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Afghan brain drain

Florian Weigand / gd / mgrApril 24, 2015

Alongside a resurgent Taliban, there is now a new threat in Afghanistan: "Islamic State." Those Afghans who can afford it and have the connections head for Europe, while the rest are stranded in Pakistan and Iran.

Bildergalerie Deutsch-Afghanische Beziehungen Petersberg DAAD
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Heyder

For over 30 years, Afghanistan held the world record for the highest number of refugees. According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the South Asian nation was surpassed only by Syria last year. A long chain of wars, conflicts, rogue regimes and terror, especially during the 1990's, has prompted up to six million Afghans to flee their country.

After fleeing the Soviet invasion in 1979, Afghans have also escaped from a communist regime, a civil war, and years of Taliban rule. And this stream of refugees was never completely halted by the international troops whose mission it was to stabilize the country following the 9/11 attacks on Washington and New York.

The Afghans have also witnessed that not even foreign soldiers have been able to overpower the Islamist militants. Except for a small training and support mission, most international troops have now left Afghanistan at a time when the Taliban are growing stronger.

An ongoing problem

The result is that there are still some 2.7 million Afghan refugees scattered around the world despite highly subsidized UN-led repatriation programs. And whoever has made it from the countless local hot spots into the nearest big Afghan city, doesn't even figure on this statistic.

Grenze Iran Afghanistan afghanische Flüchtlinge Abschiebung
Over 90 percent of the refugees end up in camps in neighboring Pakistan, or offer their services in IranImage: picture-alliance/Ton Koene

There are only estimates about the number of internally displaced Afghans. UNHCR believes there are more than 683,000 of them in a country which has a population of some 30 million.

Over 90 percent of the refugees end up in camps in neighboring Pakistan, or offer their services as park attendants, gardeners or domestic workers in Iran. They often work illegally and are in constant fear of deportation.

Only a small fraction of refugees has the financial resources, personal connections and opportunities to leave to Europe or the United States. Usually, these Afghans are part of the well-educated elite of the country, including the local staff of foreign organizations, academics, media experts and administrators.

'Under constant surveillance'

Sharmila Hashimi, a former spokesperson for the governor of Herat province, decided to turn her back on her country two years ago. She and her husband, who co-directed a center for training, representing, and protecting Afghan journalists, had become a thorn in the Taliban's side and began to feel threatened: "We were under constant surveillance, so we decided to shut down the center and leave the country."

The family got in touch with human traffickers and, before they knew it, they were on their way to Germany. "We didn't know where we were headed or how we were going to get there - until we finally arrived," said Sharmila after her arrival in Berlin.

Zahra Zahedi Dichterin Journalistin Afghanistan Iran
Hashimi: 'We were under constant surveillance, so we decided to shut down the center and leave the country'Image: privat

Possibly the most well-known group wanting to leave the country is made up by those who worked as translators for the international troops. Almost two thirds of those who worked for German development agencies and the German armed forces hoped in vain for a visa. However, 60 percent of their applications were rejected.

The Taliban view those who helped the armed forces, men like Alilullah from the Afghan province of Kunduz, as collaborators. "One evening, while I was with my family I received a phone call," he recalls. "It was from an unknown number. A man said in Pashto: You work as a translator and spy for the infidels, the foreigners who fight against us. That's a crime. But now we offer you a chance to join us and fight against the Germans and against the government."

Aliullah refused and began to fear for his life. His family worried about him, too, so he hardly ever left his house - and stayed safe. His friend and colleague Wafa was less fortunate. The 25-year-old used to work for the Germans in Afghanistan as well. In November 2013, he was found strangled in the trunk of his car.

Worsening security situation

There are good reasons to leave the country, even without specific threats. The number of terrorist attacks is rising as well as the counterattacks by the military. Last year, more civilians were killed than ever before since the beginning of the UN-led survey in 2009.

According to the UN Mission in Afghanistan, the number of civilian casualties rose by 22 percent in 2014 compared to the year before. Almost 4,000 people were killed. And in mid-April "Islamic State" claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in eastern Afghanistan.

One week later, the Taliban announced a new series of attacks against the ill-equipped Afghan forces. The government in Kabul is weak with two antagonistic factions who - even half a year after the presidential elections - haven't managed to agree upon a new head for the important defense ministry.

Struggling economy

When former World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani ran for president last year he vowed to implement a host of new programs designed to boost the economy of the conflict-ridden country. But following Ghani's electoral victory, which was overshadowed by fraud claims, not much has happened.

And of all things, it was the World Bank, Ghani's former employer, which delivered the latest string of bad news: 36 percent of Afghans live below the poverty line. Moreover, economic growth has dropped steadily - from nine percent between 2003-12 to two percent last year - and local media report that more than a third of Afghans are currently unemployed.

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai Kabul Afghanistan Porträt
Afghanistan's economy has continuted to struggle under President GhaniImage: picture alliance/AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini

Few prospects

In light of this situation, there are only few prospects even for well-educated Afghans. Many lucrative positions are usually filled by those operating within certain social networks. Good connections and the proper ethnic background and often more important than professional skills.

But many Afghan refugees living in Europe are well aware of the ambiguity of their actions given that each intellectual who leaves the country fails take part in the construction of a modern Afghanistan. "We are facing a dilemma," said Pedram Torkam, who applied for asylum in Sweden. You can compare the loss of academic and cultural strength in a country with a car that has no driver," said the professor.

Waslat Hasrat Nazimi and Anne Allmeling contributed to this report.