The return

IssueSeptember - November 2004
Comment by Marnie Summerfield

As Ariana flight 404 from Dubai touched down at Kabul International Airport, its applauding passengers straining to locate family members among those standing on top of the arrivals building, Mosa Gholam personified impatience. And a little aggravation.

It might have been because he hadn't slept for a week. It may have been because he nearly missed the flight after a fellow returnee with an incorrectly named ticket nearly grounded the group in Dubai.

And of course much of it was the frustration of knowing that his wife and children were, after four years of separation, just metres away but beyond an expected barricade of bureaucracy - a bureaucracy Mosa has come to deeply distrust.

”I don't trust any system,” he says with resignation, “Nobody gets it right.” Mosa's distrust is well placed. He is 31 years old and a witness to the decimation of his homeland from both inside and out. He is Hazara and Shiite - the ethnicity and religion persecuted by the Taliban with special vehemence.

Every time he looks in the mirror he sees a body covered in cigarette burns that the Taliban inflicted after they arrested and imprisoned him for making women's clothes in his profession as tailor. He escaped, and after months on the run finally scraped together the money to pay an agent to get him to safety. But of the 12 Afghans he arrived in Dover with, Mosa was the only one not afforded any rights in the UK. He laughs. “A couple of weeks before I left Britain I dreamt I met David Blunkett,” he says, “I asked him how he made his decisions on who gets asylum.

”He said to me `Mosa you know I cannot see' and showed me into his office where his dog was pushing paperwork - the yes's in one pile and the no's in another.”

Should I stay or should I go?

Mosa arrived in Britain in June 2000; his wife Zaragul, of Uzbek ethnicity, and their two children - Maryam, then five, and her brother Najeeb, then four - went to Pakistan.

In Britain Mosa fell prey to an unscrupulous solicitor and lost his first asylum application. Four years of waiting and appeals followed while Mosa studied English and worked illegally in a pizza shop for illegal hours and an illegal wage - every day filled with trying to answer that burning question: should he go or should he stay?

In May, feeling he could bear to be without his family no longer and that Kabul had become safer, he approached the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) - an intergovernmental body who helped him under their Voluntary Assisted Return and Reintegration Programme.

The bigger picture

The IOM staff at Kabul came as a pleasant surprise to a suspicious Mosa. “They just wanted to check I had a lift home,” he translated to me in surprise and a little confusion as we left the airport, “I thought they were going to ask me hundreds of questions again.” In a world where more than 20 million people are either internally displaced, refugees or seeking asylum, there is great confusion.

It's a situation that Matt Huber, chief of mission at IOM Afghanistan is keen to rectify. The organisation looks at migration in all its facets and has multiple programmes. Once in Afghanistan, all returnees, be they deported or voluntary, are treated equally - first at the airport where they are offered medical help or onward transportation and later at the IOM offices.

”A lot of the returnees aren't aware of the income regeneration programmes,” says Mr Huber.

”We would like to let them know they won't be on the streets doing nothing. There is a lot of economic activity here in Kabul.” IOM offers returnees job referrals, on-the-job training, small business start up and expansion, and vocational training.

Huber believes that if Afghans can get on track in their own lives they can contribute to the bigger picture of reconstruction.

”So far, all the businesses have been very successful,” he said, “Afghans have proven to be very entrepreneurial and our biggest hope is that people can return and create something sustainable.”

So why aren't more Afghans going home and rebuilding their country?

Going underground

Underground is a popular word in the British press when it comes to describing failed asylum seekers, but the reality is much less dramatic.

After his last-ditch attempt at being granted asylum was refused, Mosa was not deported with haste - surprising given that his claim under the Geneva Convention that he had “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular group or political opinion” was presumably thought to be unfounded. That and the fact that the government is apparently chucking out failed asylum seekers faster than you can say “declaration of human rights article 14”.

But nor was he given any benefits or means of surviving.

It wouldn't be surprising if failed asylum seekers resorted to crime but a recent report published by the British Association of Chief Police Officers showed that asylum seekers are more likely to become the victims of crime than they are to commit it.

On borrowed time, Mosa merely continued working and managed to send enough money home to buy a plot of land. It was a friend who told him about IOM.

”I wouldn't have minded paying taxes,” he says, “I felt that I had been treated unjustly, although if I had to be a refugee anywhere I am glad it was the UK and I am grateful to the people for their kindness.”

Given the problems Britons face in every area of public life from transport to education, it might be more surprising if there weren't delays and exorbitant costs in the asylum system - one of the most expensive being the fact that according to the UN the UK detains more people for longer periods and with less judicial supervision than any other comparable country in Europe.

Information on inducements

So why aren't Afghans - their country, to the outside world at least, being one of the first success stories of the 21st century - being told about the help the IOM is just waiting to give them?

I can honestly say that if I hadn't gone to the IOM offices to meet Matt Huber, Mosa wouldn't have stepped foot in the place. He had no idea that the point of policy was to assist and even when he warmed to Mr Huber he said he “might” go along the following week to help a friend.

The business start-up grants offered by IOM and provided by the British government and the European Commission have just been increased. “Whether someone returns is a voluntary decision,” added Mr Huber.

”But we hope that their knowing they can get several hundred dollars worth of assistance to find a job would help weigh in their decision to return.”

Around 400 Afghans leave the UK each week; 300 are deported and 100 voluntarily repatriated. Officials believe these numbers could be reversed if people knew of the awaiting assistance.

Vesna Petkovic, of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Kabul - a department that has a budget for 2004 of $122million - says shelter and drinking water have been the things that have encouraged the Afghans, mainly from Iran and Pakistan as well as those internally displaced, to return home: 3.6million since 2002. The UN carries out a mass information programme but even Ms Petkovic recognises that the majority of people hear from friends that the situation has improved enough for them to return.

A fragile peace

Beleaguered by circumstance Mosa is not a man without integrity - he had been driving just a few minutes when the traffic police pulled him over and fined him. For wearing a seatbelt.

”You're driving funny,” said the warden. “EVERYONE is driving funny!” said Mosa, but to no avail as he noticed the official had planned to overcharge him and pocket the difference.

”Who can blame him?” asked Mosa, “He's only earning $70 a month and a good house costs four or five times that to rent.

”What really annoys me is the news I've heard that ministers are building luxury homes and offices with aid money.”

No Afghan who fled the country during Taliban times could fail to be impressed and even heartened by today's Kabul. From the sublime sound of previously banned music coming from Radio Ahzadi (meaning freedom) to the frivolous - market stalls openly selling brightly coloured bras - albeit amidst a very fragile peace in what is less than five per cent of the country.

And there were certainly moments of elation for Mosa. He was no longer a faceless statistic, someone for late-night drunks to abuse in a kebab shop. He returned to become the father and husband who did what he had to do to survive for the people that love and rely on him. In fact I saw him physically change and blossom as he ironed and cooked for his wife, took his children to the zoo and watched them go off to co-educational English class together.

Mosa may or may not return to the offices of the IOM. I hope he does go and see those people who reassured him his language skills and broadened horizons would ensure him a remunerative career.

But for now at least it seems as if he is choosing to spend his time with and bestow his trust on only those nearest and dearest to him.