Back, but have not really arrived: Experiences from Afghanistan

The assumption that people would voluntarily return to the most dangerous country in the world does not stand up to reality. What returnees often underestimate are the special risks they are exposed to because of their stay in Europe, which usually make (re)integration impossible.  No matter how extensive return assistance is, it cannot countermand these structural dangers.

by Abdul Ghafoor, director and founder of Afghanistan Migrants Advice and Support Organization (AMASO), an independent advice organization for returnees in Kabul, which had to close due to the Taliban invasion in August 2021. Abdul Ghafoor, like many others in extreme danger, managed to get on the first German evacuation plane and is now in Germany.

A total of 528 people left Germany for Afghanistan in 2019 and 2020 within the framework of voluntary return programmes. The reasons vary greatly. Some were called back by their families to provide acutely needed support to relatives. This may be, for example, to defend the family against hostile militias, it can be the need to protect women and children in everyday life because male relatives have died who were previously in charge of this. But there are also returnees who cannot stand the thought of denying their dying mother her wish for a last meeting. Then there are those who no longer believe that they will ever have true prospects in Europe. For instance, they have lost confidence that they will ever be allowed to work legally in order to provide for their families in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iran. The long years of waiting and the permanent fear of being deported themselves - like so many others - makes many refugees give up hope. For some, it turns out after their return that they were simply wrongly advised or did not know how they could have satisfied their rights. Others mistakenly believed statements by the authorities that they were facing deportation. However, many also leave Europe to avoid impending deportation. In Germany alone, more than 29,000 Afghans are acutely at risk of this.

There are also returnees who only find out from their lawyers that they have agreed to a “voluntary” departure. They did not know that the authorities had made them sign a declaration of consent without informing them about the contents. And there are those who are told they can only get a work permit or live with their spouse in Europe if they apply for this after returning to Afghanistan through a visa process. There are also reports of terminally ill people who want to be with their families back home when their time is up. But those who actually return voluntarily in the sense of a free choice between possible alternatives are a very small minority.

Experiences with return

The different reasons for leaving the country are also reflected in the plans of the people concerned after their arrival in Afghanistan. Many leave the country immediately to join their families living in neighbouring countries such as Iran or Pakistan. Afghan returnees from Europe are threatened with denial of official residence status and deportation to Afghanistan, however. They often return in the hope of making money in countries such as Turkey or Dubai, frequently with the plan of fleeing to Europe again and hoping to be more successful the second time around. Others have been assigned the mission of accompanying relatives fleeing the country. Still others go to neighbouring countries to apply for visas to Europe from there.

But those who stay because they hope to feel less defenceless and powerlessness in their homeland than in Europe, or to be better able to help their relatives on the ground, have very similar experiences: One of the common ones is that, given the de facto involuntariness of return, there is no difference in the Afghan population’s perception of actual deportations. Whether (non-)voluntarily or forcibly returned: one has not managed to get a permanent residence title in Europe. Thus, one has disappointed the family’s expectations. These expectations are wide-ranging: one does not only have to support the family financially from afar as well as locally. Neighbours and more distant relatives must also be helped, whether in emergencies or with visa procedures. There is little understanding when these expectations are not met. Returnees are therefore often perceived as failures. This is true even for those who are called back by their families. After all, if they had been successful, they could always return to Europe or bring their wives and children still living at risk in Afghanistan to Europe. 

What many returnees also have in common is that they underestimate what it means to return to what has become the most dangerous country in the world. The likelihood of becoming caught up in attacks or public shootings, the large number of targeted assassinations, the everyday nature and brutality of criminal attacks, the sheer number of checkpoints, the omnipresence of weapons, the fear of fighting even in places like Kabul, Herat or Mazar-e Sharif and the ever-growing power of the Taliban – even those who grew up in Afghanistan can hardly imagine all this. Moreover, many underestimate how dangerous their temporary stay in Europe can become for them in Afghanistan. One often notices that they have lived in Europe because they behave and talk differently. This puts them in danger of being mistaken for “westernised”. Together with the suspicion that exiled Afghans have not upheld religious and cultural rules in Europe, this leads to many being regarded as infidels by relatives and neighbours and being shunned. Another danger is being persecuted by the Taliban as “spies” or “traitors”; after all, they have sought protection from the Western occupiers and often continue to have contact with foreigners. Because this ostracism also means a risk for returnees’ family and their other contacts, even benevolent families often do not take the risk of taking in and supporting returnees. I myself am also acutely at threat from the Taliban because of my support for returnees from Europe in the neighbourhood. I have already had to move the AMASO office several times and therefore try to keep the new location from becoming known.

Without family or other support, however, returnees not only have no chance of finding work and shelter or protection from everyday violence or persecutors. Even easily treatable diseases can quickly become a deadly peril if you are not aided or have no one to take care of you. It often takes only days or weeks for “voluntary” returnees to seek out AMASO in desperation because they regret their decision and are looking for a way out of Afghanistan.

The reach of return assistance

Return assistance such as that provided through REAG/GARP (Reintegration and Emigration Program for Asylum-Seekers in Germany/Government Assisted Repatriation Program) or ERRIN (European Return and Reintegration Network) can at best make a difference for a brief period. Many returnees often have false expectations. Based on the counselling they received in Germany, they assume that they will find a job. But even before the economic collapse triggered by the Corona pandemic, 93 per cent of the population in Afghanistan were living in extreme poverty and 30.5 million are acutely dependent on support. For those who do not have any close relationship with an employer, their prospects of finding work through practical help in writing CVs or training through IRARA (International Returns and Reintegration Assistance) or the NGO AWARD (Afghan Women Association for Rehabilitation and Development) on behalf of the GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit) are practically nil. Experience has shown that the qualifications returnees have acquired in Germany are not compatible with the Afghan labour market. And returnees often do not (or no longer) have the connections they need to have some chance of finding a living wage. Even in 2017/18, long before the labour market collapsed due to the Corona pandemic, not a single “voluntary” returnee was placed in a job, according to the German government.

But even the financial assistance that returnees receive before leaving the country and on the ground in Afghanistan through the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) within the framework of REAG/GARP does not offer any prospects for integration. Some were victims of robbery and extortion because they were suspected of having money. For many, the aid was just enough to pay off debts in connection with their flight and thus avert the menace posed by lenders to themselves and their families. For others, the money is used by families to escape acute hardship. Basically, families consider the property of returnees to be collective property. As long as additional funds can be expected, this means temporary protection from relatives for many - but this comes to an end when these funds are no longer forthcoming.

This pattern is also evident in the aid declared as material resources through the EU’s ERRIN programme, which is carried out by the IRARA organisation. The formal challenges here are that stakeholders have to advance the financial means and, in order to apply, partners are needed who act as landlords or business partners and – as is rarely the case with Afghans – have a bank account into which these funds can be disbursed. If there is someone in the family who meets these requirements, such an application has a chance of success insofar as stakeholders can hope to be tolerated in the country until the money arrives. However, those who do not have a family in the country or are menaced by their family do not have access to this assistance. In addition, the application procedure is so complicated that stakeholders often have to pay several hundred euros to mediators.


Experience shows that return assistance does not lead to integration. Returnees often have little choice but to migrate again. They regret their return and that they allowed themselves to be persuaded to do so in a desperate situation. Even psychosocial counselling financed with German funding, like that offered to returnees in the form of five sessions by the International Psychosocial Organisation (IPSO), does not alter the cycle of violence and distress. In view of the expected takeover of power by the Taliban and further escalation of humanitarian needs, it is questionable whether integration for returnees from Europe will be possible in the foreseeable future. So far, at least, only those who have had the possibility of returning to Europe through a permanent residence status and thus enjoyed not only a better social status, but also the protection that goes along with such in Afghanistan, have had a chance of integration. The return programme "Perspektive Heimat", on the other hand, which is heavily promoted by the Federal Government, is of little help, as those returning through it have to forfeit their protection status in Germany and are forced to pay back the entire support amount upon re-entry.

“The returnees and their deep-seated bitterness are a significant source of destabilisation in Afghanistan. They are susceptible to attempts at recruitment by terrorist groups and criminal networks.”

Hadi Marifat is executive director of the medico partner organisation AHRDO and co-author of the study “Deportation to Afghanistan: A Challenge to State Legitimacy and Stability. AHRDO/medico international 2019”.

“How can return to a country like Afghanistan, which is torn by war and violence, be voluntary? Only with the possibility of being able to leave again at any time for a protected country can I imagine that a trip to Afghanistan is based on voluntariness. Anything else is akin to deportation.”

Eva Bitterlich works for human rights at medico international in cooperation with partner organisations in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Western Sahara