“We’re all going crazy here,” Mohammad said, as his son spent a weekday morning playing with a phone.
Though most immigrants who have reached Europe through unofficial channels in recent years have faced hardship, the Afghan experience has been particularly grueling — adding to the calamity of the West’s 20-year war.
“Unless your life is in direct danger in Afghanistan, I’d tell others not to come,” said Mohammad Sultani, 40, who used to own a gold shop in Kandahar province. Almost all the Afghans he knows in Greece are jobless.
While last month’s evacuation from Kabul, led by the United States, airlifted tens of thousands of vulnerable Afghans to safety, it was an extraordinary and temporary way out. Before that emergency, and potentially going forward, the path out of Afghanistan and toward Europe resembles the one experienced by those now in Athens — rife with obstacles and dangers, sometimes created intentionally by a continent that has sought to prevent the historic waves of refugees it saw in 2015 and 2016.
The obstacles include alleged pushbacks, a violation of international law, in which Greek border forces try to prevent migrants from reaching European shores, returning them to international waters and abandoning them.
Many of those who do make it to Greece have found themselves sequestered in overcrowded island camps that aid workers call the most hellish places on the continent. Amid the pandemic, Greece has transferred more people to the mainland, thinning the crowds. But at one point the largest of those camps — Moria — was seven times over capacity. It was a dystopian Ellis Island, filled mostly with Afghans.
“There were 16 of us in a tent,” said Mina Sidiqi, 38, who arrived in Greece in October 2019 with her husband and four children. “We were there for nine months, through the winter. I was warming my kids’ hands by holding them to my stomach.”
She said her children had nightmares “to the point of shaking.”
The chief explanation for the Afghans’ predicament in Greece has to do with war — and more specifically, how Afghanistan’s war was perceived in Europe. As Afghans began pouring into the continent several years ago, many European Union countries were using an asylum rule that applicants could be rejected if their own country was deemed partially safe. In Afghanistan, the Taliban had control of some districts but not others, and some E.U. member states widely rejected Afghans on the grounds that they should have just moved elsewhere in their own country.
Because of those determinations, which refugee groups criticized at the time, the rate at which Afghans won protection in Europe varied widely from country to country — and the rate was lower, on average, than for other nationalities fleeing conflict.
Since 2016, Afghans have won legal protection in 51 percent of their initial E.U. asylum claims, according to the bloc’s data. That compares with 94 percent for Syrians, 88 percent for Eritreans and 54 percent for Iraqis. (Those rejected have the right to appeal.)
The relatively low recognition rates, in turn, were used to help disqualify Afghans for a relocation program put in place as the borders within Europe closed down. The program helped people in Greece move to wealthier northern nations. But it was aimed at people deemed to be likely refugees, so Syrians and Eritreans were eligible; Afghans were not.
“So, they got stuck in Greece,” said Hanne Beirens, the director of Migration Policy Institute Europe.
Afghans now represent the largest proportion of asylum seekers in Greece, where they often wait several years for a determination, and where rights groups have criticized the education services as lacking. Those not in camps are eligible to live rent-free in modest apartments funded by the E.U.
Greece grants protection to roughly two-thirds of Afghans — above the E.U. average. But those who are rejected fall into a legal black hole. They are told to return to the country from which they entered the E.U., and for a majority, that is Turkey. The one problem: Turkey isn’t accepting returnees.
“Which means you have people without rights,” said Alexandros Konstantinou, a lawyer working for the Greek Council for Refugees.
Since the Taliban takeover, European leaders have expressed concern about a potential increase in illegal migration from Afghanistan — but researchers say that is unlikely to happen. For the moment, Afghans are having a hard time even leaving their country, whose land borders have been shut by its neighbors. The traditional ways that Afghans might have fled to Europe — north through Tajikistan or Uzbekistan, or flying from Pakistan or Iran after transiting the land borders — are basically unavailable to them.
For those who manage to get out, a looming economic catastrophe is likely to thin the numbers capable of paying thousands of dollars to brokers. Meanwhile, Turkey is planning to block Afghans at its eastern border. And Greece, which just completed its own land border fence, says its borders are “inviolable.”
The European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, has proposed an alternative in which Afghans wouldn’t have to make the illicit journey, and could instead apply for a special humanitarian passage. But the idea, which countries could adopt voluntarily, also faces opposition. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said on Twitter that there are “still big problems with integration” and “we are therefore against additional inclusion.” Others have pointedly made the case that the best way to offer support is to help Afghanistan’s neighbors handle the influx.
Some Afghans say their tough reception in Europe has been underpinned by some of the same Western misperceptions that marked the war: the mistaken idea that the Taliban had been pushed toward defeat, or that the U.S. intervention was building a solid democracy. Nasrat Sayed, an Afghan based in the Netherlands who researches Afghan migration, suggested that E.U. countries were reluctant to grant asylum to people fleeing a nation where billions had been invested in security.
“They did not want to show their failures,” Sayed said. “So they said, ‘There is not such a great danger or risk for people there.’ ”
Afghans in Athens say the problems in their country were insidious and obvious, ranging from corruption to grenade attacks that killed neighbors. One migrant from Mazar-e Sharif, speaking on the condition of anonymity because his asylum claim in Greece has already been rejected, said he decided to leave Afghanistan after the Taliban bombed a German consulate in 2016, killing six people. The shock wave knocked the windows out of his business, he recounted, and caused him to permanently lose his sense of smell.
Shakiba Ghafory, 26, who grew up outside of Kabul, said the threat of the Taliban had influenced the entire arc of her life.
It was because of the Taliban that her parents married her off at age 12, to protect her from being forcibly taken by the militants as a potential bride. And, as a result of that marriage, so many other paths were shut to her. She became a mother at age 13. Two more children followed. Her husband was abusive, she said. Although she ultimately divorced him and came to Europe with her children, she can’t escape the limiting fact that she is a mother with little education.
She said she sees no future in Greece. But she has survived here, earning a few hundred dollars per month cleaning offices. She hasn’t been homeless in two years. Her daughter, once hospitalized for malnutrition, has seemed healthy again — even if Ghafory has been eating little more than rice with oil.
Then the Taliban upended Ghafory’s world once again. She got news that her brother, a military police officer, had been killed fighting outside Kabul. Although she recently won legal protection in Greece, she is now so worried about the rest of her family that many nights she can’t fall asleep until 4 a.m.
“What can they do?” she said. “What can I do?”
All she could do was look at her phone and wonder what might be happening far away. At the entrance to her tiny apartment, she hung a photo of her brother in uniform on the wall. She created a shrine with candles and dried dates. She draped the shrine with one of the only discretionary purchases she’d allowed herself.
It had cost 20 euros at a store in Athens. It was the flag of Afghanistan.
Sayed Ahmadzia Ebrahimi contributed to this report.