Politics & Society
For over four decades, Afghanistan has been fraught with conflict. The country, known for the bustling capital city of Kabul — the “Paris of Central Asia” — and the ruggedly beautiful natural landscape, was once a destination for artists, adventurers, and tourists. But the nation was plunged into disorder in the late 1970s after a period of stability and growth.
Beginning in 1979 when the Soviet-Afghan War broke out, hundreds of thousands of Afghans fled the country. The crisis was further exacerbated by years of conflict due to the U.S. invasion in 2001 and subsequent clashes between U.S. armed forces and the Taliban. Most recently, Taliban forces took control of the Afghan government in 2021 after the U.S. withdrew from the state. These decades of turmoil have led to millions of people being displaced within Afghanistan, with over half of the country’s population in dire need of humanitarian assistance and over 2 million Afghans currently registered with refugee status by the UNHCR.
People have been fleeing conflict and turmoil in Afghanistan in order to seek safety and a better life for themselves and their families. But, due to years as a failed state, lack of infrastructure, and the Taliban’s evacuation ban, there are few conventional avenues for families to leave the country. This has forced the majority of Afghan refugees to seek alternative, dangerous methods for fleeing the state. The desperation to leave has given rise to an underground economy of people smuggling and bribery in order to deliver individuals from Afghanistan to Europe. The journey is long, treacherous, and expensive. But many feel they have no other choice if they want to build a better life away from conflict and suffering. For most refugees, achieving this goal not only entails numerous border crossings — by foot, horseback, van, and raft — but also years spent in refugee camps, impossible bureaucratic obstacles, and starting a brand new life.
Jalil decided to get out. He told no one – there was no time.
“I had no choice but to leave”
For Jalil Shafayee, everything changed in 2014 with the gradual withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan. A student in Kabul, Jalil lived an ordinary life while the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) aided the Afghan National Security Forces in protecting Kabul and keeping the Taliban at bay. Kabul underwent rapid development, renovation, and urbanization after the Taliban was expelled from the city in 2001. For Jalil, there were opportunities in the capital beyond what was available to him in his small village in the Jaghori District. In Kabul, he attended class, spent time with his friends and family, and considered his future. But beginning in 2014, the climate of the city became increasingly dangerous and unsettling. “I felt like I was being followed,” he says. As NATO and the ISAF began their withdrawal, the Taliban’s forces creeped closer and closer to the capital. The Taliban had begun targeting civilians in Kabul, especially those who had formal education, Western ties, and were ethnically Hazara (all of which apply to Jalil). These groups faced great danger with the Taliban’s growing power in the region. Jalil knew that the situation would only worsen, and he felt that he had no choice but to flee his country.
Prior to the Taliban takeover of Kabul in 2021, legal channels for departure were still possible but reserved almost entirely for the wealthy and well-connected. If an Afghan citizen were to walk into the American embassy in 2014 and request asylum, it would have been denied. At the time, U.S. and NATO security forces were prevalent in the country under a United Nations Security Council mandate, so there were no grounds for asylum elsewhere. Afghan citizens could request passports from the state — often waiting months or years to receive them — but were forced to leave financial deposits in Afghanistan to ensure that they would return to the country. Only the wealthiest in the country could afford to leave this way.
Instead, many were forced to escape through other channels. This was the case for Jalil. Realizing that he could no longer stay in Afghanistan meant that he would need to find feasible options to leave the country.
From Kabul to Tehran
In August of 2015, Jalil decided to get out. He told no one — there was no time. He packed a backpack and fled in the night. The price from Kabul to Tehran, Iran, set by the smuggling networks, was $500. With a group of 40 to 45 people, Jalil was packed into the back of a “tutar”, or truck, and driven across southwestern Afghanistan until they reached the border of Pakistan. There, they crossed over and alternated between riding in trucks and traveling on foot through miles of farmland. The Baloch people in this region of Pakistan, bribed by the smuggling networks, allow Afghan refugees to cross unharmed.
At this point, Jalil was approaching the most dangerous part of his journey yet: the border with Iran. Iranian police are notoriously hostile towards Afghan refugees, and the border is especially dangerous. There are reports of Afghans being shot at, detained, and tortured by Iranian border guards. So, smugglers use every resource to ensure that refugees make it across unnoticed. For Jalil, this meant being packed into the tiny trunk of a Peugeot with 10 other people. Peugeots, which are high-end vehicles in the region due to their European origins, have a lower likelihood of being stopped by Iranian border guards than a large cargo truck that could contain refugees. So, for over ten hours, Jalil lay cramped in the back of the small Peugeot. After successfully crossing the border, they continued on to Isfahan and then to Tehran. In total, it had taken them two weeks to travel from Kabul to the capital of Iran.
Upon arriving in Tehran, the smugglers hold refugees hostage until they are paid in full. This system works as insurance for both parties: the Afghans don’t have to pay until they safely reach their final destination, but they cannot walk free until the smugglers are fully compensated. Refugees are held in miserable conditions with limited food and water until they pay the fee. For Jalil, this was $500 that he did not have. Luckily, he had family in Tehran who were willing to pay. It was at this point that he called his parents for the first time. They were angry, telling him that he should not have left. He explained the danger that he faced in Kabul, and they gradually came to understand his decision. In the end, they chose to financially support the rest of Jalil’s journey.
“The inflatable raft struggled under the weight of its passengers, and some were forced to jump out and swim in the rough waters.”
From Tehran to Lesbos
Jalil, now joined by a group of extended family members, set out from Tehran in late September. The group began the journey in cars, eventually arriving at a small village near the border. Here, along with hundreds of other refugees, they camped out in a livestock barn and awaited the next phase. They were surrounded by strangers: families, singles, children, and elderly people. The smugglers separated the single travelers from the families, and Jalil opted to stay with his extended family. From there, they were filed into a container truck and driven to the Turkish border. After crossing the border, they stood outside while they waited to transfer from the container truck to vans. It was midnight and freezing cold, Jalil recalls.
At this time in 2015, Türkiye was not stopping refugees inside their borders from fleeing to Europe. Just a few months after Jalil’s journey, this would all change. In March 2016, the EU and Türkiye signed an agreement to stop the flow of migrants to the EU. Now, according to the agreement, “Türkiye will take any necessary measures to prevent new sea or land routes for irregular migration opening from Türkiye to the EU.” As a consequence, migrants caught traveling to Europe through Türkiye could be sent back to Iran — an especially dangerous outcome for Afghans.
Once Jalil reached Istanbul, he was once again held captive until he paid the smugglers their fee. But while Jalil had the money secured, his family members did not. In 2015, the price to be smuggled between Tehran and Istanbul was $1,500. For an individual, this may not seem like much. But Jalil’s extended family needed to pay the price for seven people — most of whom were children. So, they were forced to wait. The conditions were terrible: they were held in jail-like cells in a basement in Istanbul, only receiving one meal a day, until they gathered the necessary funds to continue their journey. They reached out to everyone they knew in the West — from family members to acquaintances — and asked for money. Finally, after a month in captivity, they were able to raise the $10,500 needed to pay the smugglers.
Early one morning in October, they took a bus to the coastal city of Izmir. There, they hiked into the wilderness on the coast of the Aegean Sea. They waited five days in a forest for the smugglers to organize a boat and for the weather to be calm for their passage. When the conditions were right, they boarded an inflatable, overcrowded Zodiac boat and set off for the Greek island of Lesbos — a crossing that would take three hours. The inflatable raft struggled under the weight of its passengers, and some were forced to jump out and swim in the rough waters. Jalil found himself in the water, but — like most other Afghans — he had never learned to swim. Luckily, a group of aid workers found the faltering boat and rescued them.
For Jalil, the arrival on Lesbos was filled with both relief and anticipation. He had finally reached the EU, but there was still so far to go. Like many of the stops along his journey, the conditions on Lesbos were dismal and overcrowded. Refugees and asylum-seekers from Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and other countries were packed together in camps and make-shift shanties until they could be formally registered. Instead of applying for asylum, Jalil was asked to fill out a questionnaire on a small piece of paper for statistical purposes. “Where are you coming from?” and “Where are you hoping to go?” were among the questions asked.
In 2014 and 2015, refugees and asylum-seekers only waited on Lesbos for days or weeks before they could continue on to mainland Greece. Jalil and his family only waited a few days before they boarded a ferry for Athens. But once the EU-Türkiye Agreement was signed in 2016, the EU stipulated that migrants arriving irregularly on Greek islands needed to be stopped there and promptly returned to Türkiye. In theory, this agreement was created to limit the number of migrants on the Greek islands; but in practice, according to the International Rescue Committee, only 2,400 individuals have been returned to Türkiye as a result.
Now, instead of moving through Greece to the rest of the EU, refugees and asylum-seekers are forced to wait until they are either sent back to Türkiye or until they can find a loophole to leave the island. Predictably, a new network of smugglers has risen to the occasion. As a result of the EU-Türkiye Agreement and worsening conditions in countries like Afghanistan, refugee camps on the islands — such as Moria on Lesbos, referred to as “the worst refugee camp on earth” — have ballooned far beyond their original capacity of around 3,200 people. In 2015 alone, more than half a million migrants passed through Lesbos on their way to the rest of the EU. Jalil was one of them. This number is more than half of all migrants who reached Greece that year, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
He had finally reached the EU, but there was still so far to go.
Austria and Seeking Asylum
For Jalil and his family, Greece was not the final destination. They had their sights set on reaching Austria, but they still had a long journey ahead. From this point on, they no longer relied on smugglers. Before 2016, the borders were open for migrants to move between the Balkan states. These countries had no incentive to keep migrants inside their borders, and no EU mandate to stop them and send them back. So, Jalil was able to cross through North Macedonia, Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, and finally into Austria. Jalil and his family traveled mostly by train, but refugees with less financial means have to travel by foot. This journey can take months.
Today, it is no longer easy for migrants to cross through the Western Balkans. Due to increased pressure from the EU, many of these states have taken a hardline approach to migrants, closing their borders and deporting people once they arrive. Some states, such as Croatia, have been heavily criticized for their violent crackdown on migrants. Jalil explains that, today, new smuggling channels have materialized to help refugees and asylum seekers navigate the quagmire in the Balkan states — for a price.
Since Jalil undertook his journey in 2015, smugglers’ prices have grown exponentially — and so has the danger. Jalil tells me that last year one of his nephews paid $12,000 to travel from Afghanistan to Italy. Part of his trip was spent sailing from Türkiye to Italy on a small fishing boat, facing raging Mediterranean storms in the process. The plight of Afghan refugees has only compounded. The Taliban takeover, new EU policies, and stringent deportation practices used by countries along migration routes make the path to the EU more perilous than ever. While the dangers and cost are ever present throughout the journey, the bureaucratic quandary of applying for asylum is a looming obstacle for those who arrive at their destination.
After finally reaching Austria in November, Jalil breathed a sigh of relief. In Vienna, he officially began the process of seeking asylum. He was fingerprinted, per the Dublin Regulation, and completed a lengthy application process. He was optimistic and eager to begin a new life in Europe. Little did he know, he would have to wait four years for a response. During this time, Jalil kept himself busy. He learned German and settled into refugee housing with his family. He began a new life in Europe. When his application decision finally came in June 2019, it informed him that he was denied asylum and scheduled for deportation. In one moment, the hope he had gathered from years of striving for a better life were torn from his grasp. He couldn’t let his journey go to waste.
“For eighteen months, Jalil lived without papers and without an identity.”
France and a Life Without Identity
Once again, Jalil fled. He went first to Germany for a few days, and then to France. He studied French and stayed with friends in Strasbourg until he could apply for asylum there. Once Jalil submitted his application, the French government promptly rejected it — due to his previous asylum process in Austria — and threatened to deport him. In January of 2020, he was arrested in Marseille for not leaving the country. After a lengthy legal battle in which he argued — in French — that he would be returning to an unsafe and life-threatening situation in Afghanistan, he was allowed to walk free. For eighteen months, Jalil lived without papers and without an identity, a period of time he calls his “black life”. “I didn’t exist officially during this period,” he explains. Jalil studied French, enrolled in university, wrote a book about his migration journey, and translated it into English, German, and French. Eventually, once enough time had passed, he was allowed to apply for asylum once more. Finally, in October 2021, he was granted asylum in France. “It was one of the most emotional days of my life,” Jalil says of the day he received the letter. He had waited for this piece of paper for six years.
On August 15, 2021, the Taliban took control of Kabul, following the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Due to this crisis, and the international news coverage that surrounded it, Afghan asylum-seekers have seen a huge increase in asylum acceptances in EU countries. Before the Taliban takeover, Afghan asylum applications were accepted around 50% of the time in EU countries. But in the months after the event, that number was over 90%. Jalil only waited three months for his application acceptance in France.
A Stronger, Multicultural Identity
Today, Jalil attends a university in France and is applying to graduate programs. He has now self-published two books, and is working to translate his second book into English and German. He regularly speaks at conferences and shares his story. “I try to serve as a bridge between migrants and European citizens,” he explains. When I ask him about his Afghan identity, he tells me, “I am a proud Afghan, I love my country.” But there is so much more to him than that. He feels distinctly French and, in a smaller part of him, Austrian as well. He has dedicated time to learning about the EU and European values, and has fallen in love with the shared culture. For him, identity is tied to values. The way Jalil sees it, he has two sets of values — one from Afghanistan and one from Europe — and is stronger and more whole because of them. These two identities do not compete with one another, they are complementary. This multicultural identity, he explains, is what European values are all about.
At the end of 2023, Jalil will apply for French citizenship. And someday, he hopes to be a diplomat, perhaps to his home country. If the situation in Afghanistan changes, he would like to go back. But, he tells me, he will only return if he is able to make a difference.
To view the full map of Jalil's journey, click the download button below.