Afghanistan is no place to be sent home

Returning can never be an easy option. Especially for people with families, it is a gamble with the future
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The Independent Online

Our government has just offered to pay a few hundred pounds to any Afghan who came to Britain in the past few years but who is now prepared to get on a plane and get back home.

For those who are ready to make the trip, that will be welcome news. Indeed, when you hear that Afghan refugees who decided to return from Pakistan were given between $10 and $30 by the UN to cover their travelling costs, this may sound like a pretty generous arrangement.

Many Afghans who are given just $10 per person, or nothing at all, are still keen to go home. Already, more than a million refugees have returned to the country. The bravery of those who put their homes on their backs during the years of war, and who are now trudging back and trying to make a life again, staggers anyone who visits Afghanistan now.

On a journey I made to Kabul earlier this summer, I met some people who had decided to go back to Afghanistan from Pakistan and had already managed to build something up for themselves and their families – one elderly man who had opened a shop, for instance, and a couple of women who had returned to their jobs as teachers. But those were only the lucky ones with skills and resources. Most refugees who are returning to Afghanistan find that the stability and security they long for is still elusive.

Day after day in Kabul, you could see trucks full of returning families rolling up in the dust to the stadium that was once used by the Taliban for executions. Families would get out of the trucks, and sit on the ground: grandparents, parents, and skinny children with frozen gazes. When I talked to the women, I was often rebuffed. They didn't want to tell their stories, they wanted concrete help, or to be left alone.

"Everyone knows what life as a refugee is like," one woman said bitterly to me when I tried to talk to her about her experiences. She never stopped stroking the head of the child who sat on her lap. Her cousin, sitting near by, told me that this woman had had four other children, but they were all dead now. The cousin didn't know what the future would bring, and she refused to speculate. "It may get better," she said uncertainly, "if we have enough to eat."

Although we hear grand words from our own Government about the way that Afghanistan has changed, the reality is that for millions of people in Afghanistan every day is a raw struggle for survival. As long as I live, I will never forget one woman I met in Kabul, who was five months pregnant, and whose husband had been killed by the American bombing. She went out every day to beg for work, but there was no work, and so she and five children were starving. For millions of women who have lost their husbands and brothers in the years of fighting, Afghanistan is still a brutally harsh society.

Although the headline wars have ended, Afghans are still suffering day by day from the chaos that has resulted. There have been great promises of money from the international community, but so far this has only translated into patchy humanitarian aid. The rebuilding of the country is still on hold. Returning refugees go to find their old homes and find ruins occupied by other destitute Afghans. In such a situation, a few hundred pounds would quickly melt away.

We may like to think that refugees are walking back into a liberated society. Certainly, many women and girls are delighted to be going back to education and work. But repressive views of women still rule. Even in Kabul, most women do not yet dare to show their faces, and elsewhere the situation is worse.

I met one woman who had travelled to Kabul from Herat in the west of the country, where the warlord Ismail Khan holds sway. Not one woman in Herat, she told me, would dare to go out without her burqa. And reports of ethnically and politically motivated sexual violence have been collected by Human Rights Watch elsewhere in the country.

Above all, almost everyone I met expressed fear about the future. Afghans are sceptical that the fragile peace will last, since the same warlords who half-destroyed their country in the 1990s hold power. Ordinary Afghans have not forgotten that the West armed those mujahedin, and they have not forgotten their crimes. "They are just the Taliban in ties," one woman said to me.

In such circumstances, returning can never be an easy option. Especially for people with families, it is a real gamble with the future.

But the UK authorities are hoping that their new scheme will encourage more people to make that gamble. Sure, this is a voluntary scheme, but many people will feel pressed into accepting it quickly, because it is not available to those whose asylum claims fail. And few asylum claims from what is now seen as a "safe country" will now be successful. So what is better, to leave now with up to £2,500 for your family, or to leave as a deported, failed asylum-seeker in a year's time with nothing at all?

We should respect those who choose to go, but also respect those Afghans who decide that they cannot yet make that gamble. We helped to create the chaos in their country; we armed the men who destroyed their cities; we have bombed them ourselves; and we have not followed up our grandiose promises to them to rebuild their country. At the moment, we cannot even find it in our hearts to behave decently those who have struggled to our shores.

Take the Ahmadi family. Remember the desperate mother, father, son and daughter who were dragged from their refuge in a mosque, thrown into a detention camp and then deported from Britain to Germany? Despite the harshness of their treatment, there was little outcry about their case, partly because it appeared at first that the Home Office truly believed they would be integrated into ordinary society in Germany with clear immigration status.

Now it has become clear that the Home Office were either lazy in checking the facts or deliberately untruthful – in fact, the Ahmadis have no idea what will happen to them next and they are currently being held in a detention camp, where the mother and the children are finding it ever more difficult to cope. Like the UK, Germany is buying into the myth that Afghanistan is now a stable country that can easily receive back its refugees. It has been reported that mass deportations are on the cards in the next few months for Afghans living in Germany.

The family's lawyer told me that a psychiatrist found that the Ahmadi children now display symptoms typical of badly traumatised children, such as frozen watchfulness and an inability to play. Feriba Ahmadi, their mother, is devastated by finding herself once more in detention in a strange country.

Once upon a time we talked grand words about our responsibilities to the Afghan people. It would be good if we could remember those words, even when they involve our responsibility to people who have come to our own shores rather than suffering in a distant land.

n.walter@btinternet.com

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