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Pursuit Of European Dream Can Turn To Nightmare For Afghan Migrants

Refugees float as they hold a tube after a dinghy carrying Syrian and Afghan refugees deflated some 100m away before reaching the Greek island of Lesbos on September.

For Afghans who decide to make the perilous journey to Europe, the dream can quickly turn into a nightmare.

Many die of hunger and disease as they head west by way of Iran and Turkey in an attempt to reach Europe's shores. Others are gunned down by border police in Iran, or drown when their flimsy boats capsize en route from Turkey to Greece. And then there are those who are beaten, robbed, and left for dead along the way.

Their tales are revealed in the hundreds of messages left by frantic relatives who reach out to RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan in an attempt to determine the fate of loved ones.

Among them is Abdul Aziz Akhunzada, whose two sons went missing in neighboring Iran last month and whom he can only presume are dead.

Akhunzada's sons, traveling with their wives, paid smugglers $100 per person to be taken from the Afghan province of Nimroz to the Iranian border city of Zahedan. After they were smuggled in a truck with dozens of other migrants, their plan was to pay traffickers to sneak them into Germany.

But the plan went awry, 53-year-old Akhunzada says, when his sons were attacked by gunmen when they arrived in Zahedan.

Afghan immigrants land at a beach on the Greek island of Kos after crossing from Turkey on a dinghy. (file photo)
Afghan immigrants land at a beach on the Greek island of Kos after crossing from Turkey on a dinghy. (file photo)

"A white car stopped and attacked the truck," says Akhunzada, who was given the bad news by migrants who were traveling with his sons. "The smugglers were working together with the bandits. They took my sons away and I still don't know where they are."

Akhunzada says the traffickers took his daughter-in-laws to Tehran, and he has not managed to make contact with them. He took the case to the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations and the Iranian Embassy in Kabul, but the worried father says officials have offered little help.

Akhunzada's sons are among the tens of thousands of Afghans who have left their homeland in search of refuge and a better life in Western countries. The withdrawal of foreign troops and organizations from Afghanistan has left a security vacuum in many areas of the country and contributed to mass unemployment and a flagging economy. The Taliban has been gaining more territory around the country and violence is on the rise. Most Afghans say the new government has done little to improve their lives.

Europe has emerged as a preferred destination in recent months, in part because many prospective migrants have been discouraged from taking the equally arduous and once-popular route to Australia after the government there tightened controls on immigrants.

Hungarian policemen detain migrants from Afghanistan after they illegally crossed from Serbia to Hungary near the village of Asttohatolom on September 16.
Hungarian policemen detain migrants from Afghanistan after they illegally crossed from Serbia to Hungary near the village of Asttohatolom on September 16.

Afghans saw recent TV footage of Europeans holding up "Welcome Refugee" signs and spread word that Germany was open to accepting refugees. In fact, only 21 percent of all Afghan refugees who applied for asylum in Germany last year were refused.

Afghans are the second -largest migrant group -- behind Syrians -- arriving in Europe, where countries are struggling to cope with a massive influx of refugees from the Middle East, South Asia, and North Africa.

The number of Afghans seeking asylum in industrialized countries has now surpassed all previous years since 2001, with the UN's refugee agency reporting a 65 percent surge in applications in 2014 over the previous year.

New UN figures show Afghans constitute 14 percent -- around 55,000 -- of the 381,412 people recorded as having arrived in Europe by sea so far this year.

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Akhunzada says that in his native Baghlan, a previously relatively stable province in northern Afghanistan, there are no jobs and security is deteriorating every day.

"There is no work and no life here," he says. "Of the 100 households here, I swear that not even 10 have food to eat. We are all hungry."

Akhunzada says his sons spent four years working in Tehran and this year returned to Baghland to get married and with enough money saved -- around $6,000 each -- to make the journey to Europe.

Akhunzada says scores of people are boarding buses and leaving for Europe every day from the provincial capital, Pul-e Khumri, and that dozens of families have left his home district of Baghlani Jadid in the past two months.

In Kabul, hundreds of people are lining up every day at the main passport office to get travel documents to leave. Up to 50 packed buses depart Kabul each day to the border with Iran.

Masoud Ahmadi, repatriation and resettlement program manager at the International Organization for Migration's office in Afghanistan, says Afghan migrants are "making misguided decisions" and do not fully realize the dangers of the journey.

Yet despite the hazards of reaching Europe, thousands will die trying.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.