izbjeglice-migranti.jpg
Photograph: HINA/ Ivo LUČIĆ/ ik

In central Kabul next to the Foreign Ministry nestles the Gulbahar Mall, a shopping complex and the centre of the huge business of smuggling Afghans into Europe.

In its basement, over 50 travel agents sell more than just tickets to Mecca. These days, Afghans visit to make a deal with smugglers to get out of the country.

With the end of the NATO combat mission in December 2014, insecurity and unemployment in Afghanistan grew several times over. The Taliban are advancing in many provinces, and the number of civilian casualties is skyrocketing.

Over in Europe, Afghans make up the third-largest group of refugees as they flee the ever-worsening security and economic situation back home.

Their numbers are boosted by the smugglers, who assure refugees that they will solve all problems as long as they have enough money.

On Saturday, outside the shopping centre, a well dressed young man wearing traditional Afghan clothing is sitting in a Toyota Corolla while his assistant is taking call after call from customers. "The boss is busy," he keeps saying.

“Closed borders in Europe did not affect my business,” says the smuggler, who wishes to remain anonymous. He adds that he is still sending at least 30 Afghans towards Europe every week.

“Those stuck at the border of Greece and Macedonia do not have the money to pay the border police,” says the smuggler – indicating that police in Europe take money from migrants to let them cross. It costs about 400 to 500 euros (445-555 dollars) per head, he says. “The number of those crossing is limited,” he adds. “Every night about 50 to 100 people cross the border by bribing the police.”

However, some Afghans have halted their plans to migrate while others are looking for alternatives.

“I had planned to go to Germany last year, but now as my friends are stuck [in Greece], that trip is postponed,” says Ali Sina, a 27-year-old Afghan from Kabul. He had been planning to leave the country "because of the unstable security and political situation."

Ali Sina says, there are still families and individuals who are leaving Afghanistan for Europe. “I knew a family who just left Kabul two days ago. Now they are in Iran.”

Others now go to Pakistan. A family of four from insecure Ghazni province has recently shelved the plan to flee to Europe and is now seeking refuge in Quetta, Pakistan. They are Hazaras and as such belong to the Shiite minority in the country. Taliban - who are Sunnis - have been attacking Hazaras on several occasions, stoking fear of more violence by Sunnis against Shia.

But Pakistan does not offer a safe haven for Afghans anymore. The country already hosts more than 2.5 million of them and is planning on sending many of them back to Afghanistan as soon as possible.

Others are pondering new routes via Asia. One family of seven is now planning on leaving via India for which Afghans get visas easily. Their goal is to reach Indonesia - maybe via Malaysia, the head of the household says. He seems unsure of the details, but the family will try nevertheless.

Some have cancelled their trips, among them Ehsanullah, 19, from Kabul. He already tried twice, he says, but was always caught in Iran and sent back. His brother in Germany does not want him to try again - the situation for Afghans is changing, he said.

Germany sent 125 Afghan migrants back to Afghanistan on a special flight at the end of February claiming that all were voluntary returnees. With 154,000 migrants seeking asylum in Germany last year, Afghans made up the second largest group seeking refuge after Syrians in the country.

Berlin has also launched a poster campaign in Afghanistan in November to encourage refugees not to leave, with such slogans as “Are you sure you are leaving Afghanistan?” and exposing the lies smugglers tell about what awaits migrants in Germany.

Ehsanullah says he will now stay in Afghanistan and focus on his studies. Maybe there will be a way to leave the country with a scholarship, he says.

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