Number of Afghans pursuing asylum spikes, hinting at loss of hope for peaceful homeland

SOURCE: UNHCR | The Washington Post - Nov. 28, 2010
By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 27, 2010; 7:03 PM

KABUL -- The number of Afghans who are fleeing their country and seeking political asylum abroad has spiked dramatically during the past two years, a sign that people here are giving up the dream of a peaceful homeland to seek security and employment elsewhere.

The increase has coincided with a sharp escalation in U.S. troop levels and has made Afghanistan the world's top country of origin for asylum seekers worldwide - ahead of Iraq and Somalia, according to statistics compiled by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Last year, 27,057 Afghans sought official protection in foreign nations, and although the pace is down this year, the overall trend line could be a troubling indicator as the United States seeks to return Afghanistan to stability.

The vast majority of the refugees are young men in their teens, 20s and 30s, often well educated and with the financial means to pay $20,000 or more to human smugglers for passports and visas to Pakistan or Iran, then on to Europe, Australia, Canada or the United States, immigration officials said.

Among the most capable and brightest of their generation, some are fleeing war-ravaged villages or ethnic tribal violence. But more appear to be pursuing education and higher-paying jobs, sending money home to their families or arranging for relatives to join them abroad.

The common thread among them, human rights activists said, is a growing impatience with the war and a lack of faith that U.S. and NATO forces, which are aiming to hand off authority to Afghan troops by 2014, will prevail against the Taliban.

"What's driving this sharp increase is an uncertainty among the population about the future," said Ahmad Nader Nadery, a commissioner at the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. "As the discussions about troop withdrawal become much more serious, this is a question of survival. They don't see the current fragility in this government allowing it to make a smooth transition to prevent the Taliban from coming back."

The increase of Afghan refugees has prompted foreign governments to implement stricter immigration controls. In Australia, where 2,705 Afghans have applied for asylum this year, significantly more than last year, officials froze all Afghan cases for six months before lifting the ban in October. Less than one-third of the Afghan applicants in Australia have been granted asylum protection this year.

European countries, which have no unified asylum policy, have deported hundreds of Afghan refugees and kept many more in detention centers or refugee camps for months. Fewer Afghans have applied for asylum in the United States, which immigration officials attributed to the closer proximity of Europe and easier access to South Asian staging points for reaching Australia. In 2010, 113 Afghans applied for asylum in the United States, the most since 2002, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service.

High-priced risk

Often the only way out of Afghanistan is a risky journey. Eight Afghans drowned off the coast of Greece last year while trying to reach Europe by boat.

But that doesn't deter people from trying. Hamid Rezayee, 22, is among those thinking of getting out. A recent graduate of northern Afghanistan's Balkh University, where he majored in history, Rezayee dreams of continuing his education abroad to avoid becoming a mechanic like his father and two older brothers.

He and his nine siblings live with their parents in a house in Mazar-i-Sharif, and Rezayee works as a translator for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Though the war has provided him with a job, he speaks of his country with fatigue.

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