January 22, 2012 in Nation/World

Afghan asylum-seekers at new high

Figures point to uncertainty about country’s future
Kay Johnson Associated Press
 
Refugees

Afghanistan is already the world’s biggest source of refugees, with more than 3 million of its total population of 30 million still outside the country, according to the office of the U.N. High Commissioner of Refugees and the Afghan government.

KABUL, Afghanistan – More Afghans fled the country and sought asylum abroad in 2011 than in any other year since the start of the decade-long war, suggesting that many are looking for their own exit strategy as international troops prepare to withdraw.

From January to November, more than 30,000 Afghans applied for political asylum worldwide, a 25 percent increase over the same period the previous year and more than triple the level of just four years ago, according to U.N. statistics obtained by the Associated Press ahead of their scheduled publication later this year.

Many Afghans are turning to a thriving and increasingly sophisticated human smuggling industry to get themselves – or in most cases, their sons – out of the country. They pay anywhere from a few hundred dollars to cross into Iran or Pakistan to more than $25,000 for fake papers and flights to places like London or Stockholm.

Thousands of refugees also return each year, but their numbers have been dwindling as the asylum applications rise. Both trends highlight worries among Afghans about what may happen after 2014, when American and other NATO troops turn security over to the Afghan army and police.

The true number of people leaving is likely even higher – since those who are successfully smuggled abroad often melt into an underground economy. Still, the jump in a rough indicator like asylum seekers suggests the total number is also on the rise.

Smuggling people out of Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan is a $1 billion-per-year criminal enterprise, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime estimates. Those who pay to leave often face a risky journey and detention abroad because many developed countries now see many Afghans who flee as illegal economic migrants, not political refugees.

After the 2001 U.S.-led military intervention that toppled the Taliban, some 5.7 million Afghan refugees returned. The vast majority of those came back in the first five years. The numbers have since dwindled, with about 60,000 refugees returning last year, about half the number as the previous year.

As the pace of returns slowed, the number of Afghans seeking asylum abroad rebounded. In 2011, 30,407 sought asylum through November, the latest available figures.

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