The perilous journey

The situation in Afghanistan goes from bad to worse, but Afghans fleeing their home country meet closed doors in Europe. Photographer Jim Huylebroek followed Afghan refugees on the journey from Kabul to the Greek island of Lesbos.

It has been 15 years since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, and the conflict is worsening. More people are forced to flee, and 2016 is the deadliest year in the country since 2009.

Conflict and violence, unemployment and lack of school and health services drive more and more Afghans to seek protection and a better life in Europe, but they meet closed doors.


• Afghanistan has the world’s second largest refugee population.

• Three out of four Afghans have experienced displacement.

• The number of internally displaced people rose 40 per cent from 2014 to 2015.

• More than 1.2 million Afghans are displaced inside the country.

• According to the UN, 2016 has been the most deadly year in Afghanistan so far since 2009. During the year’s first six months, 1,600 civilians have been killed by war.

• Over 2.7 million people in Afghanistan are malnourished, including one million children under the age of five.

• The humanitarian funding to Afghanistan has declined from close to 700 million US dollars in 2009, 2010 and 2011 to 434 million US dollars in 2015.

• Afghans constituted the second largest group of asylum seekers coming to Europe last year, with close to 200,000 arrivals.

• In February 2016 five European countries prevented Afghans from entering the countries.

Afghans constituted the second largest group of asylum seekers coming to Europe last year, with close to 200,000 arrivals. Many people find themselves in limbo in Greece, because the EU program for resettlement does not work. Stricter border controls make it impossible for them to travel to other European countries on their own. For many Afghan families, it is not an option to return to their homeland. They therefore have to remain stranded in crowded and unsafe refugee camps and reception centres, while waiting in uncertainty on their asylum application to go through the overloaded Greek asylum system.

ON THE BUS: Uncertain about what lies ahead, Afghans wait for a bus to depart. The ride will take them from the capital of Kabul to Nimroz, the southern Afghan province bordering Pakistan and Iran. The number of people displaced inside Afghanistan has surpassed 1.2 million, and every day another thousand people are forced to flee their homes.

Location: Kabul, Afghanistan

TO EUROPE: Flocks of young men carrying small backpacks arrive, ticket salesmen shout destinations. Kabul-Kandahar bus station really becomes alive at night. You can't help but notice that most buses, fully packed, leave for one destination: Nimroz. More than 178,000 Afghans applied for asylum in Europe in 2015, almost four times the number from previous year. 

Location: Kabul, Afghanistan

LEAVING KABUL: "My family put all their money together so I could get out. If I reach Europe, at least there is chance for a future" Abdul Khaliq,14, from Kabul says. He is about to start his journey westward, leaving Kabul - Kandahar bus station on the outskirts of Kabul. Insecurity is a main driver of displacement. 2015 was the deadliest year for Afghan civilians since 2009, with more than 5,000 civilian casualties.

Location: Kabul, Afghanistan

CROSSING THE BORDER: Nimroz Province is located strategically in the deserted lands between Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. The area has been preferred by smugglers for ages to transport refugees in trucks crossing the border. Though the trip into Iran carries many risks, it is undertaken both by young single travelers and families alike.  

Location: Nimroz Province

TURKEY: In the Zeytinburno neighborhood of Istanbul lies an apartment run by smugglers. The place functions as a transit house for Afghan refugees on their way to Europe. The place is fit for a small family, but hosts up to 30 young Afghans each night.

Location: Istanbul, Turkey

SAVED: A Portugese Frontex vessel picked up a rubber boat filled with 52 people on the Aegean Sea off the coast of Lesbos. Overloaded boats leave in the middle of the night as they don't want to be picked up by the Turkish coastguard. This makes the already risky crossing even more dangerous. So far this year, more than 3,500 people have lost their lives, trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea.  

Location: Aegean Sea

LESBOS: One of the rubber boats arriving in Skala Sikamineas port on Lesbos carried an Afghan family of seven from Baghlan. Conflict in their home district forced the family to flee. Their youngest was only just over a year old.  

Location: Lesbos, Greece

STRANDED: Fatima, from Baghlan province in Afghanistan, breaks down into tears after reaching the shores of Lesbos by boat with her family. Afghans in Greece are currently stranded, unable to access safe and legal routes to asylum and excluded from the EU’s Relocation Scheme.  

Location: Lesbos, Greece