Kay Johnson

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 probably higher, since those who are successfully smuggled abroad often melt into an underground economy. Still, the jump in a rough indicator like people seeking asylum suggests the total 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.


Still, the business finds an eager clientele in Afghans such as Ahmad, an unemployed 20-year-old in Kabul. He has agreed to pay a smuggler $400 to take him over the Iranian border, where he hopes to find work and save up to move on to Europe in a few years. He has no money, but his smuggler is giving him credit — he’ll have a month to pay up once he’s in Iran.


“I don’t think anything will improve in three or five years, so it’s better to leave now,” said Ahmad, who expects to leave for Iran within a few weeks. He asked to be identified only by his first name for fear of being arrested.


Ahmad’s family fled to Iran during the Taliban’s late 1990s rule and returned full of hope after the regime fell. But now, he sees no future in his homeland. “If foreign troops leave, the situation will only get worse, not better,” he said.


Devastated by decades of war, 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 United Nations.