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.


Daniela Gerson

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

of Afghanistan.

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 W├╝rttemberg 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

official permission.



Daniela Gerson

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

training course."


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."