Afghans paid to return home from Europe have second thoughts

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.

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