SALZBURG—Ehsanullah Fazil Nazar spent 2010 translating for US forces stationed in Afghanistan. The Americans dubbed the Kabul native “Steve”—his Afghan name proved too tricky. Now, six years later, he spends his days at a camp in northern Salzburg, on the border with Germany, waiting to find out whether the Austrian government will let him stay in Europe or send him back to Afghanistan.
For Nazar and other Afghan nationals living in Europe, deportation has suddenly become more likely. After months of uncertainty, Afghanistan agreed in early October to repatriate any of its citizens refused asylum by members of the European bloc. It was the first sign of Afghan cooperation since the refugee question landed on Europe’s doorstep last year. The deal may facilitate the return of tens of thousands of Afghans to a country many say verges on lawless and where the Taliban control more territory than at any other time since before the US-led invasion in 2001.
In some European countries, Afghans have become a highly visible presence. In Austria they are the largest national group of asylum seekers, making up more than a quarter of the 100,000 people who have applied for asylum since 2015. Yet Afghans do not often get permission to stay. Where almost 90 percent of Syrian applicants receive asylum, only 23 percent of Afghans do so.
Regardless of the disposition of their cases, most of the Afghans who made the 2,800-mile journey through Iran, Turkey and the western Balkans have remained in the country, in part because they made appeals, and in part because until October Afghanistan had not yet agreed to repatriate deportees. The new agreement changes this. With Afghanistan’s cooperation, Austria may have fewer concerns about carrying out deportations.
The national mood has also changed, growing more hostile to refugees as months go by. Back in 2015, The Viennese gave a warm welcome to the crowds of Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis and Iranians who came to the Austrian capital. Austrians gathered en masse at Vienna’s Haupt- and Westbahnhof, two major train stations, to give food, supplies and encouragement to the new arrivals. But more recently, the steps in front of the Westbahnhof became the focal point in a clash between an anti-immigrant group calling itself the Identity Movement and left-wing counter-protesters. One Identity Movement slogan is “Europe, Youth, Reconquista,” a not-so-subtle reference to the conquest of Iberia, in which Christian soldiers drove Muslims out of southern Spain.
Austria’s tortured presidential election has unfolded alongside the refugee crisis. In a vote scheduled for Dec. 4, Austria could well elect Norbert Hofer, an outspoken anti-immigrant politician and candidate from the Freedom Party Austria (FPÖ), the far-right party. The Austrian president serves a largely ceremonial role, but he can call new parliamentary elections, something Hofer is likely to do if he faces much opposition from the current ruling coalition. The last time the FPÖ held a major government post, the other European Union countries suspended diplomatic relations in protest as did the United States and Israel.
For now, a tacit agreement among government, NGOs and the judiciary protects many Afghans from deportation. But with an increasingly angry populace, a looming regime change and legal cover for deportation, that agreement appears more and more fragile.
Some in the humanitarian community question Afghanistan’s readiness to receive deportees at all. International law prohibits such deportations unless the receiving country is deemed “safe” for the returning person. “Everyone should know that in Afghanistan there is no possibility for a good life,” said Fayad Mulla-Khalil, the director of a Caritas emergency refugee camp in Vienna. “It is a f——d up country for forty years, where the superpowers did whatever they wanted. For Afghanistan I think there shouldn’t be that much discussion.” As recently as October 12 an attack on a Shia mosque killed 14 in Kabul.
The danger of living in Afghanistan is a constant refrain from the Afghans living in Austria’s refugee camps, and although waiting for months in Austria has taken its toll on many asylum seekers, no one is enthusiastic about going back either. Not only are the cities dangerous in a general way—bombs could strike anywhere and don’t discriminate—but individuals sometimes become the targets of criminals and guerrillas because of their skills or resources. The Taliban continues to challenge the American-backed government and controls districts in the south and north. The insurgency briefly captured the provincial capital of Kunduz last year and overran parts of the city in early October.
Ali Heidari left Afghanistan for Iran as an 11-year-old when his family decided to flee the Taliban in 2000. Separated from his parents at the border with Pakistan, Ali lived a few years illegally in Iran before coming to Austria for the first time in 2005. There Ali learned German, went to school and worked. In 2012, when he found his family through the Red Cross, he joined them in Afghanistan.
But before long he ran afoul of his own relatives. He began questioning local religious leaders, violating unwritten rules of conservative rural Afghanistan. He left his home again, boarded a small van bound for the city and fell into the hands of the Taliban, who imprisoned him for five months. After that he set out again for the only place he thought he could make it: Austria. Ali has been granted “subsidiary protection,” a kind of junior-grade asylum that comes under review every 12 months. He now lives in Linz.
Zaki Mohammadi’s family also fled the Taliban—after they cut off one of his father’s legs below the knee. Zaki grew up in Iran, where Afghan refugees have almost no rights, before he migrated again, this time to Europe. Zaki is one of several million Afghans who grew up across the Afghan border with Iran, and thus have little to no memory of the country responsible for them. Zaki lives in a small Austrian town called Gaming around 75 miles from Vienna.
Jawed Ahmadi left Afghanistan, with his wife and children and some extended family, to get away from the Taliban and the police—whom he trusts so little he calls them “mafia” for lack of a better German word. He also ended up in Gaming. The police used to visit his grocery store in Ghorband and press him for information about the local Taliban, who operated out of a stronghold up the road and north of his home. When he came home the Taliban would knock on his door asking for information about the police.
After Fazil Nazar, the interpreter, stopped working for the US Army, he continued to make a living with his English skills. For a time he taught English to Afghan pilots, who needed to read the English-language manuals and labeling for aircraft. He helped business people improve their English. And then something strange happened. People he didn’t know began to approach him and ask for his help. Others called. He doesn’t know who they were or what they wanted. “You’re in a situation where you don’t ask that question,” he said.
He knew where he would go. His uncles and cousins were already in Germany. They fled the Taliban in the years after the Soviet occupation. As officials in the Russian-backed government, they were persona non grata with Afghanistan’s new overlords. He made it as far as Munich before he was turned back. Succumbing to hunger, uncertainty and the cold of an Austrian winter, Fazil turned himself in and sought asylum in Austria.
This summer Fazil said that that the talk in the camps was all about who got a visa and whose interviews were scheduled when. “Most of the talks in the camps are like this,” he said. “Do you have a second interview? Did you get a visa? How long have you been here?” It was stressful then, but it’s more stressful now.
Now he wakes up some days with pain in his jaw from clenching his teeth at night. He thinks about the family he left behind and deteriorating conditions in his new—and possibly temporary—home. “It’s depressing sometimes,” he said by text message. “Everyone talks about deporting.”
Photo: Jawed Ahmadi (center) and Zaki Mohammadi (right) visit the Gaming Kartause.