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Leaving Afghanistan Is Not Always The Best Solution For Migrants, Ghani Says


The exodus of migrants that descended on Europe this past year involved mostly Syrians fleeing a vicious civil war. The next largest group, though, were Afghans - a painful reminder of an earlier time after the 1979 Soviet invasion when millions fled that country. The current president, Ashraf Ghani, was himself caught outside his country. After the Taliban government fell, he was part of the mass return. We recently sat down with the First Lady of Afghanistan, Rula Ghani, who was at the embassy in Washington.

And we talked about why it is that people, many of them young men from Afghanistan's small middle class, needed - are fleeing when they're needed to rebuild the country.

RULA GHANI: The numbers I have seen is that last year, the number of Afghans who left the country was 180,000, which is, you know, for a country of 32 million people, is not such a huge number. There are quite a few. There are families. And their situation is really terrible and not easy at all. And some of them have lost some members of the family while crossing the waters. So I don't make light of the situation.

MONTAGNE: Having said that, it's a concern, though, in Afghanistan.

GHANI: It is a concern. And we have had people leave. Keep in mind that these people have to pay up to $10,000 per person. So those who are leaving are people who have some kind of access to resources to be able to afford paying the traffickers. And so it is a pity because these are people who have already some skills, who are working. They leave paying jobs. I'm not really quite sure whether the lure is a better life, whether it's the lack of security in Afghanistan or the perceived lack of security.

But it is slowly receding now because now we have had already some people who have come back, especially those who have lost loved ones. Often, it's children they've lost in the waters. It's really heartbreaking. And they come back to bury them. And they don't want to go again. They don't want to try again. So the stories are filtering back that the roads are not paved with gold. And this is not really the best solution. Leaving the country is not the best solution.

MONTAGNE: Still, though, it's enough talked about that a few weeks ago, your husband, President Ashraf Ghani, he inveighed against - especially those younger people, the ones that might be more educated, you know, leaving Afghanistan. And I'm quoting him. He said, "they break the social contract." But President Ghani left the country for college. He didn't come back for 30 years. So how would that be different? I mean, is there a different standard for the privileged that can come and go or leave for a long time and come back?

GHANI: No, not at all. It's true that my husband left for his education in Afghanistan. At the time, we were coming back. And everybody told us not to because all his family had been put in prison, all the male members of his family. So it was not a very conducive time for us to come back. But all his life, my husband studied how he could make better Afghanistan. And this is why now that the time has come and he can help his country, he's putting in 16-hour days to find ways of rebuilding this country.

And he's doing a very good job. So if he has no patience for people who decide that, well, OK, the grass is much greener on the other side of the fence, I can understand him.

MONTAGNE: There certainly, though, has been an effort. There was a social media campaign in Afghanistan with one image saying don't go. Stay with me. There might be no return. And through the door you see bodies on a beach, clearly people who have gone into the water. Has that worked?

GHANI: I'm not quite sure whether this had a particular effect. It might have. What I know is that, yes, people are no longer really rushing to leave because they've seen what's happened to other people who have left and have not really found solace at the end of the road.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

GHANI: You're welcome. It was a pleasure being with you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: That was Afghanistan's First Lady Rula Ghani speaking to us from Afghanistan's embassy in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.