Welcome tent, Ukrainian refugees, Berlin
Welcome tent for Ukrainian refugees in Berlin. Photo credit: Michael Coghlan / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Germany makes it a lot easier for Ukrainians to apply for asylum than for Afghans.

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When the West pulled its last troops out of Afghanistan during the summer of 2021, Ali was working as a human rights defender in Kabul. Almost immediately after the Taliban seized control of the country, airports filled with people looking for any way to flee from the new regime. The job made Ali and his colleagues a target of the Taliban. 

Help came in the form of a United States-based, nongovernmental organization, the Euphrates Institute, which organized a way out for 13 members of Ali’s team who wanted to escape the country.

They would be taken to Germany. But doing so meant leaving behind their lives and families, who, due to Germany’s strict asylum laws at the time, would not be able to leave with them.  

After leaving Kabul, Ali and his colleagues were taken to neighboring Qatar, where they spent a week living in an airport before departing for Germany. There, they stayed for four days at Ramstein Air Base as German police checked their documents and belongings, ensuring that none of them brought weapons or were working for the Taliban in secret. 

They settled in Germany, but it was nine months before they were able to work and study. 

One year later, Ali still lives in a shelter with other Middle Eastern asylum-seekers. He says he’s one of the lucky ones; he knows countless others who are still waiting to receive legal status in Germany.

The bureaucracy became more complicated in the wake of Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, when Germany began prioritizing the 1 million Ukrainian refugees that sought asylum there. The often strenuous application process for asylum in Germany was waived for all refugees coming from Ukraine: They could immediately work and apply for schooling. 

Refugees from Afghanistan feel as though they have been cast aside.

“You see a racism, you see a discrimination in all the fields. I think that these were some of the points in terms of policy and structural discrimination in treating these refugee groups,” said Ahmad, a source with ties to the German immigration agency. Ahmad’s last name has been withheld due to concerns about his career. 

Refugee camp, Berlin, Ukraine

Camp in Berlin for Ukrainian refugees. Photo credit: Anna Conkling / WhoWhatWhy

“I am not in this opinion to say that Ukrainian refugees should not be treated [well]. … The other refugees should be treated as well as the others. You’re not treated like them ‘cause you don’t look like them,” he added.

The differences are stark. While Ukrainians are given automatic admission without a visa, Afghans must first be deemed “at risk” by Germany and only then can they apply for asylum, which can take months or years. Once in Germany, refugees from Afghanistan have little understanding of what to do next.

The living conditions for refugees vary from city to city. In the Thuringia region of Germany, Ahmed said 1,000 refugees live in various large buildings sectioned off into accommodations for two to four people, with one building dedicated for families. “The place is overfilled, social support [is] not enough, as there are few social workers, the food does not taste [good], and there are not any reasonable free time activities,” he said. 

Meanwhile in Berlin, Ali said that while some have buildings, he lives in a shipping container with makeshift rooms for him and three other refugees. 

“In each container, there are two rooms, bathroom, toilet, kitchen, and hall together,” he said. “There is a laundry room where everyone in the camp uses a common washing machine, which is very old, and the immigrants wash everything in it, causing the machines to damage clothes. Sometimes people enter the camp and have part[ies] with their friends who [live] in the camp.”

Ali’s colleague, Ehansullah, told WhoWhatWhy that after arriving in Germany, for “ten days we didn’t know about our situation, they just registered us as asylum seekers but as we heard we were supposed to receive humanitarian visas. They registered us as ‘those people who came to Germany illegally.’” 

Please Donate to WhoWhatWhyWhoWhatWhy reached out to Germany’s Federal Office for Migration and Refugees about the allegations of differing treatment between refugees from Afghanistan and Ukraine. In an email, the office replied:

The asylum procedure is a case-by-case examination in which every flight story presented is carefully examined. It is always the individual flight story that is assessed. The origin from a certain country or a certain reason for fleeing does not automatically lead to a protection status or to the rejection of the asylum application. 

During the personal interview, applicants have the opportunity to present their reasons for fleeing. On the basis of the presentation, the decision-maker examines what danger the asylum seeker faces in the event of a possible return to the country of origin and decides whether and which protection is to be granted or whether an asylum application is to be rejected.

These “examinations” leave applicants in legal limbo.

“When you don’t have a resident permit, when you don’t have papers, you feel very alone, and you don’t feel like you’re equal,” said Ehansullah. “Other people can study, other people can go to the city, work. You don’t have rights here.”

Ali points out that this insecurity has been disastrous for other Afghans. Ali knows of one man living in the refugee camp who killed himself. “Emotionally it’s so hard for people. A lot of people kill themself because of depression,” he said.

In October, Germany announced a new program to take in 1,000 Afghans per month who are deemed “at risk.” But many believe that the number is not high enough and that the country should do more. 

“I’m in contact with people who are currently in danger in Afghanistan — my friends, family, and others,” said Ahmad. “It feels very exhausting and disappointing because Germany has no attention to the plight of those people who are in danger because of the intervention of the West.”


  • Anna Conkling

    Anna Conkling is an American journalist based in Berlin. Her work surrounding the war in Ukraine has been featured in Rolling Stone, The Daily Beast, and Glamour Magazine.

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