Over 80K Afghans Have Applied for Asylum in EU This Year, 96 Percent Increase from 2020

The number of migrants from Afghanistan seeking asylum in the European Union has skyrocketed this year by 96 percent, with some making the perilous journey through the Alps to make it to countries like France and Germany.

Afghans are poised to overtake Syrians as the 27-nation EU's primary group of asylum-seekers, with 80,000 applying this year through November.

A journalist from the Associated Press followed 27-year-old Afghan Ali Rezaie as he and travel companion Sayed Hamza made a journey too dangerous for most. Rezaie worked with foreign aid organizations before the August Taliban takeover, so he feared he would be killed if he stayed.

Following a suicide bombing at the Kabul airport, the two began by crossing into Iran, then Turkey. From there, they caught a boat then walked another 25 days to Greece. In a trek spanning over three months, they made it to the French-Italian Alps, where they had to wade through snow and evade French guards as they crossed the border or risk being returned to Italy.

Though it is rare to successfully cross on one's first attempt, Rezaie pulled it off and is now at a migrant refuge in Briancon, France. People like Rezaie lead the way for other migrants by sharing travel tips and cell phone maps with GPS markers to help others make the same crossing.

Alps, migrants, France
When the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan in August, some Afghans resolved to escape and embarked on forbidding journeys of thousands of kilometers to Europe. Above, Afghan migrant Ali Rezaie looks at a map on his phone as he and Sayed Hamza trek through the French-Italian Alps to reach a migrant refuge in Briancon, France, Sunday, December 12. Daniel Cole/AP Photo

The Afghan exodus that some feared would flood Europe with migrants after the Taliban swept to power hasn't materialized. And amid the toothy Alpine crags bristling with icicles, it quickly becomes apparent why: Only the hardiest, most driven and most resourceful exiles make it this far.

Ahead of Rezaie in the snowscape is the French border, unmarked but guarded around the clock by police who peer through thermal binoculars for heat signatures. Rezaie's companion, another Afghan bearing scars from a suicide bombing that prompted him to flee, had already tried — and failed — to reach France via this wintry route.

So the Afghans advance carefully. They pause to listen for sounds in the frozen silence, to consult a map on Rezaie's phone before the chill kills its battery and to munch on jam-filled croissants they bought in the frontier village of Claviere in Italy. If caught by French guards patrolling the border on foot, ski-bikes and in vans, Italy is where they'll be forced to return.

The Taliban takeover and the swift collapse of Afghanistan's economy has sent people streaming illegally into neighboring Iran, which is often the first stepping stone for Afghans — including Rezaie — who push on into the European Union.

Rezaie, from Herat in western Afghanistan, says he traveled to Kabul in search of a flight but then doubled back after the suicide bomb and gun attack in the waning days of the airlift.

He emptied out his savings, borrowed money and left behind his printing company, friends and comfortable life.

Rezaie figures that crossing the French border will be easy, compared to all he's been through. But it's easier still for the European vacationers he suddenly encounters on a ski run that crosses his mountain path. They zoom past, paying him no heed, not having to worry about police patrols.

Feeling conspicuous on the manicured slope, Rezaie is struck by how sharply their carefree joy contrasts with his urgent need to get back in the camouflage of trees.

"Some people go down happy," he says, lungs heaving in the thin air. "Other people go up sad."

Rezaie is aiming for the fortified French town of Briancon. Sayed and Mortaza, cousins and both 16, passed through Briancon hours earlier. They, too, fled in the days after Kabul fell and traveled through Iran to Turkey. From there, they were smuggled aboard a cramped boat to Italy, a brutal six-day voyage that left them too weak to stand.

Caught at the French border, they were allowed to continue because they are minors. Seven adult Afghans they crossed with were sent back.

The Taliban takeover scattered Sayed's family. His father and older brother worked as police officers. They've fled, and Sayed thinks they're hiding in Pakistan. Without their salaries, Sayed and his mother had no income, so they left, too. She is staying with a sister in Iran. He's aiming for Germany.

"Maybe Dortmund, because I like Dortmund football club," he said. "We just want to escape."

Others who left long before the Taliban takeover say they no longer hope to return.

"It's finished for us now, for everyone who is in Europe," said Abdul Almazai, 26, who left Afghanistan as a teenager. Turned away at the French border with eight other Afghans, he planned to try again.

"We have crossed so many mountains," he said. "I have to make my future."

Aid workers worry that Afghans more accustomed to mountains and winter's perils are taking riskier routes through the snow than migrants from warmer climes.

"They are confident, and sometimes being confident is not helpful," said Luca Guglielmetto, a volunteer worker at a refuge on the Italian side that equips migrants with warm clothes and boots for the crossing.

After making it to Briancon, Rezaie sent a video of himself wading through snow to his mother and brother in Iran.

He has his sights set on Germany. But he hopes one day to go home.

"I had a car. I had a job, work." he said. "I had a good life."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

migrants, France, Italy, border
Over 80,000 Afghan migrants sought asylum in the European Union this year, a 96 percent increase from last year. Above, migrants headed to France from Italy walk past graffiti that reads "No One is Illegal" in a tunnel leading to the French-Italian border, Saturday, December 11. Daniel Cole/AP Photo