In 2015, Farida Ashraf decided to send her 15-year-old son to scope out the way to Europe. He would travel from Afghanistan, on to Turkey, across the Aegean Sea on a smuggler’s boat, to Greece and then northward. A few months later, she and her younger daughter and son followed. For months before her journey, Ashraf mulled over whether to leave her life in Afghanistan and make the arduous, dangerous trip to Germany. But news reports about thousands of people showing up on Europe’s shores seeking asylum made the decision that much easier. Alia Ghafoori was living in Istanbul with her husband and five children just one year ago. They had already escaped from violence in Afghanistan. Ghafoori’s father and two brothers were killed by thugs who had Taliban connections, she said. The body of one brother who was murdered had been left by the front door of Ghafoori’s house in Kabul in 2010. Her family left for Turkey a few months later, which is where, last fall, she “heard that the borders were open” to come to Germany. “We saw by our own eyes that Afghans were coming to Turkey on their way to Europe,” she said. So she and her family left for Europe, too. For these two women the possibility of establishing a life in Europe was more viable than it had ever been. They heard that Germany was accepting refugees and they believed that they qualified for asylum status. While Ghafoori’s family suffered from targeted violence, Ashraf, a former host of a TV talk show that discussed women’s issues in Afghanistan, said she was under the threat of violence, especially from the family of her ex-husband, who were opposed to her profession. She wasn’t worried about the danger for herself, she said, “but for my children.” What these women didn’t realize was that after crossing a dangerous sea and paying thousands of dollars to smugglers they might not be allowed to stay in Europe.
When Germany’s government said in August 2015 that it would not abide by the Dublin Regulation for Syrians, the European Union member state agreement that says refugees must apply for asylum in the first country in which they enter the EU, it opened the floodgates for asylum seekers to descend upon Germany. And it was widely believed that Germany was welcoming everyone. Afghans make the second largest nationality of asylum seekers across the EU — nearly 200,000 applied for asylum in 2015, and of that number, the German government expects 48 percent to eventually qualify for asylum, according to the country’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees (BAMF). And those whose claims are denied can face deportation. In September 2016, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who faces mounting domestic criticism over her refugee policy, stressed the need for failed asylum seekers to be sent back home. Meanwhile, the EU negotiated an agreement with the Afghan government to deport an unlimited number of Afghan citizens back to their home country. The political winds are changing in Germany and public sentiment on refugee settlement has shifted, perhaps dramatically. After launching a bid for a fourth term as chancellor, Merkel has distanced herself from the welcoming stance she had taken last year, and in early December vowed to reverse her liberal approach to asylum, calling for a ban on wearing the burka in public in Germany. While deporting failed asylum seekers is within Germany’s legal rights, deportations to a country like Afghanistan is more fraught, said Wenzel Michalski, Human Rights Watch’s Germany Director. “[The German government] must be sure that for each individual case they are not deported to an area where a person will be under threat. This is increasingly difficult in Afghanistan because many areas are becoming more dangerous with the advances of the Taliban and the rise of ISIS,” said Michalski. The deportation of Afghans is meant to be a deterrence, says Julian Lehmann, project manager at the Berlin-based Global Public Policy Institute, who focuses on human rights and refugee protection. “It’s a way to say, ‘Look there are a lot of you here and there’s quite a significant amount of you who won’t get asylum.’ The EU will signal this back to the Afghan population,” he said. Asylum seekers have to show that they are personally at risk in order to obtain asylum — and this isn’t easy to do, Lehmann said. There’s a ‘body count index’ that the German immigration authorities use as a quantitative measurement on how dangerous it is for Afghan asylum seekers to return to their specific home regions, or to alternative places in Afghanistan. Whether or not a claim for asylum is successful in practice depends on whether a person has an individual characteristic that make him or her more vulnerable. “Lets face it, these [asylum] decisions are in theory independent, but there can be quite a room for discretion in concepts such as the body count index, and that room is not free of politics” Lehmann said. For Afghan asylum-seekers, that politics-free room is rapidly getting smaller. When I asked a spokeswoman at Germany’s migration and refugees office how it was determined which Afghans were given asylum, she said the assessment of the security situation in Afghanistan is based on the analysis of information from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, the European Asylum Support Office, the Foreign Office and current press releases on Afghanistan. “The guidelines the Federal Office has for countries of origin are classified information and therefore confidential,” she added. And the lower a country’s rate of asylum, said Michalski of Human Rights Watch, the higher the burden of proof is for the asylum seeker to show they are worthy of asylum. “If I come from a country where the approval rate is only 5 percent, it’s much tougher for me to prove that I need asylum,” he said. “The more Afghans who are being deported, the lower their approval rate.” Syrians’ asylum claims within the EU were accepted 97 percent of the time in 2015, making it more easy for their nationality to claim asylum, even if they came from a relatively safer part of Syria like Damascus. “The guidelines the Federal Office has for countries of origin are classified information and therefore confidential,” she added.
Shortly after Ashraf arrived to Germany, she saw that “the Afghans are getting negative answers [on their asylum claims] and others are getting positive answers,” she said. We had first met along with Ghafoori at a refugee shelter south of Berlin in September 2016, outside of the town Königs Wusterhausen. Ashraf still hadn’t received notification about when her appointment for asylum status determination will be, the coveted yet anxiety-inducing interview. “Of course, there are the Syrians. They are getting first priority. They have more war, but we have war too,” she said. “The things that have happened to us, maybe they are worse than war,” Ghafoori added, her voice much quieter than Ashraf’s, almost to the point of breaking, especially when speaking of her family that was killed. The fate of Ashraf and Ghafoori, along with both of their families, depends on the results of those interviews. But the waiting, which has dragged on for almost a year, makes them feel trapped. There is pressure on asylum seekers to learn German and integrate — Ashraf was scheduled to take a course that will enable her to be a kindergarten assistant — yet they find it difficult to put effort into making a new home in Germany when they don’t know if they will even be allowed to stay. “At the beginning when I came here I had the feeling that I am safe, that all is calm, but after I didn’t get my interview and I began to get nervous. For about two months, I can’t sleep and all my children are worried about this too,” Ashraf said. She spent $20,000 for her entire family to be smuggled from Afghanistan to Germany, she said, which is similar to the price tag cited by other asylum seekers. “I am afraid so much because my family was killed and the thing that happened to my brothers, maybe it will happen to my children,” Ghafoori said. “Afghanistan is not a safe place,” she added.
Though the definition for refugees has been established in international law, it’s often wealthier countries that distinguish in more practical terms who merits protection under refugee status because they are the target destination countries. “If a country feels overwhelmed by the number of people entering without prior authorization, one way to stop them is to classify them as economic migrants. This happened to people arriving in Europe from Afghanistan,”said Ray Jureidini, professor of migration ethics and human rights, at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Doha. Often, the definition for who is a refugee has been baldly political. In the 1990s, for instance, the United States readily accepted political refugees from Cuba, but turned back those from Haiti, though their government was ruled by military dictator Raoul Cédras who brutally cracked down on political dissidence of any sort. Other asylum categories have to do with intertwining national histories. The United States had a special visa program that allowed at least 500,000 Vietnamese to immigrate after its war. There were other special visa programs for Iraqis and Afghans as a response to the US wars in those countries. Colonial history has led European countries to focus more on accepting refugees and migrants from its former outposts, such as Belgium with Congolese. Europe and North America’s failure to find a solution to the war in Syria arguably led them to focus on accepting Syrian refugees. There is no such political will for refugees who fled from fighting in, say, the Central African Republic. Yemeni refugees are in the spotlight much less often, though the war there has displaced three million and brought with it a deadly famine. In Europe, it’s a political cauldron heating to a boil. Elections in France and Germany next summer will galvanize and likely polarize public opinion on migrants. “The anti-refugee movement in Europe is very strong,” Michalski said of why politicians are now talking about deportations. “And the reactions of politicians is to not lose their voters.”
A few days after our first meeting, I saw Ashraf at the shelter, which is also outside Königs Wusterhausen. She lived here in a tiny cabin with her three children. The shelter appeared to have been a summer camp of some sort in the past. It was one of those last days of summer’s warmth, and as we sat outside Arabic music blared from a nearby cabin which was competing with eastern European music from a cabin full of Romanian men. Ashraf pointed out that there were few women at her shelter. She felt it was a man’s world. “I’m very lonely here,” she said. Spread on the table outside, Ashraf displayed her educational degrees from Afghanistan. She said she was the only woman in her family to graduate from university where she had studied literature. “I’m proud of these, but they are not useful to me here,” she said. “I never dreamed to come to Germany. If I had, I would have studied German.” Then Ashraf began to laugh at a memory. “I used to be wearing chador,” she said and gestured that her whole face was covered, Taliban’s dress code for Afghan women. “Then you could see just my eyes, then my face, and now…” she smiled broadly and put her hands in the air, “Deutschland!” When Ashraf’s 14-year-old daughter Miriam tried to speak English, German words peppered her speech, and then she’d giggle at the mistake. She passed around her cell phone with snapshots from a recent kayaking trip she went on while at summer camp. Teenagers balancing in kayaks posed for the camera, Miriam right in the middle of the shot. Ashraf, who was married at age 13 and pregnant by 15, was pleased that her daughter has the opportunity to live such a different life. Still, she worries. “It will be very difficult for my children to see all of these things and then have to go back to Afghanistan.” This story was produced with support from Robert Bosch Stiftung