More Afghans Seek Asylum as Troops Prepare to Withdraw

by Bethany Matta

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — For decades, some Afghans have fled insecurity at home by taking a risky journey abroad to claim asylum. As worries grow about what will happen after foreign troops withdraw in 2014, more people are considering taking a gamble on a future far from home. Afghans know there are perils and payoffs in the journey.

Afghan asylum seekers arrive in Indonesia, thousands of kilometers short of their goal for a new life in Australia. Last year authorities in Canberra reported the number of arriving asylum seekers rose by a third, and the largest single group were Afghans.

Many of them are young, educated and have plenty of work experience, like Najibullah, who asked we conceal his appearance.

“I want to go to Australia. There are my friends, classmates, they are working there part-time and also they are studying at university, as well,” he said.

Expensive, dangerous escape

The price for the journey can run as much as $20,000. With many asylum seekers traveling secretly in unsafe boats, however, hundreds die annually from starvation or drowning.

Despite the risks at sea, there are signs that the number of Afghans leaving the country is increasing, as foreign troops prepare to leave, said General Aminullah Amarkhil, the head of Interpol at the Afghan Interior Ministry.

“Huge numbers of Afghans are busy working with these troops, around 40,000 to 50,000," said Amarkhil. "They speak English and know how to use computers well. When NATO leaves, these people will not only be jobless, but those who have worked with military organizations or NGOs [non-governmental organizations] think it will be dangerous for them to stay in the country.”

Three months ago, Mohammad Akram's 15-year-old son Yahya left for Iran with relatives. The boy made his way to a United Nations school in Turkey, and that is when Akram received the call.

“I told him he should return to the U.N. school he was studying at, but he wouldn't accept what I was saying. He said he wanted to go to Turkey so he could make his way to Europe,” said Akram.

The following night was the last time Akram spoke to his son. Yahya called home to say goodbye and asked his father to pray for him. Akram learned his son was lost on a boat along with 29 others. He still does not know what happened, despite paying government investigators.

“But there has been no result. It’s a shame for them to do nothing for us… What can I do? I lost my son and I spent money to find his corpse,” said Akram.

Akram and his family are struggling to come to terms with the death. He said the family's only remaining wish is to have their son's body back.