Fed up with the worsening security and dwindling economic opportunities in their country, Afghans are fleeing to Europe in numbers not seen even under the repressive Taliban regime.
About 200,000 Afghan asylum-seekers were registered in 27 European member states from January to December of 2015, according to the International Organization for Migration.
The exodus comes in the aftermath of a rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan of tens of thousands of U.S.-NATO forces, which has left the war-ravaged country of about 30 million people with harsh security and economic challenges.
An increase in violence by Taliban insurgents and the Islamic State has taken civilian casualties to the highest level since a U.S.-led coalition ousted the Taliban regime in October 2001, the United Nations has said.
Ranked least developed in Asia in a recent U.N. report, Afghanistan is already one of the poorest countries on Earth with an estimated annual GDP of $20.84 billion in 2014 and a per capita income of less than $700.
While no official tracking of the financial consequences of irregular emigration is available, it appears that in 2015 more than $1 billion was exchanged between human traffickers and Afghans trying to reach Europe.
High price to pay
Landlocked Afghanistan is nearly 4,000 kilometers from Greece, and many emigrants pay traffickers handsomely to get there.
"On average, a migrant pays smugglers about $7,500 to be taken to a European destination," Islamuddin Jurat, a spokesman for the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriations, told VOA.
Often, there is more money exchanged before settlement.
"I’ve spent $6,500 to make it to Hungary and my destination is Belgium," Dawajan Sahil, a young Afghan, told VOA in Budapest in August. "I'll pay more to get to Belgium."
Another young man, Bahram Ghafoori, said he paid a smuggler $10,000 to take him to Germany, where more than 80,000 Afghans sought asylum in 2015.
The immediate economic impact of the Afghan irregular emigration is unclear.
In the eyes of Afghans, however, the exodus is a major setback.
"We lose young men who can be very helpful in developing the country and they [emigrants] waste millions of dollars which could be vital in rejuvenating the economy," said Khan Jan Alekozai, who serves on the Afghan Chamber of Commerce in Kabul.
Servitude, prostitution, death
Many emigrants gamble their hard-earned savings, sell off their properties or borrow money to pay human traffickers, according to Thomas Ruttig, a senior researcher at Kabul-based research institution Afghanistan Analysts Network.
While most emigrants pay traffickers in cash or installments until they reach a final destination, some resort to loans, credits and even modern forms of slavery, often plunging into debt bondage, servitude and prostitution, according to U.S. State Department human trafficking reports.
Irregular emigration is also extremely dangerous. The government of Afghanistan does not officially tally the number of its citizens who die on risky routes to Europe, but the rate is reportedly high.
Overwhelmed by the influx of too many asylum-seekers, some European countries have launched public awareness campaigns inside Afghanistan to warn potential emigrants of the serious risks on the way to Europe and the uncertainty in getting residence approvals.
Stopping Afghan emigrants from entering Germany was a point of discussion between Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in December. After the meeting, Ghani told Deutsche Welle that Afghans leaving their country were opting to become "dishwashers" in Europe — a derogatory remark which many on social media called insulting.
"The high number of Afghans becoming refugees is definitely worrying and represents a brain drain, but also reflects a drain of confidence in the current government and its ability to successfully tackle the multiple crises Afghanistan is facing," Ruttig said.