Quick access:

Go directly to content (Alt 1) Go directly to first-level navigation (Alt 2)

Afghan Refugees

This article was produced in the framework of the "Unprejudiced" project with the support of the Eastern Partnership Programme and the German Federal Foreign Office in January 2022.

Alina-Maria Țurcanu
Ismayil Fataliyev

Political instability has been the norm in Afghanistan for over three decades. According to the latest UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) report "Global Trends in Forced Displacement – 2020", there are more than 2.6 million Afghan refugees worldwide, i.e. 6.6% of the country's population. With this figure, Afghanistan ranks third in the world after Syria and Venezuela.

Many people have left their homeland in search of a better and more peaceful life, mostly in Europe. Few succeed, while others remain stuck in interim countries for years.

Khalid Zubair - An Afghan refugee in Azerbaijan © Ismayil Fataliyev 30-years-old Khalid Zubair moved to Azerbaijan in 2001 when he was 11. An architect by training, Khalid has recently managed to find a suitable job. Until then, this had been impossible because he did not have the necessary refugee documents, which acted as a work permit. 

Khalid is one of those Afghans who were born or arrived here at a very young age and now speak fluent Azerbaijani. Because of this and of the religious ties between the two peoples, he integrates easily into the Azerbaijani society and feels safe without being subject to any xenophobia or racism. However, he never gives up on the idea of moving to Europe.

"If a person has all the rights to live, it doesn't matter where he lives. It would be the best for me to I get the Azerbaijani citizenship. But if there’s an opportunity for me to go to Europe, I will take it."

The absence of necessary documents is the main problem of the Afghans who have stayed in Azerbaijan. Even those who marry Azerbaijani citizens only get temporary identity cards. Meanwhile, entirely Afghan families simply don't have the money for tests, for filling out forms and other fees required for registration.

According to UNHCR Azerbaijan, there are currently more than a thousand Afghan refugees in the country. The total number of those who came under the organization's mandate was 1944. 1206 of the 1944, or 62% of refugees in Azerbaijan, were Afghan nationals. In previous years, a large number of Afghan citizens came here as refugees, and some of them moved to other countries.

The vast majority of Afghan refugees and asylum seekers in Azerbaijan belong to the Hazara ethnic group, a predominantly Shiite Muslim minority, who have very often been the target of bombings or assassinations in the recent past and are therefore vulnerable in their country of origin. The latest bloody and fatal bomb attack took place in early October in the Kunzud province. A suicide bomber attacked a mosque full of Hazara and killed up to a hundred worshippers.

Tarlan Eyvazov, an Azerbaijani expert ©Ismayil Fataliyev Tarlan Eyvazov, a participant in the 1980s war in Afghanistan and former head of the public association of Azerbaijani veterans of that war, says that the Hazara population was placed here because of religious kinship with the local population. Both peoples are Shiite Muslims. He considers the Afghans living here to be hardworking but reluctant to communicate with the locals.

They prefer to work in the farmers and wholesale clothes markets on the outskirts and suburbs of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, such as the Bakikhanov and Sadarak bazaars.
The former fighter is sure that all Afghans would leave Azerbaijan altogether if they were allowed to cross the European border.   

"Azerbaijan is a transit country for them. They all live here as tenants. I have never seen them buying an apartment, building a house for themselves or anything else. They are just trying to feed their families and wait for their chance," he says.

UNHCR Azerbaijan has some hopes for them to move to other countries in Western Europe or North America, where they believe they could have a better social and economic future: "Nevertheless, they have been told that the prospects of doing this legally are virtually non-existent." 

"Refugees and asylum seekers in Azerbaijan, including Afghans, are under the protection of the Azerbaijani government," says Elsevar Aghayev of UNHCR Azerbaijan, which is a signatory of  the 1951 Geneva Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol: "But unfortunately, most of them do not have a clear legal status."

However, even having a clear legal status does not guarantee a secure future for Afghans and their families. This is exactly the case for Cavid Ahmad Hakmal and his 11 family members. Refugees from the Kandahar province fled Afghanistan at the end of August this year during dramatic developments at the Kabul airport. 

Cavid Hakmal - An Afghan refugee in the Ukraine © Ismayil Fataliyev A father of four with a law university degree, Cavid worked as an interpreter and contractor for the Canadian forces during their mission when the Taliban took over in Afghanistan and international forces left the country. The Canadians reached an agreement with the Ukraine, for the latter to evacuate two families from the Kabul airport. One of them was the Hakmal family.

"It's a very difficult decision to leave one’s country, to leave a home one has had for 20, 30 or 40 years. I took care of my children and my family. I didn't want my children, my brothers, and sisters to be uneducated. We didn't want to live under someone's control, we wanted to live a free life," says Cavid.
After arriving in the Ukraine, he says they were supposed to move on to Canada in 10-14 days, yet because of official bureaucracy, the family was forced to live in three rooms of a hotel in central Kiev.

Cavid complains that the Canadian government doesn't care about his family, even though all family members have official documents proving they have permanent resident status in Canada. However, the government not only delays the family's subsequent relocation to Canada, but also fails to support them financially and refuses to provide medical help if needed.

The Hakmal family survives on the financial support of rare benefactors. The family of 12, which includes a pregnant wife, a diabetic mother, Cavid, a kidney transplant patient and seven children, is fed up with the uncertainty it has faced for almost half a year. "If they don't accept us, we will try to get to another country: Germany, the UK or Australia. It would be suicidal to go back to my own country. If we are not accepted by other countries, we will try to stay here," says Cavid.

Bazaar and household items in the Troieshchyna district of Kiev © Ismayil Fataliyev
The Ukrainian capital is home to just a few dozen Afghan families who have arrived here over the past three decades. The rest live in the eastern city of Kharkov and the southern port city of Odessa. The latter has an Afghan community of more than 5,000 people. Like their relatively few compatriots in the Ukrainian capital, many Afghan migrants in Odessa make a living selling clothes and household items or working as porters in the city's famous Privoz or in the bazaar at km 7.  Very few run businesses or work as teachers.

The Afghans, who were mostly military students, have been living in Odessa since the early 1960s. In the 1970s and 1980s, they were joined by students seeking other areas of expertise. The 1979-1989 Afghan war ended with the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the country and since then, most Afghan students have not returned to their homeland.
Many became Ukrainian citizen. Some have temporary residence permits, others have refugee status. The community runs an Afghan culture center here. On holidays, community members gather, rent a large venue, and organize concerts and a feast.
At the same time, there are also Afghans who still have no documents, although they have been living in the Ukraine for more than a decade. Without any documentation, there is no work, no education, and no possibility of moving to another country.

However, if an Afghan refugee decides to stay in the Ukraine, then he or she must first obtain a document of legal residence on the territory of the Ukraine until a final decision is made about him or her. In practice, a refugee has to wait at least one year for a positive decision, and in exceptional cases, up to six years. This means that, as a foreigner, all services, including medical services, are to be paid for. According to the NGOs dealing with foreign migrants, this is partly due to an imperfect migration legislation.

Right to Protection, a charity that helps migrants in the Ukraine © Ismayil Fataliyev Ukrainian experts state that their society do not want to have anything to do with Afghanistan, which they consider a dangerous place. Even though the Ukrainian society is generally tolerant of Afghan migrants, the public considers that state assistance is mainly important for the refugees who are Ukrainian citizen. 

Afghan refugees joined the endless crowds during the 2015 migrant crisis. Since then, and long before the evacuation of international forces from Afghanistan, Afghan migrants have rushed to the EU using the same illegal paths that Syrian refugees have taken. Afghans now rank second in the number of political asylum seekers in EU countries - Austria, for example, has since hosted 40,000 Afghans.

Meanwhile, in 2019, the German Federal Statistical Office estimated the number of people of Afghan origin living in Germany at 253,000, making it the ninth largest foreign-born community in the country. It is also important to note that more than 30,000 Afghan asylum seekers in Germany currently have to leave the country, and some of them have already been send away from Germany since 2016. However, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer defended the "expulsion of convicted criminals and people considered a security threat" in general as "an important part of the migration policy".

We can also see the situation through the eyes of a young girl from Ghazni, Afghanistan, who emigrated from her home country at the age of 11 and travelled a long way to find happiness in Germany, the final destination and dreamland of many refugee families. If we take a closer look at the situation of the migrants, we will understand that the road to a normal life is long and full of challenges.

Nadia Rajabi © Nadia Rajabi Nadia Rajabi is 19 years old and has been living with her four siblings in Gehren, Germany, since 2016. The journey and struggle for survival away from home started in Iran, where Nadia and her family spent several months. They aspired for more and tried their luck in Turkey and Romania, where they didn't feel the warmth and support, they needed and hoped that one day fate would lead them to Germany. "It's extremely difficult to start a new life from scratch in countries where you don't feel welcome."

Nadia described what goes on in the head of a young girl who dropped out of school in the 7th grade, who took a two-year break in two countries where she didn't have the chance to get an education, and who arrived in a completely foreign country, Germany, where she was to continue her studies. She mentioned that when she went to school in Germany, she didn't see the world through rose-tinted glasses, for she was confronted with many challenges, discrimination, racism, and difficult situations. "There were times when I hated my school because I was looked at strangely by my peers. I didn't understand the language at all and had to translate everything into Persian," says Nadia. However, Germany offered them shelter in a camp with other refugees, and within six weeks they managed to move into an apartment. She slowly started to learn German and then studied pharmacy.

Nadia's father is a welder and is now trying to find a job. He and his wife have taken German language courses and have reached the A2 level. Nadia's 18-year-old brother is doing a vocational training, her younger sister is going to high school and her two younger brothers are in elementary school. Both proudly speak German better than their mother tongue. Throughout their initiation into the German system, they have been assisted by the Ilmenau Refugee Network.

Going back to their background, it is worth mentioning that it is hard to be a woman and live in Afghanistan. Nadia also highlighted the mentality and way of life of the Taliban, the group that took over Afghanistan. "They personally told me that I was not allowed to go to school. They would come to our house whenever they wanted and my mother was against it. That's why one of the Taliban hit her in the head with a handgun. That's when we realized we couldn't live here anymore. That was the straw that broke the camel's back and made us decide to leave Afghanistan."

There are more than 30 ethnic groups in Afghanistan that speak different languages and belong to different religious groups. Nadia belongs to the Hazara group and of the Shia Islamic branch. "The Taliban do not like Shia groups and are against our existence."

Nadia Rajabi Nadia Rajabi Nadia says she doesn't see the Taliban as normal people because they are rather horrible. Her friends who still live in her homeland marry very early because they have no choice. They are not allowed to work and to study and have to get married as soon as possible because the rape rate among women is very high, so they choose to find safety in marriage.

Now Nadia is living the life she has long dreamed of. She is strong and ambitious, studies pharmaceutical technical assistance and has a driving license. "I love Germany, I love it here. I can't imagine moving back to Afghanistan now. That would ruin my life, especially because I'm a girl. But I miss it, it's the country where I spent my childhood." Nadia answered  to the question whether she still hoped the situation would improve and how that might happen, saying that it was all in the hands of the people, for the Afghans are very divided and there is still a lot of hatred. "One of the biggest problems is that Afghans don't want to live in harmony, but they also don't want to separate the country. They have to understand that they have to unite their ethnic groups in order for them to become more powerful. This is the first step to save the country."

© Goethe-Institut