Foreign Policy: Racing for the exits

February 28, 2012

More Afghans are seeking asylum now than at any time since war in Afghanistan began, figures from the United Nations show. Last year more than 30,000 Afghans sought asylum worldwide, topping 2010′s numbers by 25 percent – and those are just the recorded cases. More than 45,000 Afghans are said to have illegally escaped into Greece alone. Australia is another popular destination for asylum, though it is harder to pull off due to distance.

The current protests in reaction to news of the burnings of Korans at Bagram only underline to many Afghans just how quickly security can unravel and just how much uncertainty Afghans face in the future.

There is a race for the exits in Afghanistan, all right, and it is not just the internationals running for the door.

Uncertainty about the future dominates conversations among families, on the streets and in the news. As discussion of withdrawal deadlines and peace talks dominates local headlines precious few facts have surfaced about what these developments actually mean — and for whom. Into this vacuum fear and rumor have moved in.

“Businessmen, traders have heard that in 2014 foreigners are going to leave Afghanistan, so most of the people are trying to leave Afghanistan,” says Muhammad, an Afghan who left his country only for a short stint during the Taliban years. “People don’t have trust in this government; they think maybe after 2014 the Afghan government will not be able to control the security of Afghanistan.”

A number of Afghans who can are sending themselves, their capital or their children — and sometimes all three — out of the country by whatever means possible. As the Guardian reported the business of smuggling people out of the country is booming, while rents in Kabul, long sky-high and inflated to outrageous heights by the presence of international community, are now plunging in many areas.

In just the last six weeks, four people I have covered for years have all headed abroad. Some have gone to Canada, some to Europe, and some are seeking a way out through India. For obvious reasons I have withheld their names.

Security is the reason for flight cited most regularly. Two businesspeople I know have said that their families in the provinces are receiving threats and night letters — notes delivered in darkness and promising harm — from people with ties to anti-government forces. They say these men know of their close ties to the international community and they feel they will do less harm to their relatives if they stay away. Both are said to be in Canada now.

“People want to leave because of security issues that are threatening their family, but we never know if that is because it is a Taliban issue that is affecting their security or a simple criminal element,” says the U.S. head of a non-profit working in Afghanistan that has seen several of its clients disappear for asylum in North America. Opportunity, alongside the threats, is what is driving the escalation of asylum cases. “Since time immemorial, families in any country have wanted a better future for their young people, and I think that as long as there is the opportunity for people to have it, and they have the financial means and the roadmap on how to do it, they will.”

Another local leader close to the government who traveled in and out of Afghanistan throughout the Taliban years said that intimidation and beatings of loved ones from anti-government forces had taken its toll and could no longer be endured. They are now in Europe awaiting an asylum decision. Others, particularly twenty-somethings who have worked for foreign NGOs and aid agencies, say that they simply see little future in their country and they fear the consequences if the Taliban shares or takes power in the coming years.

“All the young people we have here are heading out,” said one NGO leader based in Kabul who, like most people who spoke to me on this topic, asked not to be identified. “Some are marrying any cousin they can find and others are getting smuggled out.”

For women leaders the issue of security after 2014 is especially critical. American officials see talks with the Taliban as the best — and in many ways only — hope for any kind of peace agreement that would end the unpopular war. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has vowed to Afghan women that “we will not abandon you,” but she plans to leave office next year. It is far from clear whether Taliban representatives — even if they are lured to the table — will agree to provisions in the current Afghan constitution that give women equal rights and protections. Last time around the Taliban forced women indoors, off the streets and out of offices and schools, and activists who have been advocating for their rights in the last decade say everyone now wonders what will come next.

“What we are worried about is the increasing political change or reconciliation — the sort of appeasement of the insurgency that is going to take place,” says Wazhma Frogh, a human rights activist and member of the Afghan Women’s Network.

At a recent meeting of NGO leaders women discussed how best to build support for a “women’s rights defenders’ protection” mechanism that would guarantee safe haven within Afghan borders to women’s advocates threatened in their home province for their work on women’s behalf.

Frogh says she knows a number of people trying to escape Afghanistan. Some leave in hopes of finding a decent job rather than remain in a country with soaring unemployment, but many go in fear of what settlement talks with the Taliban might mean for them.

“I know a couple of former MPs, senior ones, who went to Sweden, to London, and they started applying for asylum,” Frogh says. “They are scared about what is going to happen to people who have had a stronger voice. People are scared because in the past ten years we have created all these affiliations with the U.S., with international organizations, with the international community, so all these affiliations will become a kind of a curse in a way.”

Manizha Naderi, executive director of Women for Afghan Women, which runs family centers and safe houses for women in Afghanistan, says she understands the fear.

“If I weren’t a U.S citizen already, I also would have tried to get out before civil war starts,” Naderi says. “Two of our staff went to Helmand last week to do a round of trainings on human rights. Today one came back and said he will never go again. ‘It’s not safe,’ he said. This feeling is the same everywhere in Afghanistan.”

Still, despite all that is happening, Frogh and some others say they see reasons for hope rather than flight in the future. A sweep of powerful, modernizing forces from education to telecommunications has changed Afghanistan since 2001, and Afghans today have been exposed to the world in a way they had not in 1989. More than 2 million Afghan girls are in school, and among the young generation the gender gap in literacy rates has never been as small as it is today.

Today, a vibrant press reports aggressively on happenings both inside and beyond Afghanistan. The media business is growing at double-digit rates and radio and TV stations now top more than 200 nationwide. A new generation of reporters, broadcasters and bloggers is online, including on Twitter and Facebook.

“We will not be the same people that we were when the Soviets left us and we started killing and beating each other,” Frogh says. “I am just a little bit optimistic on that front, because I feel that people are going to be different, particularly the current generation.”

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.