KABUL — With roads to Europe increasingly blocked by strict border controls, Afghans hoping to flee war and economic peril are desperately searching for new escape routes by way of refugee camps in India, airports in Russia and even the beaches of Cuba.
The shifting travel plans — which are also seeing Afghans attempting to buy their way into Europe before leaving Kabul, through the purchase of visas — may signal the next phase in a migration crisis that is rattling world leaders and draining Afghanistan of its workforce.
After a year in which hundreds of thousands of Afghans poured into Europe by land, more migrants are now trying to skirt hostile border agents and dangerous boat trips by flying to their destinations. As a result, although human smuggling was a booming industry in Afghanistan last year, criminal rackets that trade in visas may be reaping a windfall this year.
“People now are not willing to take great risks,” said Tamin Omarzi, who works as a travel agent in Kabul’s largest mall. “They want to just travel with a passport, and don’t come back.”
Last year, along with more than 1 million refugees from Syria and Iraq, about 250,000 Afghans journeyed to Europe in hopes of securing asylum there. Many traveled through Iran and Turkey before crossing the Aegean Sea to Greece.
Overwhelmed by the influx, European leaders have shown less sympathy for Afghans than for refugees from Syria and Iraq. Much of Afghanistan, they note, remains under the control of a Western-backed government.
Last month, the European Union reached a deal with Turkey to send migrants back to refugee camps there, effectively severing the land route to Europe.
Since then, travel agents in Kabul report that requests for visas to Iran and Turkey are down by as much as 80 percent compared with last year at this time. A United Nations report released Thursday also concluded that the flow of migrants from Afghanistan has slowed while “people reconsider destinations and subsequent optimal routes.”
“There is currently lower movement but no dropoff in the people wanting to go,” said Alexander Mundt, assistant representative for protection at the U.N. refugee agency. “They are just exploring their options, their means and the right moment to go.”
Plenty of Afghans are still on the move, however, in a mass migration that is raising new challenges for immigration agencies across the world.
Sulaiman Sayeedi, a travel agent in Kabul’s middle-class Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood, said there has been a surge in demand for flights to India, Indonesia and Central Asian countries such as Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Once they arrive, Afghan travelers often claim refugee status with the United Nations in hopes of being resettled. In India, for example, Afghan asylum applications have doubled in recent months, according to Mundt.
Other Afghans are flying to Moscow, believing that from there they can cross into Ukraine or even Belarus and then move onward to E.U. countries.
“Some people are coming in and just asking for tickets to anywhere they can get to,” Sayeedi said. “They just want a better life, a more civilized, modern life.”
To achieve that in the United States or Canada, Afghans may make Cuba their gateway to the Western Hemisphere.
Over the past two months, travel agents in Kabul have been surprised by Afghans showing up at their offices with Cuban visas, which are suspected of having been issued in Iran or acquired on the black market.
“Ten or 15 people have come just since January asking for tickets for Cuba,” Sayeedi said. “And they are not staying there. The only option is to move forward, probably on to Mexico and then America or Canada.”
Other agents in Kabul also report a spike in interest in Cuba, and U.N. officials in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz say they recently encountered a family with Cuban visas. Havana has been a way station in the past for South Asians hoping to transit to Central America and from there to the United States.
Besides Cuba, some Afghans are attempting to land in South America, either to seek residency there or make the trip north toward the U.S.-Mexico border.
Rahimihi, a travel agent in Kabul’s central Shar-e Naw district, recently booked flights for relatives who had obtained visas for Ecuador, as well as transit visas through Brazil.
“They first had to go to Pakistan to get the transit visa [from the Brazilian Embassy], and then left two weeks ago,” said Rahimihi, who, like many Afghans, uses only one name. “They want to go to Canada.”
But central and northern European countries remain Afghans’ preferred destinations, reflecting the widely held belief here that Germany, Norway and Sweden are the most welcoming toward refugees.
Mohammad Unus has been deported from both Italy and Turkey over the past two years while attempting to reach Germany. Now, for his third attempt, he’s working with a local travel agent.
“Since Ashraf Ghani became president, all the people want to escape from Afghanistan,” Unus said, reflecting widespread concern here that Ghani’s promised economic reforms haven’t materialized. “I’ve already spent $40,000 trying to get to Europe, and now I plan to sell my house to get there if I have to this time.”
Such desperation is fueling the shady enterprise of visa dealing on the streets of Kabul.
According to travel agents, Afghans are now paying dealers $15,000 to $25,000 to obtain a “Schengen visa” — a reference to countries that are part of the Schengen Agreement, which was drawn up to allow unrestricted movement among 26 European nations. The business continues even though seven of those nations, including Germany and Sweden, have re-imposed temporary border controls.
The visa dealers work directly with rogue staffers at European embassies who issue the visas for a kickback, the agents claim.
“You never know who is doing it on the inside, but it’s someone with a soft heart who is approving these documents,” said Peer Muhammad Roheen, managing director of Air Gateway Travel and Tours in Kabul.
One travel broker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss his sensitive business, said Afghans even with modest means are now turning to visa dealers because “people now prefer to go by air to Europe directly.”
“If you got good contacts inside the embassy, you can get it done in one week,” the broker said.
When visa dealers fail to obtain valid visas, they sometimes turn to even more elaborate schemes, according to travel agents.
Legal residents of Europe, for example, are being paid to travel to Afghanistan or Pakistan and then give their passports to Afghans with similar physical characteristics, said Mustafa, a travel agent in southwest Kabul who also uses only one name. The person who gives up the passport then claims it was lost or stolen.
“People will pay, and those short on cash will sell anything they have,” Mustafa said.
But U.N. officials question how many Afghans will be able to afford expensive options for fleeing.
“The people with that kind of money to spend are already gone,” Mundt said, adding that many of those now trying to flee are poor and middle-class families. “They may still have some means, but maybe $6,000 to invest and not $20,000.”
The recent outflow of wealth and talent from Afghanistan has alarmed Ghani, who has been urging Afghans to stay home.
But until stability returns, travel agents expect to stay busy planning one-way trips.
“For survival, people will do anything,” said Roheen, who estimates that 30 percent of urban Afghan youths hope to leave the country. “If they encounter a problem, then they will just try another option.”
Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report.