Holiday Season Brings Uncertainty to Afghans Who Are Desperate to Make It to Europe

As waves of people flee increasingly desperate conditions in their native Afghanistan, migrants and refugees have become increasingly susceptible to lies from smugglers out of fear that the gates to Europe will soon close in 2016.
December 24, 2015, 5:15pm
Photo by Yannis Kolesidis/EPA

In a small flat in Zeytinburnu, an Istanbul neighborhood that has become home to the majority of the city's Afghan community, two young Afghan men lay dozing on mattresses on the floor.

In their languid state all they said is that they arrived two days earlier, presumably from Iran.

The room, with peeling paint pink and an odd odor that permeates throughout, was full of such men. Milling about aimlessly or staring blankly at the TV screen, they were among the latest group of Afghan migrants and refugees desperate to reach northern Europe.

Just as Tamim, a smuggler originally from the northern province of Kunduz, proudly declared that he had "just sent 45 people" to Greece the previous day, a family of 12 walked in.

The hallway was suddenly filled with the shoes of the new arrivals, including three young children — two girls and one boy — and two women, who were preparing to stay in a separate room until they embarked onward.

"See, even children go," Tamim cheered, in an excited attempt to assure that the journey from Turkey to Greece would be free of trouble.

Most of the men, women, and children who are temporarily camping out in such apartments throughout Zeytinburnu, hoping for a chance to seek asylum in Europe before the gates close, have left behind their native Afghanistan — a country of rising insecurity; the highest civilian casualty rates since the United Nations Assistance Mission began keeping track, in 2009; a stagnant economy; and a lack of faith in their country's new leadership.

Related: The Crisis of Migrant Children

This past year, the Taliban takeover of Kunduz, a major provincial capital, signaled the armed opposition's increasing strength and the inability of the state to effectively combat it. On top of that comes the emergence of a new enemy within the nation: fighters claiming allegiance to the Islamic State group based in Iraq and Syria.

So when German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced in September that there was "no upper limit" to the number of asylum seekers her nation would accept, it was seen as a ray of light for Afghans hoping to flee the increasingly dire situation in their country.

Arriving in waves, Afghans this year have made up more than 20 percent of the 1,005,504 people that the International Organization for Migration calculates have arrived by sea to Europe through December 21.

Thousands of Afghans are turning to smugglers to facilitate their movement into northern Europe. This desperation is plainly apparent in sites like the drab apartment in Zeytinburnu.

These travelers have become increasingly susceptible to the lies circulated by fellow Afghans operating as smugglers. Now smugglers are telling them to get to Europe before 2016, on the notion that they won't be monitored as closely over the Christmas holiday and because of unknown policy changes in countries that have been accepting migrants and refugees.

This season, they are told, may be the time when the welcoming gates of Europe are going to close.

Political Uncertainty
Tamim's desire to assure refugees that they can safely make it to Europe is itself a sign of desperation.

When Germany announced the opening of its borders this autumn, other European Union nations, regardless of whether they supported Merkel's move, were forced to facilitate, if not assist, the flow of refugees.

That meant the near collapse of smuggler networks across continental Europe. In their place, a largely self-driven system — complete with private businesses offering 30-euro "luxury bus" service from Athens to the Macedonian border — has emerged. Why sit in a dark freezer truck driven by a smuggler when for 30 euros you can ride in a bus and arrive directly at Macedonia's border within eight hours or so?

This has made Turkey one of the last remaining bastions for human traffickers looking to profit from the movement of people desperate to flee war, poverty, and abuse in their home nations.

The real fear for the smugglers — and by extension, those whom they are moving — stems from the quickly approaching New Year.

"You have until 2016," said Shams, a smuggler operating out of a money exchange store, in reference to the changing political situation across Europe as leaders look to reduce the number of migrants and refugees entering their borders.

Related: Thousands Gather in Germany for the Anniversary of the Anti-Migrant Pegida Movement

Merkel has said that Berlin will "significantly reduce" the amount of refugees arriving in the country. "We want to and we will noticeably reduce the number of refugees because it's in the interest of everyone," she said earlier this month.

Macedonia has taken a more decisive stance. Last month, President Gjorge Ivanov announced a series of entry restrictions to his nation, which has long served as a transit point between Greece and northern Europe. Though Ivanov said he would still allow Afghans, Iraqis, and Syrians to cross through Macedonia, his announcement, coupled with Merkel's recent rhetorical about-face, has been taken as a sign of worrying changes to come with the New Year in Europe.

This political uncertainty, combined with the near collapse of their business beyond Turkey, has led smugglers in Zeytinburnu to devise increasingly exaggerated tales of the purported ease of travel to Europe.

In his money exchange store, Shams, who also sets up smuggling services in his shop, is fond of showing mobile phone pictures of a "speed boat" that he says can transfer nearly a dozen passengers from Turkey to Greece in under 10 minutes.

But volunteers working on the Greek island of Lesbos say they see no signs of the speedy, comfortable journeys described by smugglers.

Eric Maddox, an American who has been working with refugees in Greece for several months now, said he has repeatedly seen "huge" influxes of people arriving "at any moment wet or injured, or in a state of fragile health" and in need of immediate medical attention.

The vessels they arrive on bear little resemblance to the orange boat with cloth seats that Shams keeps a picture of on his Android phone. Instead, volunteers in Greece say that nearly every group they have seen arrived on overcrowded inflatable boats.

"It is more economical for smugglers to buy inflatable boats in bulk," noted Josie Kozlowski, a Canadian who volunteered at a "tea tent" on Lesbos that offered free lemon tea and a place for the new arrivals to socialize. "I never witnessed any speed boats ashore in my time there."

Earlier this month, six Afghan children, including a baby, drowned when their inflatable boat capsized en route to the Greek island of Chios.

'They have no idea what they're getting themselves into'
In Victoria Square Park, a longtime refugee haven in the Greek capital of Athens, refugees describe hours-long journeys on inflatable boats filled with two to three times their capacity.

"When I saw the boat and the number of us that they wanted to shove into it I tried to turn around, but the smuggler pulled his gun on me, saying, 'Get on,' " recalled a 22-year-old named Musa who is originally from the northern Afghan province of Baghlan.

Musa's fears were confirmed once he arrived at the banks of the Aegean Sea to board a boat smugglers said could get him to Greece in 30 minutes.

"The smugglers told us to cut a hole in the boat," he said. "'They cannot turn you back if it's damaged,' they would say. Imagine, we were on the sea, in the cold, dark night aboard a boat that was literally deflating for hours, trying to figure out where Greece was."

Several other Afghan refugees in the park said that they too fell victim to such claims.

"How would I knownotto believe them?" was a commonly repeated response.

Arash Bayat, who works as an interpreter at a housing complex for refugees in Greece, said that Afghan refugees are especially misinformed about the journey to Europe. From the conditions of the boats to how to speak to officials, he said Afghans are ill-prepared for the journey.

"They have no idea of what they're getting themselves into," Bayat remarked.

At the moment, what they are getting themselves into is a strange dichotomy.

Compared with refugees making the journey even a year earlier, the 200,000-plus Afghans who have come to Europe so far this year are met with a much more orderly system to get them from Greece to other European Union states. No longer do they have to endure several attempts in the backs of freezer trucks, hiding in taxis, or hoping that their falsified passports will be accepted at a small airport in the Greek isles.

Though the journey itself might be easier, the sense of uncertainty has not dissipated, especially as the New Year approaches.

Germany is one of the continent's most powerful countries, and Afghans know that Merkel's words carry weight that extends beyond her nation's borders. But they still risk the journey in hopes of being granted asylum. Many of those who have reached their final destination say they have been left to languish as they await a decision on their asylum cases.

Refugees and volunteers speaking to VICE News in Istanbul and Athens said Afghans must be increasingly exacting in their interactions with immigration officials.

Because the nation's urban centers — Kabul, Herat, Kandahar, Jalalabad, and Mazar-e Sharif — are often seen as safer than their surrounding districts, refugees go to great lengths to prove that they are from areas seen as sufficiently dangerous by European governments.

"They can't prove where you are from or how you traveled, but don't even say you passed through Kabul, as soon as they hear Kabul they will tell you, 'Kabul is safe, we will send you back there,' " Musa remembered a friend telling him before leaving Afghanistan.

Related: Afghan Official Warns President on Facebook That His Province Is Falling to the Taliban

The lack of information among Afghans desperate to reach Europe has allowed smugglers there to make a series of hyperbolic claims about the services they can provide.

At an Afghan eatery in Zeytinburnu, Haroon, a waiter who also aids his brother's smuggling business, described two boat journeys that he said take people across the Aegean and into Europe.

One, he said, would grant safe passage to Greece for 3,000 euros; the other would get a person "directly to Germany" for 6,500 euros.

When asked where in Germany the boat would dock, he responded impatiently, "Germany, it drops you off in Germany."

Follow Ali M Latifi on Twitter: @alibomaye