SPIEGEL ONLINE - September 26, 2005, 03:07 PM
Heading Home to Chaos
Germany Begins Repatriating Afghan Refugees
By Daniela Gerson and Chris Bryant in Hamburg
Afghanistan is still far from a hospitable place, but that hasn't stopped
German authorities from beginning the process of sending Afghan refugees
back home. The first have already been deported, and tens of thousands are
now fearing for their future.
Wahid Solleimanie has been to prepare for deportation. He has just one week
left in Germany before he is scheduled to be sent back to his home country
It was the letter he had been dreading for months. Just over a week ago, the
German government wrote Wahid Solleimanie, 24, telling him he was no longer
welcome. On September 25, the letter said, the Afghan refugee would be
forced to leave the country he has called home for the last six years. Since
then, Solleimanie has been afraid to sleep in his own room in the northern
port city of Hamburg; he is terrified the authorities will surprise him in
the middle of the night.
"I have no future in Afghanistan," says Solleimanie, dressed sharply in a
blazer, but with dark lines under his eyes. "There's no work for me there, I
have no family, and the war is still going on."
The German state, though, disagrees; officially, at least, the war is over.
Even if warlords continue to rule over drug-infested fiefdoms throughout
much of the country, Afghanistan held its first parliamentary election in 35
years last Sunday and parts of the country have been stable for years now.
At a conference last November, German state interior ministers determined
that Afghanistan was sufficiently stable for refugees to be sent home. Of
the 58,000 Afghans currently living in Germany, up to a third suddenly faced
Now, 10 months later, that decision is finally being acted upon and Hamburg
is taking the lead. Home to 15,000 Afghan refugees -- the largest such
population in Germany -- the city state plans to deport 5,000 of them over
the next two years. Already, hundreds of letters have been sent out urging
refugees to voluntarily repatriate themselves and by the middle of
September, six Afghans had been sent back. Other German states, including
Bavaria and Baden Württemberg to the south, should soon follow Hamburg's
Afghan community incensed
Even if they knew it was coming, news of the deportation policy has unnerved
the Afghan community. "Everyone's in shock, but nobody likes to talk about
it," Solleimanie says. "Sure we knew the criminals would get sent back, but
not people like me who have been here for six years."
While the war is officially over, the country is still instable and foreign
soldiers are still hunting down remnants of the Taliban.
And yet, the policy of forced return should not come as much of a surprise.
During the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the mid-1990s, Germany took in as
many as 345,000 refugees. Many of them were granted the right to stay, but
tens of thousands were also forcibly removed. Refugees from Kosovo were
likewise repatriated. While over 80 percent of the 100,000 Kosovo-Albanians
returned voluntarily, some 18,000 of them had been deported by the end of
2004. Due to an uncertainty security situation in the region, however, Roma
and Serbs remain exempt from the forcible return policy for Kosovo refugees.
It's an exemption that many Afghan community leaders, human rights advocates
and a number of German politicians feel should now be applied to Afghan
refugees. They are incensed. Not only is Afghanistan far from secure, they
say, but returned refugees have virtually no future in their homeland. Even
Germany's own foreign ministry has a warning posted on its Web site that,
"Government security forces are not in a position to secure law and order
across the country." Furthermore, the Kabul government has little control
over vast regions of the country and 70 percent of the population is
undernourished. Although the capital is more stable than most parts of the
country, periodic bombing continues and the city is crippled by a massive
influx of displaced people.
Indeed, Afghanistan's post-conflict challenges have been exacerbated by the
3.6 million refugees who have already returned. Earlier this year,
Afghanistan's minister for repatriation and refugees, Mohammad Azam Dadfar,
said he could not take responsibility for refugees being returned from
Germany and called deportation plans "counterproductive." When he met
Hamburg Interior Minister Udo Nagel this spring, he asked him to "abandon
any such plans."
Germany is not a country of immigration
Nagel, for his part, makes no apologies for the deportations. He insists
that Germany has fulfilled its duty to Afghan refugees and is proud of his
nation's asylum policy. The bottom line, he insists, is that Afghanistan is
now safe, says Nagel. He even paid a short visit to the country before the
ban on repatriation was lifted in May this year. "When a crisis has passed,
and emergency assistance is no longer required, then refugees should return,
because their country needs them to help the reconstruction," he says.
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Nagel also notes that the twice weekly flight to Kabul from Frankfurt was
booked solid with holidaymakers throughout August. His point is clear:
Afghans who have been granted permanent residency in Germany are happy to
return to their homeland. The others are just trying to exchange their
refugee status for immigrant status. Then, puffing on his trademark pipe, he
repeats a line cited often by German conservatives: "Germany is not a
country of immigration."
Another conservative politician, Jens Grapengeter of the Christian
Democratic Union, spent three-and-a-half weeks in Afghanistan this summer.
He found much of the country to be extremely dangerous, and not suitable to
accept returning refugees. But Kabul is safe, he says, and that is all that
"It's not acceptable that some people not go back just because it's nicer
here," Grapengeter, a member of Hamburg's state parliament, says. "We gave
them security in wartime, that's our duty, but now that it's possible to go
back, their time here is finished."
Solleimanie, for his part, initially decided to ignore the writing on the
wall. He received a letter in May providing him with two options: He could
leave willingly and the German government would help him set up a new life
in Afghanistan, or he could resist, and be sent back with nothing.
The young Afghan decided to let the first deadline slide, not believing he
could actually be sent away. Then earlier this month he received the dreaded
second letter. "On September 21," it said, "you will be sent back to your
homeland, it's your right to take 20 kilograms of luggage with you."
Working for two hours a day
Those facing expulsion are part of Germany's latest wave of Afghan
immigration. For the most part, their countrymen who sought refuge beginning
when the Russians invaded in 1979 were granted political asylum. Men like
Solleimanie who fled the Taliban have had a more difficult time and have
encountered a Germany that -- particularly after the Sept. 11 terrorist
attacks in the US -- is less receptive to refugees. They were, of course,
accepted, but were given only a temporary status. Physically they were safe,
but they had no real opportunity to build a life in Germany.
In short, Afghans like Solleimanie are caught in a legal limbo where, while
the government supports them, they are provided with few freedoms. They are
only permitted to work for a maximum of two hours a day, are required to
live in housing projects erected solely for asylum seekers, and cannot
travel more than 20 kilometers from the city in which they live without
Mohammed Ahmadi has been allowed to stay, but he is worried about his sister
and her family.
"A former Afghan government minister lives in Hamburg and all he gets to do
here is clean floors for two hours a day," says Rafiq Shirdel of Afghan
Information, a support group for Hamburg's Afghan community. "Another guy
used to be a secretary in the foreign office, and now he is only allowed to
work two hours a day in a McDonalds."
The consequence of this policy, critics say, is that not only are Afghan
refugees unfairly sent back to a country that is ill-prepared to absorb
them, but they have little to contribute when they return.
"It's not just to send the people back with no profession, give them no
money and not allow them to take tools with them," said Antje Moeller of
Hamburg's Green Party. "They reach Kabul with nothing."
Indeed, Hamburg's Interior Minister acknowledged the problem, but insisted
it was unavoidable. Where jobs are concerned, Germans have to come first.
"We have to protect the German work market," he insists, noting Germany's
nearly 5 million unemployed. "If there's no work for Germans, then there
can't be any for Afghans either. Lots of Germans can't even get a place on a
Scared to death
Even Afghans who have thrived in Germany -- and there are many -- are upset
by the prospect of their countrymen facing forced repatriations. Mohammad
Ahmadi, a waiter in Hamburg, is grateful for his job and in mid-September
was still celebrating his recently awarded German citizenship. But his
celebrations were muted; his sister is still threatened with deportation.
"My sister is married and has two children and now she's worried they'll
have to go back even though the children grew up in German schools," Ahmadi
Despite recent elections, Afghanistan is largely ruled by local tribal
chieftans and drug czars.
The family sought refuge in Germany after the Taliban kidnapped and
imprisoned his father, who owned a shoe factory in Afghanistan. They lost
everything. But claiming political asylum has been complicated for Taliban
victims largely because the ultra-fundamentalist movement was not recognized
as Afghanistan's legitimate government by the international community.
Ahmadi only succeeded because he could prove his father was tortured and
because he himself now has a job.
Like many Afghan refugees living abroad, he hopes to one day return to what
he still considers his home. "I still want to return to my country," he
says. "But the situation is not safe enough. I couldn't imagine being
there.... The Taliban is still there, they've just shaved their beards off."
For Solleimanie, hope of being allowed to remain in Germany is quickly
running out. He was granted a stay by a Hamburg judge, but only until
October 2. And given a 99 percent rejection rate, his chances of being
granted political asylum are slim.
"I'd happily go back to Afghanistan if there was a possibility to work there
and more opportunity," he reflected. But right now he is petrified. "It's
not because of the Taliban; it's because of ordinary people. I don't know
what to expect -- I haven't been there for six and a half years, I don't
have anyone there and I am scared to death."