All NATO-led combat troops are to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. Out of fear of the Taliban, many educated Afghans are leaving their homeland in search of a better future abroad.
For 32 years Afghanistan has held the world record for the highest number of refugees. According to data compiled by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), on average, one out of every four refugees worldwide is an Afghan. The organization recently published a report stating that there were 2.6 million Afghan refugees in 2012 alone. Around 95 percent of them are said to be living in the neighboring countries of Iran and Pakistan.
Most of the remaining five percent are believed to have enough money to pay traffickers to take them to Europe or the United States. Others try to leave the country by getting scholarships or enrolling in education programs abroad.
Sharmila Hashimi's life was recently turned upside down. Just a few months ago, the emancipated woman led a stable life in Afghanistan, working as a spokesperson for the governor of Herat province.
An ever increasing number of educated Afghan women are leaving their home country
She and her husband even co-directed a center for training, representing, and protecting Afghan journalists. But the center turned out to be a thorn in the Taliban's side and she and her husband started 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, where her husband was separated from Sharmila and their young boy. The 26-year-old said she was in a state of shock throughout the journey. "We didn't know where we were headed or how we were going to get there - until we finally arrived."
It's been a month now since the young Afghan journalist and law student arrived in Germany. She lives with her son in a home for refugees in Berlin. She hopes to see her husband again soon, so that her family can start a new life in Germany.
A sense of insecurity
Sharmila is disappointed in the Afghan government, which she claims failed to protect her family from the Taliban. This sense of insecurity is what has been driving so many skilled Afghans to leave their homeland, particularly after the announcement that NATO-led combat troops are to leave the country by the end of next year.
Nonetheless, the Afghan Ministry for Refugees and Repatriations considers the security concerns to be exaggerated. "We don't believe the situation will be that insecure," said Minister Jamaher Anwari. "We welcome the year 2014 and the withdrawal. The responsibility for security was transferred to Afghan forces. From our experience we can say that security has improved in those areas international troops have already left."
But the rising number of refugees undermines the minister's statement. Authorities in Germany say that in the first half of 2013 alone there were more than 2,700 first-time asylum seekers from Afghanistan. That amounts to eight percent of all asylum applications.
'Like a car without a driver'
Experts agree that the increasing number of educated workers, scholars and artists leaving Afghanistan poses a threat to the country's development. This brain drain is taking away much of the impulse needed to rebuild the country, says Pedram Tork, an Afghan asylum seeker in Sweden.
"I find myself in a dilemma," says the former professor of Islamic studies, "You can compare the loss of a country's academic and cultural strength with a car that has no driver." Tork says he believes the Taliban are deliberately targeting educated people who are essential to the country's future.
Sharmila, too, is convinced that the situation in Afghanistan is gradually becoming worse for "progressive" thinkers. "Educated people can't live in this country, only the mafia and warlords. You pay a high price when you are in constant fear for your life and that of your husband and children." The young woman says she would like to return to her country one day, but fears this will never happen.
The current living and working conditions for asylum seekers in host countries don't allow most of them to live up to their full potential. Despite this, most of the skilled Afghans who leave their homeland never return.