“Corpses lined our route”: how Europe abandoned Afghans

“Corpses lined our route”: how Europe abandoned Afghans

No human is illegal — One year on from the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban, Tiara Ataii speaks to those who have been forced to make the treacherous journey to Europe for safety, and the barriers and horrors they have faced.

When Murad* was 12, his uncle was assassinated. The murder was a part of a targeted campaign of hate against members of the Hazara ethnic and religious minority in Ghazni – a city in Afghanistan around 150km southwest of the capital, Kabul. 

Fearing for their lives, Murad’s father began to make preparations to leave but soon discovered the cost of smuggling the whole family was extortionate. Murad, the eldest child, was nominated to reach Europe first, where he would apply for asylum. As a child, a successful asylum claim would allow Murad to apply for reunification with his family, meaning they would be able to safely join him in Europe without having to smuggle themselves. He was placed in the hands of the most trusted smuggler his family could find, but nothing would stop his mother’s tears as he left. He describes puffing up his chest to reassure her that he would be fine. 

Murad crossed into Pakistan, and then into southern Iran. For days, he lay in the tailgate of a truck under a heavy carpet. Eventually he arrived in Turkey where it took him two years selling knick knacks at traffic lights to raise enough money to cross the Aegean sea. He arrived on the Greek island of Chios on his fifteenth birthday where he slept in a shipping container with seven Afghan men who informally fostered him and protected him from the dangers of the camp. A few months later, he was transferred to the mainland and placed in children’s accommodation.

Three hours from the nearest bus terminal, with only one bus per day, the area was isolated. Walking up to the repurposed hotel entailed wading through waist-high parched grass and avoiding eye contact with the feral dogs that were the only sign of life in the area. 

The isolation took a heavy toll on the children. 25 boys were housed in the centre. All were Afghan but for one Ethiopian. ‘Every day there was a new suicide attempt’, Murad told me. ‘Everyone had scars on their arms. My roommate ate a packet of sleeping pills and almost died.’      

Under international law, children cannot be deported, but many EU states issue a suspension of deportation that’s removed when they turn 18. Many of Murad’s friends were served a deportation notice on their eighteenth birthday. Terrified he too would face the same threat, Murad tagged along with one of the more rebellious children of the centre who had made a deal with a smuggler to transport them to Germany.

Murad reached Germany aged 17, and received asylum shortly before his 20th birthday, eight years after he left Afghanistan. He has many regrets – but the most painful for him is that his journey to safety didn’t help his family in the process. When he finally received asylum, he wasn’t eligible for family reunification, and slowly had to confront the realisation that he was starting a new life alone, after eight years of dreaming of the day he’d see his family again. 

Murad’s story is not uncommon; 53% of unaccompanied minors in Europe are Afghan. Most of Murad’s friends crossed into Europe at the same age and in a similar fashion to him and many struggle with chronic depression for years after. The only silver lining to the number of unaccompanied Afghan children in Europe for Murad is that, in his words, ‘at least I have company in my misery.’ 

This notwithstanding, Murad considers himself lucky, as he made it to Germany in record time in just a few months. For the majority of Afghans, this is not the case.

Before 2016, the majority of asylum seekers landed in Greece, and immediately continued onto Western Europe. The authorities knew that asylum seekers only saw Greece as a country of passage, and without the capacity to house the number arriving, they turned a blind eye as refugees crossed through and on into Europe..

Due to political pressure from the west, this changed in March 2016 when governments across the ‘Balkan route’ from Greece to North Macedonia, Kosovo, Serbia, Croatia, and Austria collectively closed their borders and committed to enforcing the Dublin regulation which stipulates asylum must be claimed in the first country entered. From this point on, those entering Greece would have their presence registered, making applying for asylum in any other country impossible for the 18 months their details were held on the database.

Habibullah* didn’t know this when he left Afghanistan in 2017. After receiving a number of death threats and having a local commander turn up at his parents’ house to inquire as to his whereabouts. That same day, he packed his bags and left. 

He left Kabul for Iran, where he crossed on foot across the mountains between Iran and Turkey, and carried onto Istanbul by bus. On New Year’s Eve 2019, he crossed into the Greek island Chios, as Murad had done before him, on a rubber dinghy. He planned to carry on by ferry to Athens, then by train, bus or foot further west. His journey, however, was thwarted when police met him on the shore and his fingerprints were biometrically registered. From that moment onwards, he was stuck in Greece. 

He was processed in Vial camp on Chios. Dubbed ‘mini-Kabul’ owing to the number of Afghans living there, the camp sat atop a functioning rubbish processing plant. When Habibullah arrived, there were no shipping containers left for shelter – he spent that winter in a tent, reinforcing it with scraps to keep out the snow. 

Despite being one of the top asylum-seeking populations in Europe, making up more than 45% of refugees entering Greece even before the Taliban takeover, no Afghan resettlement schemes existed, forcing them to take irregular, unsafe passages to and across Europe. Furthermore, a 2016 EU-Turkey deal meant many like Habibulah were subject to the threat of deportation. The deal meant anyone arriving on the islands could be returned to Turkey unless they could prove the country was unsafe for them.

An ‘admissibility’ interview determined that Turkey was a safe country for Habibullah though he disputes its conclusions. He points to the police brutality in Turkey specifically towards Afghans and the daily struggles he faced when trying to register for asylum in Turkey. In September 2018, the government formalised their policy of discrimination, ceasing registration for asylum for some Afghans, forcing them into undocumentation and therefore putting them at risk of arrest, detention, or deportation to their country of origin. 

Habibullah appealed the decision to be returned to Turkey – and was rejected once more. He entered pre-deportation detention in February 2020. ‘They arrested me as I stood in court. For the crime of being a migrant, I was put in jail.’ 

He was held in prison as the authorities unsuccessfully tried to deport him during the pandemic. Greece hasn’t managed to return a single person to Turkey since March 2020 due to the Turkish government’s unwillingness to accept any more refugees.

Released from jail after 10 months, and with money sent from back home, Habibullah paid a smuggler to hide him under the bonnet of his car – right by the engine  which he feared could spontaneously combust at any moment – to clandestinely leave Chios for the mainland. Once he made it, he walked through North Macedonia to Kosovo, navigating by moon for seven days and over 500 kilometres, for fear the police would register a phone signal. 

Eventually he made it to and across the Bosnian-Croatian border. Shortly after he was woken up by Croatian police setting fire to his tent, a prized possession that he had carried on his back since Greece. As he left his blazing home, the police took his money and destroyed the charging jack and camera on his phone. “They do this to stop you from navigating”, Habibullah told me. 

The Croatian police then pushed him back to Bosnia – after four hours, he crossed back. Eventually he made it through Croatia and into Slovenia. Here he encountered police who biometrically scanned him, despite him begging them not to. The eighteen-month count down on the Dublin Regulation clock was restarted. 

He pushed on and finally made it to Switzerland in early 2021. His journey from Greece had taken him two months without a shower, hot food, or a bed to sleep in. He was exhausted. Within a few months his asylum claim in Switzerland was ruled inadmissible due to his fingerprints in Slovenia. With no viable route to asylum, Habibullah left the same week and reached Paris in July 2021. Housed by friends of friends in their bedsit he lay low for almost a year, often too scared to leave the flat.

One month ago, his fingerprints were finally wiped and he was able to apply for asylum afresh in France, five and a half years and 15 countries after he left Afghanistan. ‘We knew that corpses lined our route’, Habibullah told me. ‘We knew we could die. But the worst bit has been the last few months. I haven’t slept more than two hours, scared my fingerprints wouldn’t be wiped, worrying it had all been in vain.’

It’s been a year since the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan but asylum systems remain hostile to Afghans. In September 2021, a month after Kabul fell, Greece upheld their designation of Turkey as a ‘safe third country’ for Afghans despite rising physical attacks against refugees, and the phrase ‘2015 cannot be repeated’ rang in European media. The message was clear: Afghans were not welcome, and rejections for Afghan asylum seekers are back at their pre-Taliban takeover rates, with only 53% of Afghans recognised as refugees in May 2022. 

Habibullah and Murad recognise that had they set off now, they most likely never would have arrived. Border violence and pushbacks – when migrants are forced to cross back over a border, often immediately after they’ve crossed it – have been applied so systematically that ‘traditional routes’ of entry are impassable.

In 2021, Belarus relaxed visa procedures for many asylum-seeking populations, meaning many Afghans are now flying directly into the country and attempting to cross into the EU via the border in the Polish-Belarussian woods. 

Mohammad is one of those attempting to utilise this route. On his first attempt to enter Poland, the police broke his charging jack and returned him to the Belarusian border. With no phone, he couldn’t navigate back. When he presented himself to the Belarusian police, they beat him until he was unconscious and set their dogs on him. When he regained consciousness, he begged for water – the police refused, and forced him to cross again into Poland.

‘The Afghans I saw there had attempted that crossing 20 times. Many were children – they beat them too.’ He was eventually taken to a Polish detention centre. His cellmates had been there for over 18 months; he was released a month later due to his injuries. He’s now undocumented in Warsaw, where he lives the daily juxtaposition of dodging the police as volunteers drive to the Ukrainian border to pick up those escaping the war with Russia. He hopes his stay in Warsaw will be brief, and is trying to raise the money to smuggle himself further west, ideally to France, where he has a larger Afghan community to rely upon, and where “the detention and the torture can be just a memory”. He is doubtful though, and the fear that he may end up in prolonged undocumentation in Warsaw doesn’t let him sleep at night. 

Habibullah, Murad, Mohammad’s cases are emblematic of Europe’s efforts to criminalise refugees – especially those from protracted crises, for whom public sympathy has long waned. Since the Soviet invasion in 1979 and the US invasion in 2001, Afghans have long been one of the main asylum-seeking populations in Europe, and watched as resources and attention are diverted away from them as the weathervane of public sympathy turned towards crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Iraq, Syria, and now Ukraine. 

Regardless, Afghan’s will continue to seek refuge in Europe – many simply have no other option. 

‘Trust me, we’re sorry we’re here too,’ Murad told me. ‘We feel guilty about how European societies split in half after refugees came here. We wouldn’t be here unless we really needed to. I wish everyone could realise that.’

*Name changed to preserve anonymity. 

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