After midnight, the sprawling outskirts of Kabul are enveloped in darkness, but the Ahmad Shah Baba bus station lights up like a small town in the night.
In the cheap neon light from a cluster of hotels, rows of dilapidated buses wait, engines running, for their 2am departure. At a recent visit, inside the buses, the mood was solemn. All passengers were men. Many were teenagers, none looked older than 35. Few were willing to share details about their upcoming trip, though it was obvious.
Their destination was Nimruz, Afghanistan’s southern desert province bordering Iran and Pakistan. Every night, about 60 buses leave Kabul for Nimruz, according to ticket sellers at the terminal. For the poorest of the many Afghans leaving their country, this is where the journey to Europe begins.
And for many, “Europe” has become synonymous with one country – Germany. Although that destination may now be harder to reach after the .
“I’m going to Germany. There are no jobs here, and security gets worse day by day,” said Rafi, 30. He had been unemployed for seven years, since his international employer in Kabul closed its business. He decided to leave when the Taliban captured Kunduz in the north.
“The Taliban went looking for families who cooperated with the government or international organisations. They killed their sons and kidnapped their daughters,” he said. Rafi hoped to obtain residency in Germany and eventually bring his wife and daughter there.
Germany was also the destination for Farid, 25, about to make his second attempt at crossing into Iran via Nimruz. Two months ago, Iranian police arrested him in Khoy, close to the Turkish border. They held him for eight days and beating him, before deporting him, he said.
Because Farid had worked for an organisation funded by the World Bank in Kapisa province, he said the Taliban had been in touch with him several times. “The Taliban called me and said, ‘you know a lot of things about computer and maps. Come work for us. It will be your jihad,’” he said. “I changed my number but even then, they quickly found my new one. I don’t know how.”
The stories of Farid and Rafi are emblematic of Afghans who feel increasingly unsafe in the provinces as the Taliban gain ground, but who do not have the social network to make it in Kabul’s job market, rife with nepotism and corruption.
“Being unemployed is like a disease,” Farid said.
Afghans make up currently arriving in Turkey and Europe, surpassed only by Syrians.
The perception is security is much worse. People now realise when things go pear shaped, nobody is going to help them
According to the UN, 122,080 Afghans applied for asylum in 44 countries between January and August, more than twice the number last year. The vast majority are young men.
Trips from to Europe are priced according to the danger involved. According to people smugglers who spoke to the Guardian, an overland journey via Nimruz costs $6-7,000. Flying to Tehran and continuing overland is $9,000. A flight all the way to Istanbul adds another $2,000 to the price.
One people smuggler, Khan, said every night, 300 to 400 people cross the border from Nimruz to Iran, the most dangerous part of the journey because of often ruthless Iranian police.
“Out of 10 people, three of four normally get caught, deported or get asylum in a country before their destination,” he said.
Khan said he was willing to accept payment once his client had arrived in Europe. However, clients said smugglers secure guarantees, such as keeping tabs on the families left behind.
Poverty and insecurity are the main reasons for the Afghan exodus, triggered by deep disappointment with the government.
Many hoped , a technocrat with a past in the World Bank, would herald safety, jobs and opportunities for the country’s educated youth.
“The problem is that when you start to develop hope, when it dies, the despair is even darker,” said Liza Schuster, an expert in migration at Kabul University and City University London.
“The perception is that security has gotten much worse,” she said, “People now realise that when things go pear shaped, nobody is going to help them.”
As a result of strict European policies, some Afghans have decided they will not even try to leave the country, despite feeling in danger.
Edris Amiri, a former interpreter for the Danish army in Helmand, hired through the British Labour Support Unit (LSU), said he was kidnapped in Kabul in 2013 by the Taliban, and released on ransom after a month. When he approached the Danish Embassy in Kabul, guards there turned him away. According to Danish law, Amiri is not entitled to a visa that allows him to apply for asylum, because his employment ended before December 2012.
Realising his poor chances, Amiri has not bothered trying to escape. Instead, he moved in with a friend in Logar, a restive province people normally flee, to keep the Taliban’s attention away from his family in Kabul, he said.
In that sense, Amiri is a rarity. Most asylum seekers have unrealistic expectations of what they can achieve in Europe, said Schuster, partly because European inconsistencies can make the system seem opaque.
“When they’re outside of Europe, in Iran and Pakistan, we’re happy to call them refugees,” Schuster said. “When they make it to Europe, we apply a much narrower definition.”