said more than 2,000 refugees were arrested in the last month, and 400 deported to Afghanistan. (Additional Reporting by Hamid Shalizi in Kabul; Writing by Mehreen Zahra-Malik)


AFGHANISTAN: Deciding to Leave Afghanistan, Part 3 of 3: What happens after arrival in Europe

Afghan refugees in Germany are concerned about their asylum application status; here a group of new arrivals is led to the registration centre in Munich in December 2015 (Source Tolonews)., by Martine Van Bijlert, May 19, 2016, original

AAN has done a series of twelve in-depth interviews with families of Afghans who recently travelled to Europe. The conversations provided a fascinating insight into the practicalities of both the decision making processes and the journey, the complex interplay between economic and security considerations and the mixed feelings families often have once their loved ones have finally, safely, reached Europe. In this third and last installment, AAN’s Martine van Bijlert takes a closer look at what happened since the migrants arrived and lays out the hopes and concerns their families have, now that brothers and sons are in Europe.

This series of three dispatches is based on twelve interviews done for a joint project with (and funded by) the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FESand resulted in a joint study titled “’We Knew They Had No Future in Kabul’: Why and How Afghan Families Decide to Leave” published on 27 April 2016.  The data collection was conducted in the spring of 2016 with selected Afghan households to explore the decision-making processes at the family level of a small number of migrants. (1) The three dispatches present the main findings and place them in a wider context. The first dispatch in the series focused on the main motives and decision making processes and can be found here. Thesecond dispatch focused on the details of the journey, the routes and practical preparations and can be found here.

Situation after arrival in Europe

During the interviews, migrants’ families were asked where their loved ones were now and how they were doing. The fact that the interviews were done with the relatives of the migrants, rather than with the migrants themselves, obviously means that the information is partial and that everything is seen through the lens of those who stayed behind. But it is also instructive, as it provides insight into the continued linkages with the home front – a factor that tends to be underplayed in asylum interviews. (Many migrants, in particular minors, are coached to claim they no longer have living relatives or that they have lost all contact).

In all interviews except one, the migrants who had left Afghanistan in 2015 had arrived in Europe, although their journey had often been long and stressful (see this earlier dispatch in the series for details). The one exception was an interview with a young man from Kandahar, a migrant himself, who had tried to reach Europe but had failed; he was in Kabul at the time and preparing to attempt the journey again.

All migrants who had arrived in Europe were now awaiting a decision as to whether they could stay or not. Information about their situation tended to be fairly patchy. All relatives knew in which country their family members were staying, but none of them seemed to know the name of city (or they did not mention the city during the interview). Details tended to be about whether they had received money or language lessons, whether they were allowed to work and how they had been housed.

My son is now in Germany, but I don’t know the name of the city where he is living right now. He arrived there almost a month ago. I don’t have a lot of information about his status, but he is living in a camp and is waiting for the bureaucracy to decide whether he can stay. (Father of a 19-year old migrant from Kabul)

They are in Germany. They are learning German over there and now know a little already. I do not know what is going to happen to them. They arrived 40 days ago. They have been registered in Germany now, but not interviewed yet. They were given a card so that they can go to the city and buy necessary things, but they are not permitted to work. My eldest son gets 180 Euros and my younger son gets 150 Euros every two weeks. That is all they have received until now. They were given a room in a block where other Afghan migrants live. I don’t remember the name of the city.(Mother of a 15-year and an 18-year old, from Kabul)

My son is in Belgium. He arrived there almost six months ago. He did not choose a country. He just wanted to leave Afghanistan because he was tired of everything here. … He wants to stay in Belgium and is taking language classes. He is paid by the Belgian government and is happy there. He was supposed to have his interview after two weeks. I don’t know how it went. (Father of a 23-year old migrant from Kabul)

The relatives tended to have rudimentary knowledge of the bureaucratic procedures, but often had little detail, other than whether interviews had already been held or whether a decision had yet been taken.

Now, he is in Germany. He has got through two courts in Germany. He gave them his documents that explain the main factors and reasons for him going. His last appearance – in the high court – is going to be next month. He told us on the telephone that they would send him to the next court. (Brother of a 22-year old migrant from Sar-e Pul)

He has an apartment with two bedrooms. I’m not sure [when they arrived there]. They are waiting for their second or third interview. (Brother of a migrant from Herat, who left with his whole family)

Linkages to home

In the past, once a migrant left his or her home country, communication became cumbersome, erratic and expensive. However, increasedaccess to the internet and the growing use of smart phones, well beyond urban areas and the upper middle class, have made it much easier for families to stay in touch. The access this provides to information all over the world and the ability to stay connected after departure has obviously impacted the migration process. Afghans contemplating the journey can now gather information beforehand, those en route can ask for help and those who have arrived can get their families to send copies of crucial documents needed for their asylum procedure.

We thought he was joking when he said he wanted to leave, but once he got his Iranian visa, we started believing him. He used Facebook on a daily basis to read about the situation along the route. He read that the border between Turkey and Greece was open, he might have been motivated by this. He is currently in Belgium. (Brother of 30-year old migrant from Helmand)

They went illegally, so they did not take any documents with them. They took money and when they got to Europe, we sent pictures of their national ID cards (Tazkira) via mobile phone. The day they left, my eldest son took one hundred dollars from me and left without our blessings. When my younger son left, we gave him money. His father gave him 150 USD for the journey. When they were in Iran, we again sent them money. (Mother of a 15-year and an 18-year old, from Kabul)

However, not everybody has easy access to communication. One father said he only had limited contact with his son as neither of them had a smart phone (which would make them dependent on an expensive landline-to-cell phone service rather than speaking via internet services such as Skype). (But his son had also left for Europe without telling his father and had only called him later, so he may also intentionally be keeping his father in the dark.)

He said it was a very difficult journey, but he did not tell us about the details because he did not want to make us upset. Also, neither my son nor I have the device [smart phone] to enable us to talk for a long time. (Father of a 23-year old migrant from Kabul/Maidan Wardak)

Hints of regret

Most families said their relatives planned to stay where they had ended up, even though in some cases this was a different country to where they had initially intended to get to, and that they were happy there. A few, however, said their family members in Europe were unhappy.

My 17-year old brother left for Europe. He basically intended to go to Belgium but couldn’t make it, as he was trying to reach Belgium when the Paris attacks happened. So he returned to Germany and then left for Italy. Belgium was his first choice because we believed that people were accepted as migrants easily there. He is currently living in Italy. He arrived there in 2015. He is very, very unhappy there with no legal status. He intends to leave for a city in France where it is believed he would be accepted as an asylum seeker more quickly. (Brother of a 17-year old migrant from Nangarhar)

The case of the younger brother from Nangarhar was further complicated by the fact that the boy had left against the wishes of his family and that the journey had been expensive:

He decided to leave even though all the other members of our family were opposed to it. I am still encouraging him to return because, even after spending around 8,000 US dollars, he now also regrets going. He decided to go because my niece who was already in Europe kept calling him to come to Europe. Also, my brother was not happy here because when he failed the entry test to university. He wanted to join the Afghan National Army (ANA), [but] we did not want him to join the ANA, because he would have been killed if he had joined. (Brother of a 17-year old migrant from Nangarhar)

When asked what his vision for his younger brother was now that he was in Europe, the older brother was not very optimistic:

There were serious concerns about him and now we don’t have any hopes for his future. He ruined his life and all we can do is hope for something better for him. We don’t specifically know what will happen to him next; he knows this better. (Brother of a 17-year old migrant from Nangarhar)

In another case, the migrant simply seemed to be tired of moving around and affected by being away from home.

He is exhausted from traveling and he says if his case is accepted in Finland, he will stay in Finland. He is really tired of moving, so he also said if his case doesn’t get accepted, he will return to Afghanistan. (Brother of 20-year old migrant from Baghlan)

In several of the interviews it became clear that those staying behind had disagreed with their loved ones’ wish to go. In some cases they were ultimately persuaded, while in other cases they continued to disagree even after their relative had left.

Actually everyone, including his wife, opposed his going. At the same time, family members were not sure how to stop him as neither the economic nor security situations got better. He said he wanted to leave and take the risk just like other people who were leaving. (Brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand, who left behind a family)

My brother had been interested in going to Iran or Turkey. His classmates and friends had discussed it for a long time. They heard life was better there and they would have better job opportunities, but my family did not agree with him. We wanted him to finish his studies and to get a job with the government. It is not easy for parents to send their kids away. Parents want their children to live with them. It was hard for us, but we wanted him to live in a peaceful place. My brother began talking about this topic, but we did not agree with him. But when security began to deteriorate, the family agreed to send him abroad. (Brother of a 20-year old migrant from Baghlan)

We all disagreed with his going, all the brothers. We believe more in our own tradition rather than going to another place. We are a traditional family with our own character. I’ve been to many conferences overseas and I know about the difficulties of being a foreigner, especially those with Asian traditions and culture, and languages and religion, even the skin is different. And even if your skin isn’t different, there is racism there sometimes. There are many advantages in Europe, but people can’t count on them. (Brother of migrant from Herat, who left together with his family)

Relatives who had had misgivings before the migrants left, other than just the risks of the journey, tended to still feel conflicted even after their family members had arrived in Europe. Some of them felt they had left behind a good life and would face greater difficulties in Europe. See for instance, again, the comments of the brother of the journalist from Herat:

I would have preferred him to stay because there is an advantage here for a traditional family and a journalist in having a normal life. He goes there and for many years he will try to learn a new language and a new culture and it will take some years for his case to be accepted – and then the golden time of his life will be over. That’s why I was telling him, and persuading myself, that if there is one chance to stay, it is better to stay. If there had not been a threat, he would have stayed. For an Afghan man, this might be the maximum adventure he can have: a salary, a car, a wife, kids. What more do you want? (Brother of migrant from Herat, who left with his family)

Visions for the future

Apart from feeling relief that their relatives had safely reached Europe, family members obviously hoped that their loved ones would be allowed to stay and build a life; that they would be able to focus on their education or finding a good job, maybe start a family or bring some of their remaining family over as well and, of course, help out those who stayed behind:

He is in Germany now and has been there for around eight months. He is waiting for some sort of court to decide his case. He intends to stay in Germany. We hope he can help us take our land back [ie pay back the mortgage that was needed to pay for the journey] and that he will help us build a house for ourselves, because we are currently living in a rental house. We also want to get him engaged. We definitely had worries about the journey, but now that he is there, we have some hopes. (Brother of a 25-year old migrant from Takhar)

At least now we are relaxed that he has a peaceful life, and will not be seeing robbers or bomb blasts. My hope for him was and still is that he will have a better life and that he may get married or have children, so they would have a better future. If he has a good salary, he can maybe help us too. We don’t know what will happen to my son. It totally depends on the will of God. (Father of a 19-year old migrant from Kabul)

The mother, who had initially opposed her young sons going, now feels relief that at least two members of her family are safe. And she hopes one day she may be able to join them:

I hope that, after enduring the risks and hardships of this journey, the boys study there and have a better future – because we knew that they had no future in Kabul. I would like to go and join them in Germany. Their younger siblings would also like to join them. Afghanistan is not safe anymore and everyone wants to live in a safer place. We are happy with this decision now. If, God forbid, something happens to us in Kabul, then at least two of our family are safe and alive in Germany. (Mother of two migrants, 15 and 18-year olds, from Kabul)

But there were also relatives who had concerns about the life the migrant may lead. For instance, in the case of the man from Helmand, who had left behind his family and had initially only planned to travel as far as Iran or Turkey:

Well, we are definitely hopeful he will get a good job and can at least help support his own family and children. But we cannot forecast the future. It’s up to the Belgian government now. … The only concern we have is that he left Afghanistan and will be working in another country instead of Afghanistan, while he could have spent his energy improving his own country. Also, my parents are worried about his religious practices. Even if he continues his religious practices, they are concerned about the next generation who they think might not stick to our religious beliefs. (Brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand)

And then there is of course the uncertainty over whether the migrants will be allowed to stay or whether they will be sent back. Many interviewees did not dwell on this very long, most of them merely referred to the fate of the migrant now being in the hands of God and the host country. Others were more outspoken.

The goals and vision we have for him are that he will have a safe and good life. We do not have to worry about his safety anymore. We do not have to worry that Kuchis, or Daesh, or the Taleban will kill him one day. [But] we are not sure about his future. It depends on the host country and whether they give him refugee status or send him to another country or deport him. In this regard, I cannot say anything. (Father of a 23-year old migrant from Kabul/Maidan Wardak)

Based on the information I have received from friends and relatives, if he gets accepted in Finland and stays there, I think he will have a better future. He will, at least, not live in war. He will get a better education and will have a better chance of getting a good job. But if his case doesn’t get accepted, he might have a very dark future. He spent more than a year trying to get there. He has been away from his culture during this time. He has also been away from higher education so if he doesn’t get accepted, he will be devastated and will have a dark future. He will suffer psychologically as well. If he returns home, maybe my father and all of us will tell him that we spent all our money on you and you returned home with nothing and no future. So there will be a lot of pressure on him. My father will probably tell him that we don’t have any more money to invest in you and nobody else will risk giving him any money either. (Brother of a 20-year old migrant from Baghlan)

The pressure to be a “good investment”

In many cases the wish for their relatives to do well was intertwined with the hope that the risk, the stress and the expenses of the journey would ultimately turn out to have been a good investment, not just for the individual but also for the larger family. In some cases this was an important reason driving the decision to “send” a relative to Europe. In the case of the migrant from Takhar for instance, after one of the brothers was killed and their house was set on fire, the family pooled their resources to send one of them to Europe:

All the family decided together that we would send our brother to Europe so he could help out the whole family financially once he makes it. We specifically chose Germany. We expected that our brother would be accepted as an asylum seeker in Germany and that he would be able to bring the whole family to Germany, because there is nothing left for us in Afghanistan. (Brother of a 25-year old migrant from Takhar)

Similarly, in the other cases, where the decision to embark on the journey seemed primarily driven by other factors, the opportunities that Europe represented still played a role in the families’ considerations.

His employment as a driver with an organisation brought him threats, so my father persuaded my brother to leave the country for a safer place. … At first my brother decided to go to Iran. Then his friends encouraged him to go to Turkey and consequently, he was motivated to try to reach Germany after consultation with family members. We thought, if our brother stays in Turkey, all he would do was work as a labourer. So we thought he should go to Germany, continue his education there and then help us to get there too. … We always wanted to go to a safer place but we didn’t have enough money to leave as a whole family – we still owe some of our relatives for the expenses we spent on our brother leaving. (Sister of a 22-year old migrant from Kunduz)

However, the possibility that their gamble may not pay off still looms, particularly for those whose families had struggled to gather the money and those who left despite opposition from their relatives. This is neatly summarised by the older brother of the 20-year old migrant from Baghlan:

Like my brother, my cousins who left, their families also struggle financially. They sold their land and other possessions and gathered money to send their kids to a safe place with better opportunities. It hasn’t been easy on either side. The families are still waiting to hear good news from their boys and the kids live with uncertainties in Europe. The family of one of my cousins who went to Europe still hasn’t paid the smuggler in full, so the smuggler comes knocking on their door every day asking for the outstanding money. 

I have to tell you that all the families that I know of, who sent their sons abroad, are hoping that their sons will get settled in Europe and will help them in return, because they have spent all their money to get their sons there. So far, no family has received anything from their boys in Europe during the last year. The families in Afghanistan are not very hopeful because we know that the influx of refugees in Europe has made it more difficult for Afghans. (Brother of a 20-year old migrant from Baghlan)

The pressure to be a “good investment” in this case was particularly strong, given that the young man came from a family that struggled financially.

In a way, travel to Europe has always been a ‘high-end’ addition to the regular diversification and coping strategies that many Afghan families employ. For several families this was not the first child or sibling to travel abroad, nor was it the first instance of displacement. Several families had moved—to the provincial capital, another province, or to Kabul—when the situation in their own area had become too insecure, and many of them had spent long years either in Pakistan or Iran. The family from Herat had spent many years in Iran, with several other distant relatives still living there and two siblings already living abroad.

Many youngsters from the family are still in Iran. Some have left for Europe or are planning to go because of economic difficulties and new restrictions there, but there are dangerous challenges. Many hesitate to go. … I have a small brother in Iran, another in India. But they are similar cultures. There is an advantage with education and facilities and incomes that encourage people to travel to Europe. Many from our own family, however, prefer to stay. (Brother of a 29-year old migrant from Herat)

One of the sons of the family in Helmand had also already gone to Europe in 2000.

Two earlier arrivals

The migrants who arrived in Europe some months ago are still very much at the beginning of their new lives, provided they are allowed to stay. Two interviews done earlier this year for AAN by Anne Wilkens provide some insight into the difficulties the recent arrivals might still face.  Both interviews are with Afghans who were still minors when they arrived in 2010. They were accepted and are, to a certain extent, well integrated. They were quite forthcoming about their difficulties, probably much more than they will have been to their relatives. The evaluation of their stay in Europe is also informed by hindsight:

In Sweden, Jawad has done exceptionally well: he has learned the language and graduated from high school with good marks. But he still thinks his life is tough, albeit in a manner different from before. He misses his country, its nature and his home. … He is not used to living alone and feels psychologically vulnerable: “In Afghanistan we had no money but we were together and we were happy inside. Here it is the other way around: we have money, but inside we are alone.” … He wants to return to Afghanistan as soon as possible, saying again: “In Afghanistan, we were free inside.”

Unlike Jawad, Massud has been reunited with his family. After a couple of years, his mother and five siblings arrived in Sweden, but it was not a happy day for him. Massud felt overwhelmed by his feeling of responsibility for them all: “I cried and cried so much, I had to leave the house. My mother seemed so much older, and was no longer the competent person I thought she was.”… Massud says he has lost himself: “I miss myself and will never be able to find myself again.” He has seen a couple of therapists, but it has not helped him. As he sees it, he has sacrificed himself for his family: “It was not the intention but this is how it turned out.”

(1) The study consisted of twelve in-depth, semi-structured interviews that took place across Afghanistan’s regions as follows: four interviews in Kabul and Wardak province; four interviews in Takhar, Sar-e Pul, Kunduz and Baghlan; one interview in Nangarhar; two interviews in Helmand and Kandahar; and one interview in Herat. The ethnic composition and urban/rural population ratio in the provinces was taken into account in the selection of interviewees. Respondents were selected and located through a referral system where AAN researchers reached out to their networks looking for families where at least one member had left for Europe in 2015. The respondents were interviewed about the departure of their family member(s), how decisions were made prior to their departure, details of the trip to Europe and thoughts on the future of the migrant in Europe. In addition, basic household information was collected for each of the families. For a shorter summary of the study, published jointly with FES, see here.

All migrants included in the study were male, with one exception where a whole family – husband, wife and young children – travelled together. In one case, two young brothers from one household travelled together, and in one case a migrant who had been forcibly returned, was interviewed directly. All migrants included in this study were between the ages of 15 and 30 years. Most of the interviewees giving information about the migrants in question were brothers and fathers (there was one mother and one sister).


AFGHANISTAN: Deciding To Leave Afghanistan, Part 2 of 3: The routes and the risks

Afghan migrants detained in Turkey after coastguards rescued them from an island in the Aegean Sea where they got stranded en route to Greece. (Source: Pajhwok 2015)

Afghan migrants detained in Turkey after coastguards rescued them from an island in the Aegean Sea where they got stranded en route to Greece. (Source: Pajhwok 2015), by Jelena Bjelica, May 18, 2016, original

AAN has done a series of twelve in-depth interviews with families of Afghans who recently travelled to Europe. The conversations provided a fascinating insight into the practicalities of both the decision making processes and the journey, the complex interplay between economic and security considerations and the mixed feelings families often have once their loved ones have finally, safely, reached Europe. In this second instalment, AAN’s Jelena Bjelica focuses on what migrants’ families relayed about the details of the journeys, the routes taken as well as practical preparations.

This series of three dispatches is based on twelve interviews done for a joint project with (and funded by) the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FESand resulted in a joint study titled “’We Knew They Had No Future in Kabul’: Why and How Afghan Families Decide to Leave” published on 27 April 2016.  The data collection was conducted in the spring of 2016 with selected Afghan households to explore the decision-making processes at the family level of a small number of migrants. (1) The three dispatches present the main findings and place them in a wider context. The first dispatch in the series focused on the main motives and decision making processes and can be found here. The third dispatch will take a closer look at what happened has since the migrants arrived in Europe and lays out the hopes and concerns their families have now that they are there. 

From Afghanistan to Turkey

All the family members of the migrants interviewed for the study said that their relatives who had travelled to Europe had gone through Iran and Turkey. Most went directly, entering Iran via the western Afghan provinces of Nimroz and Herat.

The shortest distance between Afghanistan and Turkey, as the crow flies, is 2,947 kilometres via Iran. Additionally, the land route from Afghanistan via Iran and Turkey is traditionally also used for smuggling opiates to Europe (this route is sometimes referred to as the “Balkan route.” (see UNODC’s map on the opiate flow from Afghanistan). As the brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand explained, many perceived the route via Iran as the usual route from Afghanistan to Turkey.

[…] He first went to Iran and then Turkey. Iran was chosen because it’s the route that everyone else takes. (Brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand)

Some migrants had an Afghan passport and a valid Iranian visa, for instance, as described by the brother of a 29-year old migrant from Herat, who fled Afghanistan with his family:

He went legally to Iran with his passport and then with smugglers. I don’t know about the smuggler contact. He had some savings and sold his car; maybe his wife sold her jewellery too. Maybe he borrowed money, I don’t know – he wouldn’t have said, he’s proud. He didn’t borrow money from the family.

Others made a detour via Pakistan because of tougher security along the border between Afghanistan and Iran:

They told us they went to Iran from Pakistan as it was difficult to go directly to Iran due to tight security [as they did not have a visa for Iran]. From Iran, there was another illegal route, but in the end they decided to return to Pakistan, then back to Iran and on to Turkey. It took them 15 days to reach Iran. They had to stop a lot and on the way there was hardly any food. It was a long journey. (Mother of an 18-year old and a 15-year old migrant from Kabul)

All but one migrant in the sample had not been issued with a Turkish visa. In some cases, the smugglers who organised their travel advised them and their families not to bother getting a passport, while in other instances, families said they did not have enough money to obtain visas (although applying for a Turkish visa through legal channels would be relatively inexpensive) and therefore had to rely on the (illegal) overland route.

Crossing the Aegean Sea

All but two migrants travelled to Greece from Turkey by boat. Of the two who avoided the sea route, one migrant (from Baghlan) travelled overland from Turkey to Bulgaria, then Hungary and finally to Germany. His brother explained that the smuggler chose this route. A 27-year old migrant from Kandahar who returned to Afghanistan and who was interviewed directly, said he decided to try the land route, as he did not feel the smugglers had made sufficient arrangements for a safe boat trip. He was, however, arrested on the Turkish-Bulgarian border.

We moved through Iran quickly, but in Turkey we had to move more slowly. We arrived in Istanbul after several weeks. From there, the smugglers took us to Izmir, but we did not want to get into the boat as the sea was rough and the weather was bad […] We heard from others about an alternative route so we decided to try the ‘land route’, moving first to Erdine, from where it would only be a very short trip by boat along the coast to Greece, avoiding Bulgaria. (27-year old migrant from Kandahar)

Many of the migrants who did travel by boat spent a long time (anywhere between several days to several weeks) on the Aegean Sea coast, as they often had to make several attempts to cross the sea to Greece. After each failed attempt (for instance because the engine broke down or the boat took on water), the migrants would return to Turkey and wait for a new opportunity to sail. Two interviewees, the mother of the two migrants from Kabul and the brother of a migrant from Sar-e Pul, explained what happened on the Aegean coast to their loved ones:

During the trip from Turkey to Greece, their boat hit a rock and sank but they were rescued. They spent a month in a camp in Turkey and were taken care of by UNHCR. They again tried to reach Greece by boat, but the boat’s engine stopped working. Fishermen rescued them again. The third attempt was also a failure. Only on their fourth attempt did they make it to Greece. (Mother of an 18-year old and a 15-year old migrant from Kabul)

He faced tough problems and only just reached Europe. He saw companions drown in the sea, when a storm hit. Some were rescued. He said, “We walked for about 20-22 hours to Turkey. Then, a storm caused the boat we were on to sink and a Greek vessel rescued us.” I don’t remember, but two Iraqi or Syrian people, who were in the same boat with my brother, died. (Brother of a 23-year old migrant from Sar-e Pul)

An interviewee from Takhar described how his brother called home and asked his mother to pray for him to cross the sea safely:

When he was about to cross the sea, he called my mother and asked her to pray for him. He told her: either I will make it or I will drown. (Brother of a 25-year old migrant from Takhar)

The Western Balkan route

According to a European Parliament report, throughout 2015 the Western Balkans route was the busiest. It starts in Turkey, heads west into Greece and then into the Western Balkans, at present primarily via the former Yugoslav Republics of Macedonia and Serbia. Some of the region’s aspiring EU candidates, particularly Kosovo and Albania, have been a source of irregular migration themselves, with outward border crossings peaking in 2014 and early 2015. Increased migrant flows from outside Europe, however, have shifted this trend, now turning the region into one of transit. It appears from the interviews that all of the migrants took this Western Balkan route.

Most of the information, however, that family members of the migrants recalled was focused on the journey through Iran and Turkey, with few being able to give much detail on the journey within Europe, either in terms of conditions along the way or the time it took for their family member to reach the country where they are now. For the interviewees, the accounts by their relatives of the routes taken after having left Greece were rather blurred and many had only a vague knowledge of European geography, in particular when it came to Southeastern and Eastern European countries. The brother of a 25-year old migrant from Maidan Wardak described his brother’s journey through the Balkans in temporal terms:

From Turkey he went to Austria through different countries, but I don’t remember the names of the other countries through which he travelled. I think he spent one and a half months travelling through all of these countries, 20 days of which he spent in Iran. The main reason for choosing this route was that it was cheaper than the other options and the decision was made to use this way because it was the only one we could afford.(Brother of a 25-year old migrant from Maidan Wardak)

The Balkan route is notorious for human trafficking and migrant smuggling (see the 2008 UNODC report on trafficking and smuggling in the Balkans). The porous borders between the former Yugoslav Republics were the result of ongoing hostilities between the newly established states. The relatively new police and customs departments there did not cooperate with one another, while traffickers and smugglers worked closely along ethnic lines. Since the end of war in the Western Balkans in the early 2000s, new regional forums have been established (such as the Migration Asylum Refugees Regional Initiative – MARRI, see also thisLSE paper on regional initiatives) to improve cooperation between the former republics.

In 2015, the states along the Western Balkans route created a humanitarian corridor. The open borders policy, as well as the relatively moderate political discourse and public attitudes, made them ‘refugee-friendly’ countries, despite reported cases of mistreatment, according to a European Parliament report. The state authorities of Serbia, Macedonia and later Croatia (after Hungary closed its border with Serbia in the summer of 2015) even organised border-to-border transport for refugees in their respective countries. The news of the humanitarian corridor reached Afghanistan and may have encouraged their families to send their relatives on the perilous journey:

[…] the media were broadcasting reports of people leaving for Europe. We said, “Let’s trust God. You will arrive somewhere.” (Brother of a 23-year old migrant from Sar-e Pul) 

He used Facebook on a daily basis to read about the situation along the route and he read that the border between Turkey and Greece was open. He might have been motivated by this. He is currently in Belgium. (Brother of 30-year old migrant from Helmand)

Difficulties along the way

Based on the information their families provided, all the migrants had set out between the (early) summer and late autumn of 2015. The families had often only sketchy details of how long the trip had taken, but it was clear that many of the travellers had been forced to interrupt their journey along the way. In Iran and again in Turkey, several had to wait for smugglers to arrange for their onward passage. In one case, a migrant worked in Turkey for seven months to earn money for his onward journey.

He had to leave for Iran, then Turkey [where he stayed some seven months because he didn’t have enough money to travel to Germany]. He found work in Turkey and eventually spent that money, together with money sent by the family, to travel on to Germany. (Sister of a 22-year old migrant from Kunduz)

Even for those passing through, the stay in Turkey was often long as most migrants entered the country on foot through the mountains. In many cases, they did not tell their families the extent of the difficulties they faced along the way, in order not to worry them. Some family members said they had asked not to be told any details because they would be too upsetting.

However, the mother of the two migrants from Kabul described how smugglers left her sons without food or water during the 15-day walk through the mountains between Pakistan and Iran:

They were told they would walk in the mountains for two to three hours. But in the area between the Pakistani and Iranian border, the boys had to walk for 10 hours per day, without any water for 15 days. The boys told the smuggler they could not go on without food or water. In the mornings, they were given some bread and a bottle of water for the whole day. One day, a boy who was part of their group collapsed and later died from exhaustion. My boys then asked for more water but were usually only given a little bit of muddy water once they ran out of bottled water. (Mother of an 18-year old and a 15-year old migrant from Kabul)

The brother of a 20-year old migrant for Baghlan shared a similar story:

He told me that he had been stuck on the border between Iran and Turkey for 20 days. I think the smuggler could not get him through the border on one particular day. The smuggler hid him in a desert area with 30-35 other people. In this area, there was a lot of trash and different kinds of animals. My brother said that the food they had lasted for only a day and that for the next three days they had nothing. He said if the smuggler had not shown up on the fourth day, they might all have died.

Other migrants told their families about difficulties that included instances of arrest, mistreatment and perilous journeys by boat. They described the hardships of being at somebody else’s mercy when it came to getting food, water and shelter. Some migrants told their families that the trek over the mountains around the Iranian-Turkish border had been horrible. Others said they had been mistreated either by the smugglers or the local authorities, as described by these two interviewees:

He said he was arrested with two smugglers along the Turkish border with Iran and mistreated. We didn’t have any news from him for almost two weeks. He then had to spend almost one month in a migrant camp in Turkey where the conditions were very bad. (Brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand)

My brother said a local smuggler in Iran beat him, along with a group of 50 Afghans; he gave them electric shocks and took their money and luggage. (Brother of a 17-year old migrant from Nangarhar)

A good smuggler is hard to find

The interviewees, most of whom had been involved in the preparations of their family member’s journey, described how in most cases the family contacted a smuggler to discuss their options, get assurances that their loved ones would be taken care of, and agree on a price. (2)

Finding the money and the smuggler was necessary. From the time of the initial discussion until he left, I made sure we found a good smuggler who would succeed in getting him to Europe. (Brother of a 20-year old migrant from Baghlan)

I discussed the issue with the smuggler […] There was no need to get a passport for my son, I was told. When my son got to Turkey, I paid the money to the smuggler. We were in touch with the smuggler while my son was in transit, and if something happened to him, the smuggler would report it to me, I was told. (Father of a 19-year old migrant from Kabul)

In Kabul, we found a smuggler and told him that only after the boys reached their destination would we pay him. The smuggler’s mother-in-law lives in our neighbourhood, and her son-in-law knows a lot of people and has connections to many other smugglers along the route to Europe.(Mother of an 18-year old and a 15-year old migrant from Kabul)

With a few exceptions, most families discussed at length the difficulties they faced in getting the funds together. For many, it required borrowing money from relatives and friends and/or mortgaging their homes. Payment arrangements, as well as the cost of the journey to Europe, seemed to vary widely: from 1,500 US dollars to more than 8,000 US dollars per person. (In some cases the price mentioned only concerned the journey to Turkey, with the families not specifying how much their sons or brothers had paid for the boat trip from Turkey to Greece. For the humanitarian corridor in the Western Balkans, where the governments organised the onward journey, no smugglers’ services would have been required).

I discussed the issue with the smuggler, who said payment from Kabul to Turkey was 1,500 USD. (Father of a 19-year migrant from Kabul)

He spent almost 8,000 USD getting from Mazar to Germany. (Brother of a 23-year old migrant from Sar-e Pul)

Some families said that their brothers or sons would contact them when they needed money while on their journey, and that they would provide them with instructions on how to pay:

He had already talked to the smuggler and paid him 1,500 USD. He paid this money to the smuggler to take him to Turkey. When he got to Turkey, he told his friends he needed more money. These friends then informed us and we sent him the money he needed, which we borrowed from our relatives. (Brother of a 25-year old migrant from Maidan Wardak)

Some migrants’ families were able to negotiate that payment would only be made once their family member had reached Europe, while others paid after each leg of the trip was completed (generally Iran, Turkey and Europe). The mother of the 18-year old and 15-year old from Kabul said that the smuggler told the family:

Whenever your boys call and say they are in Iran or in Turkey, then you can pay the money for this part of the journey.

The brother of a 25-year old migrant from Takhar said that several different smugglers had been involved in his brother’s journey to Germany:

He spent a total of 4,000 USD in order to reach Germany […] We first sent him to Nimroz then smugglers took him to Iran for 600 USD, another smuggler took him to Turkey for 700 USD, then to Greece and from Greece to Germany. It took two months for him to reach Germany.

The brother of a 17-year old migrant from Nangarhar described how he made a deal with the smuggler for his brother:

I took him to the smuggler and we made a deal and agreed that payment would only be made once he had reached his final destination. The money would not be paid if there were three failed attempts by the smuggler to get him there.

The 27-year old migrant from Kandahar (who was able to give the most detailed account of his journey), was repatriated and decided not to return to Kandahar and based himself in Kabul. He said he paid increments of 2,000 to 3,000 US dollars for each leg of the trip. He also said that smugglers set up a chain of hiding places along the way and they provided the migrants with food and water along the way.

On the way, we had to stay with the smugglers in apartments provided by them. We moved through Iran quickly but in Turkey we had to move more slowly. We arrived in Istanbul after several weeks. From there, the smugglers took us to Izmir. (27-year old migrant from Kandahar)

Although the interviewees knew only a fraction of what their family members had endured during their journeys and were thus unable to provide detailed accounts of their relatives’ travels through some parts of Europe (especially through the Western Balkans), it is clear that all the migrants used this relatively new and shorter migration route (when compared to the route via Libya to Italy). The Balkan route, although not devoid of peril, is considered safer than travel through Libya to Italy, as it is mainly a land route. For those migrants coming from the Middle East and Afghanistan, Turkey is within easier reach than Libya. However, there are now new challenges along the road, in particular in the Western Balkans, which include new fences along borders and unanticipated reactions and changes in policies by the primary destination countries, which burdens the transit countries (such as Greece). This is what has most likely led to the emergence of new, secondary routes in the region.

(1) The study consisted of twelve in-depth, semi-structured interviews that took place across Afghanistan’s regions as follows: four interviews in Kabul and Wardak province; four interviews in Takhar, Sar-e Pul, Kunduz and Baghlan; one interview in Nangarhar; two interviews in Helmand and Kandahar; and one interview in Herat. The ethnic composition and urban/rural population ratio in the provinces was taken into account in the selection of interviewees. The respondents were selected and located through a referral system where AAN researchers reached out to their networks looking for families where at least one member had left for Europe in 2015. Respondents were interviewed about the departure of their family member(s), how decisions were made prior to their departure, details of the trip to Europe and thoughts on the future of the migrant in Europe. In addition, basic household information was collected for each of the families. For a shorter summary of the study, published jointly with FES, see here.

All migrants included in the study were male, with one exception where a whole family – husband, wife and young children – travelled together. In one case, two young brothers from one household travelled together, and in one case a migrant who had been forcibly returned, was interviewed directly. All migrants included in this study were between the ages of 15 and 30. Most of the interviewees giving information about the migrants in question were brothers and fathers (there was one mother and one sister).

(2) The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime and its protocols on human trafficking and smuggling, and manufacturing and smuggling in arms from 15 November 2000 are signed by all states on the route that the migrants described (only Iran has yet to ratify it).


AFGHANISTAN: Why are so many returning refugees still landless?

Nangarhar, 2008: People returning from Jalozai and Naser Bagh camps in Pakistan have found it difficult to find clean water in some of the places they have settled. (Photo Credit: Pajhwok), by Jelena Bjelica, March 29, 2016, original

More than 5.8 million Afghans, about 20 per cent of Afghanistan’s population, are refugees who have returned home since the fall of the Taleban according to UNHCR figures. Many found their houses destroyed or occupied, or discovered that a new set of laws had scrapped their tenancy rights. The government plan for distributing land to them, and to IDPs, is now a decade old, but has been one of the most corrupt and ineffective government schemes. AAN’s Jelena Bjelica looks at how difficult it has been for these most vulnerable of Afghans and asks whether anything might now change.

Shortly after the December 2001 Bonn Conference which established the post-Taleban political set up, at UNHCR’s urging, President Karzai passed the Decree on the Dignified Return of Refugees – decree no 297. It became effective as of 22 December 2001. The decree guaranteed the proper treatment of returnees, their exemption from prosecution (except for war crimes and crimes against humanity) and the recovery of lost property. (1)

Although the recovery of property was recognised as a right, in practice, many returnees found they could not just walk in and reclaim their original houses and farms. New occupants often held documents supporting their own claim to the property. In some cases, they may have actually bought the property (from someone who did not own it); in other cases, the new ‘owners’ had acquired legal titles through dubious legal means. In some cases the new ‘owners’ simply refused to leave.

A further complication was that, for many property transactions, no official documents exist. According to this in-depth 2013 AREU study, many people do not have any documentation to confirm their ownership. (According to Afghan law, customary, religious, legal and administrative documents are legitimate.) The same study found that there was no documentation at all for many rural properties for the period from 1961 to 2001:

Most landowners and tenants held and used their land on trust, under customary norms. These norms were community-based and sustained arrangements, which had evolved over time. These drew upon various customary or religious (Shari’a) norms. The shared conventions agreed that a certain field or house was owned by a certain family.

Under the post-2001 land laws, people who had enjoyed customary usage rights over land, in fact, had no right to own the land. This made many people effectively landless.

Other returnees were adversely affected by a decision taken at the Bonn conference to take the 1964 Constitution as the temporary basis for all laws, until the adoption of a constitution. Presidential Decree No 66 (5 January 2002) abolished all decrees and legal documents enacted before 22 December 2001 that were inconsistent with the 1964 Constitution and the Bonn Agreement. This revoked all land rights people had gained through the land reforms in the 1970s and 1980s (for example 250,000 families had been given 600,000 hectares of land by the end of 1979). It also strengthened the state’s de jure ownership of an estimated 80 per cent of the country’s land. (The remaining 20 per cent of the land was in private ownership.)

In September 2002, less than a year after the Bonn conference, President Karzai established a special Land and Property Disputes Court (by his Decree on the Establishment of Land and Property Disputes Court; Circulate Letter No 4035). The court, that was ordered to adjudicate disputes within two months and was supposed to have a special police force to enforce its decisions, was abolished again in November 2003 (Executive Decree No 89).

The same decree created a new institution, the Special Property Dispute Resolution Court, based in Kabul with the responsibility of handling all returnee and refugee property cases. It had a primary court, which was also responsible for areas outside Kabul and was authorised to travel to the provinces with the Supreme Court’s permission to deal with any special disputes, and an appeal court. A year later, in February 2004, another executive decree (No 112) was issued, to allow claimants who were dissatisfied with the special courts’ judgments to appeal their cases to the Supreme Court and the Office of the President. This legal centralisation of power, in particular in the hands of the president, said the AREU study, discouraged returnees from bringing claims against the government, which itself had become the owner of many estates. According to the same study, “By January 2005, the court had dealt with only five per cent of cases before it and an astounding 80 per cent of its verdicts were being appealed.”

In January 2007, a presidential decree (No 105) abolished the authority of the primary courts to handle cases outside Kabul and transferred it to the provincial judiciary. In July 2007, the Supreme Court, using its authority to establish or change court divisions, abolished the Special Property Dispute Resolution Court altogether and its authority was transferred to Afghanistan’s regular courts.

Introducing a land allocation scheme

There were also many returnees who lost their access to land through the abolition of post-1964 land laws or the dissolution of customary arrangements. Others had never had access to land. In 2003, UNHCR estimated that 41 per cent of returnees had no homes or land, while another 26 per cent owned farms or houses, but had found these destroyed or damaged beyond repair on their return. All over the country, IDP and refugee returnees started forming informal settlements on land they did not own. In urban areas, they joined the ranks of other urban migrants who made up cities’ growing informal settlements. (2)

In the face of all these problems and partially in response to UNHCR pressure, in December 2005, Karzai passed another new decree:Presidential Decree 104 on the Land Distribution to Eligible Returnees and IDPs. It was colloquially known as the ‘land allocation scheme.’ It was supposed to ease the return of refugees, but has been ineffective and racked by corruption.

Presidential Decree 104 created provincial commissions chaired by the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation that were to vet and approve applications for the allocation of land (Article 7). The Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livelihoods was charged with finding available land (Article 9), a responsibility subsequently given to the Afghanistan Land Authority (known as Arazi). By 2006, over 48,000 parcels of 3 to 10 hectares (15-30 jeribs) of land had been identified and listed. However, most of the allocated land was actually on the commons. This land only officially belonged to the state, but communities saw it as their own, shared land which they managed communally.

The implementation of the land allocation scheme was far from smooth. Many affected communities rejected the allocation of lands to those they saw as outsiders. An example of this can be read about in a 2010 TLO study  which describes a case in Zhari Dasht, in Zhari district of Kandahar, where UNHCR and the local government had negotiated a permanent settlement, in line with Presidential Decree 104, for IDPs from the north and west of Afghanistan who had settled in Zhari Dasht in late 2001. Their IDP camp was registered in 2004. The local community, however, resisted the plan so strongly that the government decided that the return of the IDPs to their place of origin would be the only viable solution for them. Most of the Zhari Dasht IDPs never went ‘home’, however, but eventually resettled themselves in Kandahar City and Spin Boldak district of Kandahar.

There have been sustained complaints about how the government has distributed land (see AAN previous reporting here). According to a 2015 UNAMA report on land grabbing, government officials often distributed land for personal gain or because of threats to those who were not eligible. For example, a governor (from a province not named by UNAMA) had “sold land allocated for IDPs and returnees for personal profit,” while in another place, “the Decree 104 commission ha[d] not convened in over four years, ostensibly because no state land ha[d] been made available for allocation, as a result of state land grabbing.” Often, land distribution priorities appeared biased, favouring other groups who might legally be given land, such as government employees. In Herat, for example, the municipal land commission distributed 14,000 parcels of land to government officials and only 850 parcels to returnees and IDPs.

The land actually allotted for distribution to returnees and IDPs often ended up being far from the cities and not meeting basic living standards – with, for example, no access to water and no job opportunities, health services or schools. This may partially explain the relatively low number of applications for plots: by the end of 2014, the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation had received some 266,000 applications. The majority of IDPs and returnees may simply have preferred to reside in urban or peri-urban environments, particularly since many of them had become used to a certain level of basic services while in exile. Another important reason may have been the particularly arduous process involved in applying for land.

Presidential Decree 104 – “inconsistent, defective, vague and uneven”

Getting land through the available legal procedure is difficult to the point of making applicants despair. The Independent Joint Anti-Corruption Monitoring and Evaluation Committee (MEC), in its 2013 vulnerability to corruption assessment, described how “many of the [decree’s] articles were inconsistent, defective, vague and uneven, paving the way for corruption.”

To register for the land allocation scheme, the applicant first of all needed to submit three basic documents (article 2): a voluntary repatriation form provided by UNHCR, a requirement that excluded people who had not returned via a formal UNHCR-administered process (for some background on this, see this AAN dispatch), a tazkera (ID document) and proof of landlessness, certifying that the person does not own land or a house in Afghanistan under his/her name, nor in the name of a spouse or under-age child. For IDPs applying for a plot of land, a document confirming their internal displacement status is required.

Providing a document proving landlessness, in particular, turned out to be very difficult. Moreover, the entire procedure to obtain a temporary land ownership deed consisted of six stages (3) and 63 separate administrative steps, almost all of which included the collection of signatures from the different authorities and departments of the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation. MEC, in its report, described these steps as unnecessary, provisional and aimed at “escaping individual responsibility.” Completing the whole process can take years.

The process was so cumbersome that during the second step of the process the minister himself needed to review each individual application and refer them to the concerned directorate. The chief of staff, heads of different departments, heads of units in the districts, provincial directors of refugees’ affairs and so on, all also needed to confirm, sign off or stamp the application. It was not until the 37th and 38th step of this six-stage process that the provincial commission actually evaluated the application and determined whether the applicant was an eligible beneficiary.

Such a process provided ample opportunity for corruption and ‘rent-seeking behaviour,’ as confirmed by the MEC assessment. Anecdotal reporting indicated that, for a bribe of approximately 300 US dollars per person in the household, an applicant could speed up the collection of signatures, stamps and sign-offs, at least in some stages of the process. But given the number of steps required to complete this bureaucratic process, many people would have felt discouraged by the sheer amount of bribery needed.

The actual fees were rather reasonable and affordable. Based on the Council of Ministers Resolution No 16 from 21 August 2006 (article 6) a person who was approved to receive the land only needed to pay a symbolic official state fee of 1,500 Afghani (then around 30 dollars) per 100 square meters (1 beswa). Usually the land people received was between three and six beswa.

By the end of 2014, after nine years, according to the UNHCR database, the ministry had allotted only 57,500 plots of land (out of a total of 266,000 applications). Of this number, only 39,000 beneficiaries had actually received their title deeds, while the actual occupancy was recorded at just over 21,000 plots. To put these figures in context, on a rough estimate based on UNHCR figures, there may be more than two million landless returnees in Afghanistan who could be eligible for the scheme.

Anwary as minister

Since the Bonn conference, the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation has been led by seven ministers: Enayatullah Nazari 2002-04; Azam Dadfar 2004; Sher Muhammad Ettebari 2004-09; Abdul Karim Brahui 2009-10; Abdul Rahim 2010; Jamahir Anwary 2010-14; and, since 2015, Sayed Hussain Alemi Balkhi 2015. It is difficult to distinguish the legacy of each minister, but Anwary’s tenure is probably the best documented in the available media investigative stories, UN reports and MEC vulnerability to corruption assessment.

Jamahir Anwary, appointed in June 2010, (4) was a pharmacy graduate from Kabul University who appeared on the political scene in 2002 as a delegate of the Turkmen shura (representing Turkmen refugees in Pakistan and residents in Afghanistan) who had come to meet the interim government’s senior officials; he was later described as ‘the newly elected representative of the Turkmen community’. (5)

His ministerial tenure (from June 2010 to December 2014) will mainly be remembered for the accusations of corruption, nepotism and embezzlement of government and international aid agencies’ funds. Anwary was called in by both houses of the parliament (Wolesi Jirga and Meshrano Jirga). The first time, in February 2012, it was at the request of the Complaints Commission of the Meshrano Jirga, to answer for the appointment of his niece and two cousins in the ministry. Anwary, however, failed to show up and, instead, responded via the media saying “the three people who have been employed were interviewed by a commission [that] consisted of a representative from the ministry and a representative from UNHCR [sic].”

Then, on 10 October 2013, the Wolesi Jirga summoned him for an interpellation session (isteza), a serious matter where a minister can be sacked if he or she does not provide adequate answers to MPs’ concerns. The Afghan media reported that Anwary was summoned over allegations of graft, including embezzlement of funds, failure to clear the ministry’s power bills, anomalies in recruitment and the ministry’s overall failure to address the plight of refugees.

The allegations had, by then, been well documented. A UNHCR evaluation of its Shelter Assistance Program conducted in the fall of 2012 stated that the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation was not considered a reliable partner to take over or continue UNHCR’s program, due to numerous instances of corruption, inefficiency, mishandling of funds, lack of human resources and an inability to demonstrate technical or thematic knowledge of the populations falling under the ministry’s responsibility.

A year later, on 28 September 2013, the Independent Media Consortium (IMC) published an in-depth and widely publicised investigative report about corruption in the ministry. Allegations by the IMC included that Anwary had requested UNHCR to transfer tens of thousands of US dollars to the personal accounts of his family members and others.

A month later, in October 2013, the MEC released its vulnerability to corruption assessment on land distribution for returnees and IDPs, also describing widespread administrative corruption, bribery, forgery, nepotism, embezzlement and poor customer service in the ministry. Although the report did not specify when these practices had taken place, it was published three years into Anwary’s tenure. The report also found that senior officials in the ministry were incompetent and the internal control mechanisms were inadequate. It also found the land distribution process to be corrupted, informal and chaotic (see previous section). Moreover, the 2013 MEC assessment indicated that, due to a sloppy and unnecessarily long procedure, the lack of a central database and widespread corrupted practices, in more than 3,500 cases in Kabul province the same plot of land had been distributed to more than one applicant.

Anwary, however, survived the vote of no confidence held on 9 November 2013. His defence was that “we should not point an accusing finger at each other and instead we should jointly work to resolve the problems facing Afghan refugees.” Many thought it pointed rather to problems with the parliament. President Karzai also chosen to keep the widely discredited minister in post.

New minister: new rules… and new problems

When the current refugee minister Sayed Hussain Alemi Balkhi took over the ministry in January 2015, he faced a mammoth task. (6) He not only had to deal with a notoriously corrupt ministry, but his appointment coincided with a growing mass exodus of Afghans to Europe (see AAN previous reporting) and pressure from European countries to ‘take back’ those who failed to get asylum. There was also the ongoing increase in IDPs due to the intensified conflict. (See the ministry’s statistics on IDPs, returnees and refugees, and the 2015 UNAMA report on civilian casualties.)

On 19 May 2015, the new minister introduced what MEC, in its Ninth Six-month Progress Report (25 February 2016), described as a simplified procedure for land distribution. AAN interviews with MEC and ministry officials suggest it is not yet clear how the new procedure will work and whether the minister himself still needs to rule on who is eligible and who is not in the early stage of the application. According to MEC’s monitoring and evaluation unit, 1,534 plots have been distributed based on the new procedure. Everyone is watching to see how the new procedure will pan out.

In the past, as the 2013 MEC report found, the lack of a systematic, computerised database in the ministry provided ample opportunity for forgery and corruption. There is now a database, although it is not yet fully functional – in particular, it is not yet connected to the provinces. However, there is still no streamlined bureaucratic procedure, a ‘one-stop-shop.’

The ministry has also established a legal committee to deal with the 3,500 doubly/triply distributed plots in Kabul province. According to the MEC, 800 cases have since then been resolved. The ministry has also referred several cases to the Attorney General’s Office in relation to the Kabul plots.

Balkhi made these important changes after June 2015 when the High Commission on Migration chaired by President Ghani himself was established. The commission, which brings together 17 different ministries and governmental institutions, held its first meeting on 22 June 2015.

The strong political pressure from the president on refugee and migration issues is related to their high international political profile. Pressure from the president also intensified in the run-up to a UNHCR meeting in Geneva in October 2015 (see here and here), at which aid for the refugees’ ministry was discussed. Both donors and the government had slashed the ministry’s budget earlier in the year. (7)

Solutions never explored and outlook for the future

After the passing of many years and the spending of billions of US dollars, Afghanistan still has huge numbers of returnees and IDPs who are landless. The fact that only a small portion of the millions who could have applied for the government’s land distribution scheme have done so hints at fundamental problems: either people lost hope and interest in the scheme, or the land offered (far from the cities, with not even basic services) was not attractive. A high number of landless returnees and IDPs in Afghanistan have clearly expressed a desire to be located near or in cities, but the government has never proposed public housing schemes which might have catered to them. Possibly, such solutions would have been seen as too ‘socialist’.

Both CEO Abdullah Abdullah and President Ghani promised in their election campaigns to facilitate the return of refugees still living abroad. Part of that would have to be creating a system which helps those who have already come ‘home’. There is some sense that the government wants to clean up the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation. The spotlight is now on the ministry to see if it can rescue its damaged reputation and start helping those it is supposed to serve.

(1) In 2001, the number of laws regulating land issues was rather complex: next to the constitution, more than 70 laws, edicts, decrees, orders and administrative decisions regulated the land rights. Currently, there are still over 30 different pieces of legislation. For more information on land management and land administration issues in the post-Bonn era see this detailed AREU study: Land, People, and the State in Afghanistan: 2002 – 2012; February 2013

See also the 2014 UNAMA report on the legal framework and the Norwegian Refugee Council’s A guide to property law in Afghanistan, Second Edition 2011.

(2) In Kabul, in 2009, the informal settlements (where settlers included poor people, urban migrants, returnees and IDPs) made up an estimated 69 per cent of the city’s residential area (from Sheila Reed and Connor Foley, Land and Property: Challenges and Opportunities for Returnees and IDPs in Afghanistan, unpublished report prepared for the Norwegian Refugee Council, June 2009).

(3) A permanent ownership deed is supposed to be given by the municipality after five years (article 13), while the beneficiary has to refrain from selling the land for ten years (article 11). The six stages of the whole process are: 1 submission of the application and identity check; 2 checking the proof of repatriation or internal displacement; 3 recording and registering, determining whether this is a deserving or non-deserving applicant; 4 payment and allocation of the land; 5 receiving a temporary deed, after completion of 30-40 per cent of the construction work; 6 receiving permanent ownership.

(4) Between December 2009 and June 2010, Karzai tried to complete his cabinet three times, but never managed to get approval for the full cabinet. In the end, six of the 25 ministries continued to be headed by acting ministers. See previous AAN reporting on this issue here,  here andhere.

(5) Anwary’s official biography also has him as the leader of the Turkmen Peace Council and a member of a leading delegation of carpet traders. He was a delegate for the 2002 Emergency Loya Jirga and, from 2006-10, the Director General for Pharmacy in the Ministry of Public Health.

(6) Sayed Hussain Alemi Balkhi, Abdullah Abdullah’s appointee, was approved by the Wolesi Jirga on 26 January 2015. He is a Shia Sayed from Balkh, a religious scholar and founder of one of the small jihadi parties that fought the Soviet occupation, was backed by Iran and formed Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami in 1989. He was elected as an MP in both the 2005 and 2010 elections and resigned in 2013 to run as vice president to Gul Agha Sherzai in the 2014 presidential elections (see AAN earlier dispatcheshere and here)

(7) The Afghan government slashed the discretionary development budget for the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation from 1.2 million US dollars in 2014-15 to 250,000 in 2015-16, due to budgetary constraints and the ministry’s poor expenditure track record. The operational budget for the ministry for 2015-16 was 3 million US dollars. Additionally, aid funds had been on hold for most of 2015 (see, for example, SIGAR’s recommendations to the US government in its August 2015 report); it was concerned about the widespread corruption in the ministry during the last cabinet of the Karzai government.

The ministry’s 2016-17 operational budget is 3.9 US dollars. The development budget, both discretionary and non-discretionary, is 3.7 million US dollars.

AFGHANISTAN: Deciding To Leave Afghanistan, Part 1 of 3: Motives for migration

Afghan youth in Nimruz province about to cross illegally from Afghanistan into Iran, and then onward via Turkey to Europe. It is a risky journey that the young Afghans embark on in order to leave behind unemployment and insecurity. (Source: Pajhwok October 2015)

Afghan youth in Nimruz province about to cross illegally from Afghanistan into Iran, and then onward via Turkey to Europe. It is a risky journey that the young Afghans embark on in order to leave behind unemployment and insecurity. (Source: Pajhwok October 2015), by Lenny Linke, May 8, 2016, original

AAN has done a series of twelve in-depth interviews with families of Afghans who recently traveled to Europe. The conversations provided a fascinating insight into the practicalities of both the decision making processes and the journey, the complex interplay between economic and security considerations and the mixed feelings families often have once their loved ones have finally, safely, reached Europe. In this first instalment, AAN’s Lenny Linke takes a closer look at the reasons families gave for either sending or allowing their sons or brothers to leave for Europe.

This series of three dispatches is based on twelve interviews done for a joint project with (and funded by) the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FESand resulted in a joint study titled “’We Knew They Had No Future in Kabul’: Why and How Afghan Families Decide to Leave” published on 27 April 2016.  The data collection was conducted in the spring of 2016 with selected Afghan households to explore the decision-making processes at the family level of a small number of migrants. (1) The three dispatches present the main findings and place them in a wider context. The second dispatch will focus on the details of the journey, the routes taken and practical preparations. The third dispatch will take a closer look at what has happened since the migrants arrived in Europe and lays out the hopes and concerns their families have now that they are there.

The decision-making process

The demographic of the migrants in the sample was relatively young (all under 30) and predominantly male. (1) Many family members reported that it was their sons or brothers themselves who had initiated the discussion about going to Europe.

When my son told me he was thinking of going to Europe, I approved; we decided that if my son continued living in Afghanistan, there would not be an improvement in his or our current situation, so it was better for him to go to Europe… We all agreed and there was no reason to disagree. (Father of a 19-year old migrant from Kabul)

To be honest, we thought he was joking when he said he wanted to leave, but once he got his Iranian visa, we started believing him. He himself brought up the issue of going to Europe. He used Facebook on a daily basis to read about the situation along the route and he read that the border between Turkey and Greece was open. He might have been motivated by this… (Brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand)

In several cases, family members, including wives and fiancées, were initially opposed to the migrants leaving, but several of the migrants subsequently persuaded their relatives to give their blessing and to support them, even if some were still reluctant.

…finally their father agreed to send them, because many times the boys had planned to leave without letting us know. Their father was compelled to send them with his blessings, rather than sending them off to deal with unreliable people. (Mother of a 15-year and an 18-year old migrant from Kabul)

One migrant from Maidan Wardak, whose father was interviewed, had left without telling his family or talking about possibly leaving beforehand: “I was not at home when my son left for Europe… When he reached Turkey, he called and said he was in Turkey and would leave for Europe.”

In some cases, however, families remained antagonistic towards the idea of their relative going to Europe, even after son or brother had left. The brother of a 17-year old migrant from Nangarhar said, “Well, we all opposed his leaving,” while the brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand said “To leave was his personal decision after the economic crisis hit Afghanistan. His wife and children begged him not to leave.”

In other families, the decision to leave for Europe had been a joint decision, where family members had decided to send the migrants away or had urged them to go to Europe. In these cases, worsening security had often been the main, or at least an important, driver for leaving Afghanistan.

It was a family decision to send my brother abroad. We all agreed because we wanted him to live longer and to not die in the war… When security began to deteriorate, we started discussing whether he should go to Europe. We discussed this for a month, and after a month we decided he should go to Europe. We also talked about what he might do in Afghanistan if he didn’t go to Europe.  (Brother of a 20-year old migrant from Baghlan)

Due to the fact that his employment as a driver with an organisation brought him threats, my father persuaded my brother to leave the country for a safer place. (Brother of a 22-year old migrant from Kunduz).

In fact, we had never thought about such words as ‘going to Europe’ nor did my brother evoke them. In the end, though, we said, “Where should he go?” We thought, “Should he go to Pakistan or Iran?” The media were broadcasting reports of people leaving for Europe. We said, “Let’s trust God. You will arrive somewhere.” (Brother of a 22-year old migrant from Sar-e Pul)

After the insurgents killed our brother and set our house on fire, the decision was made to send our brother away…. All the family decided together that we would send our brother to Europe so he could help out the whole family financially once he made it … We expected that our brother would be accepted as an asylum seeker in Germany and that he would be able to bring the whole family to Germany, because there is nothing left for us in Afghanistan. (Brother of a 25-year old migrant from Takhar)

It was decided by my family that I should leave after I received threatening letters from the Taleban because of my work with NGOs and also because I had worked for the US forces as a translator and project facilitator in rural Kandahar… My mother, my sisters and my wife were the driving force for me and also my brother leaving for Germany, as there was an imminent threat against the entire family as long as we stayed in Kandahar. (27-year old migrant from Kandahar, who was interviewed in Kabul after he was forcibly returned)

In several cases, where deteriorating security had been a main concern, there was a longer period of contemplating going ‘somewhere.’ For example, the brother of the migrant from Herat said:

He [the migrant] was feeling unsafe. I said “You can come to Kabul.” He said “Even there, they will reach me.”… He’d had threats from some Taleban. He’d also had threats from some unknown people. The threats had increased. He had been thinking for a while and talking about what he should do. For a long time, I tried to persuade him to stay, but in the end, as the threats against him increased, he said, “I have to go.”

While most migrants travel alone, some leaving wives and children behind, there was one case where a whole family left together.

It’s very difficult [for a father] to keep a family in Herat, both financially and morally, when you are not there. He decided that if they would face any difficulties, they would face them together. (Brother of a 29-year old migrant from Herat)

Motivations for leaving

People’s motivations for going to Europe, as reflected in the twelve interviews, were often a combination of frustration felt over the lack of jobs and/or educational opportunities as well as concerns over the deteriorating security situation. Even in cases where the lack of opportunities for employment and education were mentioned as the primary reason for migration, these were usually followed by explicit and implicit references to the security situation. None of the respondents cited the lack of opportunity as the exclusive reason for leaving.

What also emerged from the interviews was that in at least four cases, migrants had either come under threat because of their past employment and/or could no longer find or take on work due to direct insurgent threats or the fear of being exposed to insecurity because of their work.

A lack of economic and educational opportunities

Many of the migrants’ relatives mentioned the lack of economic and educational opportunities as an important factor in the decision to leave. Several of the migrants had just finished high school or university and were unable to find employment or to continue their education.

His main motivation [for leaving] was his failure to get into university. If he had succeeded in the exam, other factors wouldn’t have played an important role. (Brother of a 17-year old migrant from Nangarhar)

…we thought he should go to Germany, continue his education there and then help us to get there too. (Brother of a 22-year old migrant fom Kunduz)

[Advice I gave to my brother:]…you are a medical student in the 6thsemester and you can’t finish your education here, [but] you can keep your education up there. (Brother of a 22-year old migrant from Sar-e Pul)

When my son finished high school, we thought since there are no jobs and the situation is getting worse day by day, it would be good if he went to Europe, where he could find a good job and have a good future. (Father of a 19-year old migrant from Kabul)

When the boys were studying in school, I could not afford to send them to a private school for better quality education. … My husband is disabled and I am the only breadwinner in the family. Due to financial and family problems, my eldest son could not continue his education. He studied until the 8th grade and then started to work and earn money for the family. … He was working during the day and therefore could not go to regular school. I managed to find a job and my eldest son returned to school. He went to evening school so that he could continue working during the day as well. He was looking for a better paid job but could not find one… (Mother of two migrants, aged 15 and 18, from Kabul)

He said he had studied for almost 18 years, but could not find a job and nobody would hire him. He thought it would be better for him to go to Europe and maybe try to find a job there. It seemed a relatively new decision to leave, which he made after he had sent his CV off to several organisations and not received any positive responses. He only seemed to have decided to leave once his frustration in Afghanistan became too much. (Brother of a 25-year old migrant from Maidan Wardak)

He was jobless and it was difficult to feed 15 people with the money he earned as a bus conductor. (Father of a 23-year old migrant from Kabul/Wardak)

The main motive was economic. Because his work situation [ability to find a well-paying job] had not been good in recent years, he thought it would be better to leave Afghanistan. (Brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand)

Everyone agreed that because of our family’s bad economic situation there was nothing to do about it except send him away. (Brother of migrant from Takhar)

In one case, the mother of an 18-year old migrant explained that while the general lack of income opportunities had been one factor, the need to earn money in order to get married had also featured in her son’s decision to leave:

Her father asked for 240,000 Afghanis [just over €3,000] as the bride price but my eldest son could not earn that money in Afghanistan and get married quickly. (Mother of two migrants from Kabul) 

Others who did not cite the lack of economic or education opportunities as a primary factor for leaving often brought it up as a secondary factor behind the more dominant security considerations.

The second most important reason was his future, his education and the financial support [he could give] to the family. We wanted him to live in a peaceful place, pursue his education and help his family in Afghanistan.(Brother of a 20-year old migrant form Baghlan)

But there were also migrants for whom life in terms of economic opportunities and professional satisfaction had been good and who, according to their families, would have been better off staying in Afghanistan—had that been possible.

There are many advantages in Europe, but people can’t count on them. For traditional people, people who have jobs, journalists with credibility in this country, who have a salary, [for them] life is good. But then, when it comes to safety, there is no choice… If there had not been any threats, he would have stayed…For an Afghan man, this might be the biggest adventure he can have: having a salary, a car, a wife, kids. What more do you want? (Brother of a 29-year old migrant from Herat)

Security threats

About half of all interviewees stated that their family members had gone to Europe because of reasons related, at least in part, to security. While some seemed mainly threatened by the overall deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and did not have any direct exposure to threats or violence, others left because of direct threats or exposure to violence, as experienced by themselves or their immediate family members.

He’d had threats from some Taleban. He’d also had threats from some unknown people. The threats had increased. … With no clear idea of the future and of what might happen in Herat – he thought there was no better future in Herat because of the increasing threats and the insurgency in the western region. (Brother of a 29-year old migrant from Herat)

My brother began talking about [leaving], but we did not agree with him. When security began to deteriorate, the family agreed to send him abroad. …The deteriorating security situation was the main reason for my family finally agreeing to send my brother to Europe. (Brother of a 20-year old migrant from Baghlan)

As he’d worked as an interpreter for two weeks, the insurgents told him that because he had been an interpreter for the Americans, he had become an infidel. He could neither come to Sar-e Pul, nor go anywhere else. He was just stuck in Mazar, trapped. As security got worse each day, the obstacles he faced amplified. If he had stayed here, he might have been killed. (Brother of a 22-year old migrant from Sar-e Pul)

After the insurgents killed our brother and set our house on fire, the decision was made to send our brother away. (Brother of a 25-year old migrant from Takhar)

Interestingly, while some respondents initially only mentioned the lack of economic opportunities as a primary motive for leaving, during the course of the interview it often became apparent that the migrant of the family had in the past been directly exposed to traumatic events. Even though these events were not given as a reason to leave, they did seem to have contributed to the overall decision.

One day (in late 2014) we had gone for a feast in Logar with relatives there. A boy’s car was attacked; he was taken out of his car and dragged along behind a motorbike. Someone had told the insurgents that the boy was working in a government office. At the time, we were close to where the incident took place. After that incident, we were more frightened. Also, when the explosion happened in the Police Academy [in August 2015], the boys were on their way to Qargha Lake [just west of Kabul]. At the time of the explosion, the boys were in the car in the area and witnessed the incident. They saw the dead bodies of police lying on the ground. After the incident, for three nights, my boys could not sleep. (Mother of two migrants, aged 15 and 18, from Kabul)

Another reason behind his decision was security. We are from Maidan Wardak, the situation there has not been good and so we chose to move to Kabul. My brother could not go back to Maidan Wardak either, as security there is still bad. People told him that as he was an engineer, it was not good for him to go to Maidan Wardak because the insurgents would try to kill him…. He didn’t feel safe even in Kabul, because once when my father went to the mosque in Kabul, someone threw a hand grenade at him. It only injured him and did not kill him, but this had a bad effect on my brother. He had never previously had any thoughts about going to Europe, but the situation got very bad in Karzai’s final years and it is even worse under the new government. (Brother of a 25-year old migrant from Maidan Wardak)

Beyond direct threats, the deteriorating security situation has clearly been concerning enough, or has affected people’s lives enough to warrant sending a family member abroad. Sometimes even rumours were all it took to make the decision.

…there were rumours that, if there are two young men in a family, the Taleban would take one as a fighter – that’s how we came to the decision.(Brother of a 22-year old migrant from Kunduz)

The insecurity and lack of income/educational opportunities nexus

The lack of security and economic and educational opportunities were the two main reasons given by the respondents for why family members left. But some interviewees clearly struggled to just name one, or to determine which one had been the most important.

 He left because of insecurity and joblessness… at the same time, we see the security situation getting worse and worse. (Father of a 23-year old migrant from Kabul/Wardak)

Several interviewees highlighted the connection between declining security and rising economic pressures on migrants’ families.

Well, in a way the worsening economic situation is an outcome of the bad security situation. He would say that [even] if we were rich in Afghanistan, we would be threatened and if we were poor, again we would be in a bad condition. He was also threatened by insurgents because he used to work with international organisations. (Brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand)

From the interviews, it is apparent that because of their jobs, migrants faced increasing insecurity and threats. In some scenarios, these threats forced migrants to give up their employment or prevented them from seeking new jobs.

My brother was an intelligent guy, he was top of his class throughout high school. He completed a two-year English course and learnt English fluently. Later, he applied for a job as an interpreter in Sar-e Pul. The US forces sent him to Mazar and then they [the US forces] wanted him to work in Helmand province, but because of the risk my father told him not to take the job and never go to Helmand or to other places. Hence, after two weeks working as an interpreter in Mazar, he didn’t go back to work. (Brother of a 22-year old migrant from Sar-e Pul)

 Being associated with certain activities deemed as inappropriate by the insurgency, for example, put people at risk:

…he was working as a driver and taking female colleagues home from the office … we thought it was becoming more dangerous for him. (Brother of a 22-year old migrant from Kunduz)

His wife is a teacher and a social activist; he would take his wife to participate in programs organised by these international organisations. People thought badly of him because of this. (Brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand)

A specific scenario cited by several interviewees concerned the possible recruitment of their sons or brothers into the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF). Without prospects for other jobs or further education, some migrants said they had intended to join the ANSF as a last resort, which caused their families to fear for their security to the extent that they considered it safer to send them to Europe.

My older son had initially said he would join the national army. If he could not find any other job, then he would join the army. His father was frightened about the prospects of him joining the police or the army as the war was going on and he would be sent somewhere to the battleground.(Mother of two migrants, aged 15 and 18, from Kabul)

My brother was not happy here because he failed the entry test to university. He wanted to join the Afghan National Army (ANA). We did not want him to join the ANA because he would be killed if he joined.(Brother of a 17-year old migrant from Nangarhar)

Possible recruitment by the Taleban of unemployed youth was also a concern.

The Taliban were recruiting young men in the area to fight the Afghan government forces. We were afraid they might hire my brother. My brother was young and unemployed, so we feared he might make the wrong decisions. (Brother of a 20-year old migrant from Baghlan)

Sometimes even just the danger of travelling to and from the workplace was cited as an issue of concern. This was either due to not being able to safely access employment or the constant risk that a person is exposed to when leaving the house.

He did not have a good job here and could not go to Dai Mirdad [a district in the south of Wardak province] freely. On the way to Maidan Wardak, anything could happen to him. … He used to say “you [the entire family] are all at home and safe there. I have to deal with the risks and dangers because I have to earn money.” (Father of a 23-year old migrant from Kabul/Wardak)

The primary motivation was to escape revenge killings and Taleban threats, the secondary motivation was to be able to find a good job, one which we could take on without feeling threatened. My brother and I could not have gone outside the house to find work anywhere in Kandahar because we were afraid of the Taleban and of revenge attacks – we stayed at home, borrowing money from others, relying on our extended family to provide for us as we dared not leave or have any routine, or take a public job, for fear of being discovered and killed. … Even in Kabul or Pakistan, I would not have been safe. I wanted to break the cycle of violence so as to not endanger my own family – the only way to do this was to leave the country. (27-year old migrant from Kandahar)

‘Pull’ factors

 In addition to the ‘push’ factors related to insecurity and the lack of income and education, about a third of the respondents mentioned that the final decision to leave had been influenced by the actions of others who had already gone to Europe. These interactions seem to have either contributed to the final decision, or appeared to have helped families justify their consent to the migrant leaving once the decision had been taken.

It was not long after we saw other people from the neighbourhood leaving that we decided that our son should also go. (Father of a 19-year old migrant from Kabul)

My younger son’s friends from our neighbourhood – there were three of them, one is 20 years old and the other two are also minors – left for Germany. He was in contact with them via Facebook. (Mother of two young migrants, aged 15 and 18, from Kabul)

He decided to go because my niece, who was already in Europe, kept asking him to come to Europe. (Brother of a 17-year old migrant from Nangarhar)

From my own family, my younger brother left for Europe. After he left, one of my paternal cousins and three of my maternal cousins left as well.(Brother of a 20-year old migrant from Baghlan)

He said he wanted to leave and take the risk, just like other people who were leaving. (Brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand)

From the twelve interviews conducted with families of migrants, a picture has emerged of families either struggling to decide whether to send a family member, or scrambling to come to terms with the decisions already made by their relatives, usually sons or brothers. With regards to the motivation for the journey to Europe, although the majority of the respondents mentioned economic and/or educational opportunities as a main contributing factor, it was clear that in almost all cases declining security had also been a significant (primary or contributing) factor. In some cases where insecurity and threats had been a primary concern, the subsequent negative impact on the families’ income opportunities appeared to have become the final push in the decision to leave.

(1) The study consisted of twelve in-depth, semi-structured interviews that took place across Afghanistan’s regions as follows: four interviews in Kabul and Wardak province; four interviews in Takhar, Sar-e Pul, Kunduz and Baghlan; one interview in Nangarhar; two interviews in Helmand and Kandahar; and one interview in Herat. The ethnic composition and urban/rural population ratio in the provinces was taken into account in the selection of interviewees. The respondents were selected and located through a referral system, where AAN researchers reached out to their networks looking for families where at least one member had left for Europe in 2015. Respondents were interviewed about the departure of their family member(s), how decisions were made prior to their departure, details of the trip to Europe and thoughts on the future of the migrant in Europe. In addition, basic household information was collected for each of the families. For a shorter summary of the study, published jointly with FES, see here.

All migrants included in the study were male, with one exception where a whole family – husband, wife and young children – travelled together. In one case, two young brothers from one household travelled together and in one case a migrant who had been forcibly returned was interviewed directly. All migrants included in this study were between the ages of 15 and 30 years. Most of the interviewees giving information about the migrants in question were brothers and fathers (there was one mother and one sister). 


AFGHANISTAN, DEVELOPMENT: What the future holds for Afghan

Afghanistan-womenAl Jazeera speaks to Noorjahan Akbar, a human rights activist, about the immense challenges facing Afghan women, By Liz Guch, 5/26/16

Afghanistan’s women have made significant gains in recent years, with more girls attending school and more women working outside the home.

But fear still overshadows the lives of many.

A resurgent Taliban recently provoked outrage by publicly executing two women, but as this 101 East documentary shows, the greatest threat many women face comes from loved ones at home.

Activist Noorjahan Akbar talks about the challenges in overcoming conservative attitudes in the face of rising “anti-woman propaganda”.

Al Jazeera: How would you describe the current state of women’s rights in Afghanistan?

Noorjahan Akbar: Like the current state of the country, the current state of Afghan women is tumultuous and unstable. While – since the US-led intervention – Afghan women have made a considerable amount of progress, with [today’s] increased insecurity, economic inequality, and radicalism, we are afraid that our accomplishments will be threatened, and the few civil rights and individual freedoms we have will be taken away from us.

Since 2009, the number of Afghan women working has increased, but a large number of female activists and journalists have left the country due to fear of violence.

When I talk about the threat of violence, I don’t just mean the Taliban – even though they are largely responsible for targeting and killing female teachers, police officers, journalists, and activists.

On a daily basis, Afghan women face harassment in public spaces. In fact, nine out of 10 women say they have faced harassment at some point on the way to work or school, and out of those, 14 percent say they stopped going to school because of it. Eighty-seven percent of Afghan women have faced verbal, sexual or physical violence at home.

The vast majority of cases of violence against women, even the public targeted assassinations, are not met with any legal consequences.

Despite all this, Afghan women are teachers, ministers, parliamentarians, musicians, writers, journalists, photographers, vaccinators and more, and we are working hard to make things better for ourselves and the country.

But in order for us to really participate in rebuilding Afghanistan, our security should be a priority for our government. When our bodies are fair game, when it is always open season on women, when we are fearful of losing our lives on a daily basis, how can we move the country forward?

Al Jazeera: The Taliban recently publicly executed two women – one of them in an apparent honour killing – in northern Afghanistan, according to news reports. Are you concerned that this could signal a downward spiral for Afghan women?

Akbar: The harsh reality is that even though this case caught the eye of the international press, these ‘honour’ killings are not out of the ordinary. Whether by the Taliban or family members, Afghan women are killed regularly for the simple fact of being born female or choosing their own husbands. However, what these specific public executions tell me is that the rule of law has further deteriorated in Afghanistan and that is not good for anyone.

Al Jazeera: Many Afghan women suffer domestic violence at the hands of their family. How difficult is it to change attitudes towards women?

Akbar: It is extremely difficult to change attitudes towards women and decrease gender-based violence anywhere in the world, but in Afghanistan it is hard also because radicalism, Talibanism and gender-based violence at home are all related and perpetuate one another.

Especially in the last few years, there has been an increase in radical anti-woman propaganda in the big cities. Local mosques that were once moderate and somewhat accepting of women’s rights, now spend entire sermons on how women shouldn’t be allowed to work, study, or even speak in public.

In addition to using public executions to make a show of women’s punishment and terrorise women into silence and into the margins, today’s radicals use televisions, social media, sermons, and even schools to perpetuate and sanctify violence.

Al Jazeera: Impressive gains have been made in the number of girls attending school in Afghanistan. Is there a danger that these rights could be eroded?

Akbar: Yes, and we are seeing the erosion right now. In 2014, 163 schools were attacked in Afghanistan.

The majority of these schools were girls’ schools. This year, these attacks have increased. In January, a girls’ school was torched in Kabul – something that hasn’t happened in the capital city since the Taliban took power in 1996.

In February, the Ministry of Education said 700 schools were closed due to insecurity depriving thousands of girls and boys of an education. Just this week, 20 school girls were poisoned in Ghor province.

These attacks are terrifying, not just for those who have faced the violence themselves, but for the country as a whole.

Al Jazeera: International organisations have raised concerns that women’s rights activists are being deliberately targeted. How difficult is it for activists to stand up and demand change?

Akbar: I don’t know any human rights activist working for gender equality who feels safe in Afghanistan.

We have seen our sisters killed and asked for justice only to be threatened and sidelined more. We have called for the prosecution of those who killed Malalai Kakar, Hanifa Safi, Safia Ahmed Jan, Zakia Zaki and many more journalists and activists killed for being outspoken women and we have been told to shut up.

We are told on a daily basis that we shouldn’t talk about the issues we face, the rape threats we get, the violence women around us face because it will bring shame to our country.

The reality is that the fact that these injustices exist is a matter of shame – not people demanding an end for it.

Al Jazeera: Afghan women still face numerous challenges in their daily lives. Are you optimistic about the future? 

Akbar: Yes. I am optimistic because I see the passion with which young women are working for change inside the country and because I know that despite the heartache, the threats and the disappointments this fight are worth it.

Being pessimistic will not help us. It will only discourage us from working. I prefer not giving up. Afghanistan belongs to me and my peers as much as it belongs to the radicals advocating for violence, and we will not surrender the country to them – not without a fight at least.

@liz_gooch, Liz Gooch is a journalist covering Southeast Asia.

Click here to watch the 101 East documentary, “Afghanistan: No Country for Women”.

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