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The Guardian, January 18, 2012

Boom time for Afghanistan’s people smugglers

The increase in Afghans leaving for Europe fuels a lucrative business in fake passports and Taliban death threats

By Jon Boone & Nooruddin Bakhshi

For citizens going into battle against Afghanistan's officialdom, the warren-like building across the road from the headquarters of Kabul's police chief is a one-stop shop for every document they could need.

From their tiny cubbyhole offices, an army of typists can run up everything from marriage certificates to CVs and job application letters. Also available, for several hundred dollars more: Taliban death threats, the special chits also known as "night letters" that can be a passport to a new life in the west.

"We can write whatever you need; it depends," said one young clerk. "For example, we will mention you work in a government department, your job title and salary. It will say, 'If you don't leave your job by this date, we will come and kill you or put a bomb in your house'.

"Or we can say you are working with US forces," he added.

For a large number of Afghans such a purchase is just the first of many expensive outlays on the high-risk road to a new life in the west. Buyers hope the document will persuade immigration officers many thousands of miles away to give them asylum in Europe or Australia. The document is one part of a growing and lucrative business in smuggling a tide of mostly young, unaccompanied Afghan males overseas.

One people smuggler was happy to talk business after a perfunctory introduction in a car next to a police checkpoint in Kabul. He said two factors were driving a boom in his business: the rising fear among some Afghans for the future of their country and the existence of a class of well-off professionals who can afford his huge fees.

"Every day I am helping more people from all corners of Afghanistan to get out of the country," he said. "If everyone had money, then everyone would leave."

The Afghan government recently reported that around 50,000 Afghans cross illegally into Greece each year, a country which is both on the outer reaches of the Schengen zone and relatively easily reached from Turkey.

Smugglers offer different packages depending on what people can afford. By far the most expensive option, often in excess of $20,000 (£13,000), involves the elaborate forgery of European passports, or tinkering with legitimate ones, which allows his wealthiest clients to fly directly to their target country. "Eighty per cent of my customers go on a fake passport to Britain," confides a smuggler working in the eastern city of Jalalabad. "If you have money, everything is possible because we have contacts in western countries who make them for us."

A high proportion of his customers choose to fly from Islamabad and travel under fake Pakistani passports. "We have people at the airport who make sure they will get through customs," he said. "The deal we have is that once the customer is successfully on the plane, he has to pay. When they get to the UK they are on their own. We tell them to lose their documents when they arrive and go to the police at the airport."

Migrants from Afghanistan sit in a detention centre after arriving on the island of Lesbos by boat from Turkey
Migrants from Afghanistan sit in a detention centre after arriving on the island of Lesbos by boat from Turkey. (Photo: Uriel Sinai / Getty Images)

He oversees the departure of around 15 people a month by plane. He also assists around 100 people each month who can only afford to travel by land, a figure that quadruples in the summer when the mountain paths between Iran and Turkey are less treacherous.

That was the route tried by Mohammad Nasim, a 21-year-old from a well-off family who decided to try and leave his country after his brother was killed by a bomb at the Indian embassy in Kabu