Civil war has been raging in Afghanistan for 42 years, and this war escalated again in recent years, culminating in the overthrow of the government by the Taliban regime in August 2021. One year after the publication of her highly acclaimed study "Experiences and perspectives of deported Afghans in the context of current political and economic developments in Afghanistan", Afghanistan-expert Friederike Stahlmann draws a grim conclusion:
“It has been nearly a year since the last regions of Afghanistan were seized by the Taliban. As much as this day was feared by millions, many hopes were also raised regarding this final takeover. Hopes that a “Taliban 2.0” would somehow be more concerned about their legitimacy and thus more receptive to popular demands, more representative in terms of ethnic and cultural plurality, more interested in international recognition and thus readier to consider international demands and laws, and more concerned about the sheer survival of the Afghan people regarding the ongoing humanitarian catastrophe that has been unfolding for several years. These hopes have been crushed and life in Afghanistan has fundamentally changed for the worse. However, the experiences of deportees in the years leading up to the Government’s collapse in August 2021, as detailed in my study, in many regards serve as a precursor to the experiences that the country as a whole has had since the Government fell.“
In several years of research, Afghanistan-expert Friederike Stahlmann managed to document the experiences of 113 of the 908 Afghans, who had been deported from Germany between December 2016 and March 2020. The majority of these deportees experienced violence against themselves or against their relatives because they fled to Europe, lived there or were deported.
The study was published in June 2021, two months before the Taliban managed to seize power in all of Afghanistan. On 3rd of August 2021, the last deportation flight to Afghanistan from Germany was scheduled. This flight was cancelled due to an attack in Kabul that killed 13 people. When the Taliban took power in Kabul on 15th of August 2021, deportations to Afghanistan from Germany were suspended for the time being.
One year later, the editors publish the study in English. The German and English versions are complemented by a detailed foreword by the author on the current situation in Afghanistan.
Read more about the background and the experiences of the author in the interview, June 2021:
Why did you decide to conduct this study on Afghans who were deported from Germany?
Friederike Stahlmann: We know a lot about the risks of living in Afghanistan. But if you have never witnessed or experienced war, persecution or destitution yourself, it is difficult to understand what this means for everyday life. My hope is to contribute a little to this understanding. The question of what happens to deportees upon return is somehow special, as refugees in Germany have not made this experience yet and cannot account for it based on experience. Some don't even know Afghanistan because they grew up as refugees in Iran or Pakistan, for example. The others often cannot really assess how it will affect their lives upon return, that they have lived in Europe. At the same time, the fear of deportation shapes the everyday life of the many Afghans in Germany and Europe who have not received protection. I thus hoped it might be valuable to document the actual experiences of those affected by deportation.
You mentioned that you try to take into account questions raised in the realm of asylum law regarding this topic. What do you mean by that?
Stahlmann: The legal assessments of risks upon return in the realm of asylum law follow their own specific rules and criteria. This often creates a specific informational gap. Because if, for example, I only document what deportees report to me regarding their experiences of violence upon return, many questions that judges have asked me over the course of the last several years regarding the risks of violence remain unanswered. The study was an attempt to take these questions by the judiciary into account as much as possible. Of course, this has its limits, both because these questions and criteria are often not uniform and because the practical limits of such research often do not allow for the kind of answers that the courts would wish for. But these limitations are due to the kind of risks. I simply cannot conduct an interview with the respective Talib about why he had killed a certain person. Often, even the death of a person cannot be proven beyond doubt. The same applies, for example, to the destitution of deportees.
What have you found out?
Stahlmann: Much of what I found is not surprising, but confirms previous analyses - whether it's families' expectations regarding adult men to act as providers; that it takes wealthy and benevolent social networks to gain access to work or medical care or some kind of protection; the high level of violence that characterises everyday life; but also common reasons for persecution. The fact that the Taliban consider refugees to Europe as enemies in the war and persecute them as collaborators and spies is also a pattern that we know from many others dealing with Western foreigners in Afghanistan. What is special is that the violence experienced by deportees is often based on rumours and assumptions. For example the insinuations, that they betrayed their country by fleeing, that they gambled away protection in Europe by committing criminal or terrorist acts, that they are wealthy, but also that they betrayed their religion while in Europe. These widely held beliefs not only put them at even greater risk of violence and destitution. It also leaves them very isolated and lonely. They do not have the chance to mourn victims together or to fight publicly for recognition within the country. Rather than solidarity and empathy, they experience prejudgement and social exclusion.
Do deportees have a chance of integrating and building a life in Afghanistan?
Stahlmann: Due to the combination of the high level of violence and the unbelievable destitution in the country, this cannot be assumed. In international comparison, it is the most dangerous country in the world. UNICEF reckons that every second child would die of malnutrition this year without treatment. I hope that no one assumes that their parents are not doing everything they can to provide for their children. But they simply can't cope anymore and don't have the power to change the conditions, to end the war, to stop persecutors or to disarm abusive power-holders. Deportees are affected by a very specific exclusion and thus all the more by a lack of prospects. Even if private supporters send money to deportees so that they can pay for hiding places, this does not offer any perspective. Many of those who stay in the country initially therefore regret lateron that they did not immediately flee again. Even some of those who had a good chance of returning to Germany with a visa decided to forgo this chance and brace the life-threatening risks of fleeing again because of the acute dangers within Afghanistan.
But there are exceptions?
Stahlmann: You will not find a scientific assessment that there can be no exceptions. Exceptions can always been drawn up, everywhere. In this case, that does not mean that anyone in Afghanistan is actually safe. There is a civil war going on and the probability that the violence and thus the hardship will escalate further with the withdrawal of the international troops is unfortunately very high. One of the deportees I was in contact with, for example, has found a living wage because he has again taken up work for the US army. He had been persecuted for working for the US even before he fled to Europe, but upon return it was still safest to be in a military compound. But that does not ensure his safety. What happens to him now that the US troops are leaving, I don't know. Contact has been broken off. In principle, wealth and power protect against a variety of dangers. But powerful people are also threatened by specific dangers. One might assume that if the son of a high-ranking politician were deported who had his father's support, he would find it easier to get out of the country if he were in acute danger. Such examples can be drawn up, but I don't see that as my task. I am interested in showing what experiences the deportees have made, how certain phenomena can be explained, and where there are patterns.
You describe great despair among the deportees you were in contact with. What was it like for you to conduct these interviews?
Stahlmann: Witnessing so much fear and powerlessness makes one painfully aware of one's own privileges. After all, I am sitting safely in my room in Germany or could leave Kabul at any time. The fact that those affected were willing to entrust me with highly personal, often intimate, sometimes dangerous information, even though they knew that I could not offer them anything in return that would provide even a little practical help, touched me deeply. But what awed me even more was their will not to give up hope for a civil, peaceful life. They could also fight for their lives by buying weapons, by joining gangs or militias, and they would probably be better protected than by exposing themselves to the threats of fleeing again. They could numb themselves with heroin and give up. And two deportees from Germany committed suicide immediately after arriving. But many don't, and they not only do everything to survive, but want a peaceful future at all costs. And this is not limited to deportees. The fact that parents continue to send their children to schools despite the dangers, that so many people put up with persecution in order to speak their minds, that people in Afghanistan continue to vote, or that I, as a foreigner, am welcomed with such warmth, humour and care, even though I bring nothing but an additional risk, leaves me speechless again and again. It is clear that very many people break down because of the violence. And this struggle for survival comes at high costs, has many victims and leaves scars, for individuals and within society. But the fact that so many nevertheless defy the violence and do not give up hope in the face of these devastating circumstances, but get up every morning to look for new ways to somehow provide for themselves and their families, makes one very, very humble.
Inquiry 01.08.2022: Ms Stahlmann, one year after the Taliban took power, which you already foresaw in your highly acclaimed study of June 2021, you now describe the situation in many regards as hopeless and having changed for the worse. What does that mean for Afghan refugees in Europe?
Stahlmann: Many Afghan refugees are now increasingly suffering from immense helplessness. Helplessness in encountering that their relatives are often in additional danger because they themselves have fled to Europe. But they are also hopeless to live up to the expectations of their relatives and friends in Afghanistan. Not only has the economic hardship increased to an extent that can no longer be countered by individually affordable remittances. Many Afghans in Afghanistan also believe that their relatives in Europe could register them in admission programmes. The fact that this is usually illusory and in many regards a matter of luck is often impossible to convey and sometimes exerts unbearable pressure on the refugees. Their own insecurity in terms of residence status, which many still have to live with, is an additional burden to cope with.
Interview: Diakonie/ Katharina Voss