KABUL, Afghanistan — A wave of anxiety washed over Mohammad Farooq Niazi as the plane touched down in his homeland.
“I missed my country,” he said, recalling his mindset on the day he returned to Afghanistan after almost three years of trying to build a new life in Europe. “But I wasn’t feeling safe.”
As traffic crawled into Kabul, Niazi worried he'd be killed in one of the regular attacks carried out by militant groups including the Taliban and the Islamic State.
Niazi, 27, is one of thousands of Afghan migrants who have been paid to return home by European governments. Austria gave him $3,100 and a one-way ticket to Kabul. The rest was up to him.
More than 400,000 Afghans lodged asylum claims in Europe for the first time from 2015 through 2017, according to European Union figures.
Hundreds of thousands of other migrants also arrived in E.U. countries during that period, including many fleeing conflicts, rampant corruption and extreme poverty in Africa and the Middle East.
But the number of Afghans returned by European countries to their homeland — either forcefully or voluntarily — nearly tripled, from 3,290 in 2015 to 9,460 the following year, according to Amnesty International.
While some failed asylum-seekers are forcibly removed, others like Niazi opt for the United Nations-operated Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration program, which enables host nations to pay willing returnees to go home. (The U.S. does not fund assisted voluntary returns to any country.)
The amount of money paid by European countries to migrants under the program ranges from around $500 to $4,500 per person, according to Amnesty International.
Advocates of the measure say supporting returning migrants financially helps them to rebuild their lives. They say it also promotes reintegration, as some countries attach conditions to receiving funds such as setting up a business, enrolling in a course or renting an apartment.
But other migration experts and rights groups say the program is not truly voluntary, as often people feel they have no choice but to sign up amid the threat of being forcibly removed. Some also argue it legitimizes returns to countries that are not safe.
The first thing Niazi noticed on disembarking from the plane last spring was the state of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul.
“It’s very old and unprofessional in comparison to those of European countries,” he said.
Nearly three years in Europe had changed Niazi.
While he was happy to see his mother again, Niazi said life in Afghanistan initially felt “unfamiliar” and the day-to-day violence weighed on his mind.
He got by on the $3,100 given to him under the U.N. program and went into business with his uncle, who is a butcher.
But after almost a year of being back in Afghanistan, Niazi says he still does not feel safe and says he plans to return to Europe with his mother and his new wife as soon as possible.
Otherwise “our child will be born in a place where there is no peace or stability,” he said. “Afghanistan is not for living or finding jobs.”
'Crime, terrorism, civil unrest'
Many Afghans like Niazi worry about their families’ safety in a country where an emboldened Taliban is fighting U.S.-led NATO forces and the government of President Ashraf Ghani.
The militants were toppled by American forces in 2001 after sheltering 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden, but now hold sway over almost half of the country and are again imposing their strict version of Islam on swaths of the population.
By all accounts, security in Afghanistan is deteriorating. The first half of 2018 was the deadliest ever for Afghan civilians, with 1,700 people killed, according to a recent study commissioned by Save the Children.
The State Department also warns U.S. citizens not to travel to Afghanistan due to “crime, terrorism, civil unrest and armed conflict.”
A recent report by Amnesty International on forced and voluntary returns to the country concluded that returns were taking place despite evidence that people “face a real risk of serious human rights violations.”
Nicola Graviano, who works for the International Organization for Migration, the U.N. body that runs the program, said it continually monitors conditions on the ground as part of the voluntary returns process.
That "doesn't mean, though, that the situation is rosy everywhere," he said. "It's a constantly evolving situation and we need to be ready to adapt and reconsider our lines."
He cautioned that the principles of international law — such as not forcing asylum-seekers to return to a place where they face persecution — applied when returning migrants to Afghanistan.
Liza Schuster, an expert in migration policy based at City, University of London, questioned whether the U.N. program should be used to return people to a “country in conflict” like Afghanistan.
“For some people who feel they have absolutely no other choice, they will take assisted voluntary return,” she said. “Even though the voluntary is in heavily inverted quotes.”
According to Schuster, migrants are often told by officials in the West that "if we have to force you back on a plane you won’t receive anything when you arrive."
Taking the money as part of the U.N. program can often appear to be a better answer.
Saleem Paigeer, 53, has struggled to find work since opting to return from Germany last year.
A father of four, Paigeer now volunteers for a political party, but has no income and is living off the $3,400 he received.
With the money running out fast, he says the family is struggling to make ends meet.
“It is not enough for a family coming back from migration and starting life from zero. A house needs a lot of things,” he said, listing household appliances he could not afford.
Paigeer had lived abroad for 24 years and says his children — his youngest is 8 — are now struggling to settle.
Being a woman in Afghanistan is “very bad,” he said, explaining that his daughters found it difficult to adjust to life with less freedom.
Afghanistan is still one of the worst places on earth to be a girl or a woman, with maternal mortality rates among the highest in the world and domestic violence rife.
In many parts of the country, it is dangerous or culturally unacceptable for girls to go to school and in the worst-affected provinces up to 85 percent of girls do not attend class, according to humanitarian organizations.
A generation gap
Abdul Raziq Raziqian, 50, said that while he was over the moon to be given money to exchange Germany’s gray skies for Afghanistan’s sunny weather, his younger children were desperate to return abroad.
“They miss the playgrounds and the school, they really want to go back,” he said.
Raziqian, who has five children, admits that if he had been able to find work in Germany he would have preferred to stay. However, he resents the way the abilities of migrants tended to be dismissed, with asylum-seekers pigeonholed into work “which didn't suit” them.
Raziqian said “uneducated and educated, skilled and unskilled people” — including doctors — were just seen primarily as migrants.
“They wanted to break our honor,” he added.
Now back in Afghanistan, Raziqian said he is also struggling to provide for his family despite owning 20 percent of a spare-parts shop in the western city of Herat.
He said if his younger children win scholarships to study abroad, he and his wife would follow, but otherwise the family doesn’t have the means to try to migrate again.
Despite the security issues, European countries believe Afghanistan still has the ability to take more returnees.
In 2016, the E.U. and the government in Kabul agreed to a pact that aimed to “step up their cooperation” on preventing economic migrants from traveling to Europe as well as returning rejected asylum-seekers to Afghanistan.
As the boats keep coming across the Mediterranean Sea and the political pressure to keep migrants out builds across the continent, the number of asylum claims approved involving Afghans fell from 67 percent in 2015 to 46 percent in 2017, according to E.U. statistics.
But Abdul Ghafoor, who runs the Afghanistan Migrants Advice and Support Organization in Kabul, said in his experience the majority of the younger men who return through the U.N. program eventually attempt to return to the West again.
“The security situation has gone from bad to worse, especially in the last year or so,” he said. “Those who come back voluntarily cannot survive in the country, and so they try to leave for Europe again.”
Saphora Smith reported from London, and Ahmed Mengli from Kabul.