The year 2015 will be remembered as the year of mass migration from Asia and Africa to Europe. So far this year, an estimated 424,000 migrants have arrived at the shores of Europe. That is in comparison to 219,000 for the whole of 2014. On the other hand, about 2,748 migrants have died while trying to cross the Mediterranean this year. The real number of dead is considered to be significantly higher. Although exact figures are hard to come by, it is estimated that Syrians at 38 percent form the bulk of the 424,000 migrants. Afghans are a close second place, accounting for 36 percent (153,000) of the migrants who have reached Europe this year.
The Afghans migrating towards Europe are mostly of the younger generation. While most international media cite security reasons behind the mass migration of Afghan youth to Europe, the reality is in fact quite different. Afghanistan as a nation has had security issues for the last 35 years. The reason why the Afghan youth have now started migrating to Europe in such large numbers is largely economic.
When the Taliban regime was overthrown and the democratic government of President Hamid Karzai was established with the support of NATO, Afghanistan entered a new era of rapid social and economic development. Although the economy grew at double-digit rates, that growth was largely propelled by the vast sums of American reconstruction money invested in Afghanistan via contracting. In the meantime, millions of Afghan youth started going to schools and universities across the country. Thousands of other Afghan students went abroad to universities across the world, with scholarships provided by the U.S., EU and India.
The problems with the Afghan economy began with the drawdown of NATO troops and investment in Afghanistan. In the last decade, the Afghan government has failed to create a functioning and diversified economy. Now, with the decrease in foreign aid and reduction in construction and logistics contracts, the economy is experiencing a severe recession. The accompanying unemployment has spread hopelessness among the newly educated generation of Afghanistan. These young Afghans feel that the rampant unemployment in Afghanistan is preventing them from realizing their full potential. These are the Afghans who are likely to feel that migrating to Europe is their best hope for a better life.
The journey that Afghan migrants undertake to Europe usually begins in the dusty streets of the provincial and district capitals of Afghanistan. That is where the migrants meet the human traffickers and make initial payments. The payments are usually conducted in installments as the journey progresses. The journey goes through the dangerous border crossing with Iran in the Nimroz province of Afghanistan, followed by days of walking to cross into Turkey. In Istanbul, the traffickers usually keep the migrants in underground safe houses until the time is right for them to make the land or sea journey to Europe. Some migrants choose to board small boats off the western coast of Turkey to reach the Greek islands. Others decide to make the land trip into Greece or Bulgaria, often underneath trucks and trains. The final destination for most is Hungary or the rest of the Schengen zone in the European Union. From my interviews with Afghan migrants in Istanbul, I found that the journey costs the average Afghan migrant more than $6,000. Many sell their land, homes and other belongings to pay the traffickers. As a result, when they are caught, they are very reluctant to return to Afghanistan where they do not have anything left.
The long-term solution for the Afghan migrant problem is to increase economic (non-military) aid to Afghanistan. The newly educated generation of Afghanistan needs jobs. If organic economic growth can be achieved in Afghanistan, with new employment opportunities, it is unlikely that the Afghan youth will make the dangerous journey to Europe. It would be better for Europe to spend money on Afghans while they are in Afghanistan rather than when they arrive in Europe.
In the short term, European governments should finance documentaries and advertisements that inform the Afghan people about the dangers of the illegal journey to Europe. In many cases that I encountered as a consular official in Istanbul, the Afghans complained that the human traffickers tricked them, painting a glorious picture of life in Europe. They claimed that the human traffickers guaranteed a short and easy journey to Europe. If potential Afghan migrants are informed of the difficulties and dangers of migrating to Europe, many would decide against making the journey to begin with. However, once they have begun their journey and endured the hardship of reaching the shores of Europe, they are unlikely to return home. By that time they have already sold everything they had back in their country.
Another short-term solution to the Afghan migrant problem is to target the human trafficking chains. These traffickers have become adept at evading the laws and authorities of the various nations through which the journey to Europe passes. They should be identified and prosecuted as dangerous criminals, since they put the lives of innocent families in danger. In my time as a consular official in Istanbul, there were many instances when Afghan migrants who were caught by authorities pointed the human traffickers out themselves. With a proper intelligence operation supported by the international community, the traffickers can easily be identified. Interpol could play a productive role in the arrest and extradition of these multinational criminals.
While the migration crisis of 2015 looks immensely challenging, there are also very easy, low cost solutions. With just a few advertisements and documentaries the minds of Afghan migrants could be changed. In the long run a more comprehensive economic plan that generates employment in Afghanistan will surely discourage the large chunk of Afghan migrants from making the journey. The EU should fight this issue in Afghanistan where it originates. By the time the migrants reach Europe it is already too late.
Sayer Daudzai is Vice Consul of Afghanistan in Istanbul, Turkey.