By Rob Taylor and Mirwais Harooni
KABUL (Reuters) - In a brightly lit travel agency in a gloomy Kabul mall, business is booming for Naser Gulzad. But all he can think about is shutting up shop and following his customers out of Afghanistan.
Like many Afghans watching the exit of NATO-led troops and fearing a comeback by the Taliban or the country's notorious warlords, Gulzad wants desperately to join an exodus gathering pace ahead of what is expected to be a tumultuous 2014.
"People are really worried about their own future and the future of Afghanistan. I want to leave as soon as I can," the quiet 25-year-old says, stroking a thin beard.
"NATO soldiers are leaving, there will be elections, a new president, maybe the Taliban. People are ready to do whatever they can to seek asylum in Europe or other countries like Australia, the United States, Canada," Gulzad says.
These days, most of his work is as a coordinator for shadowy people traffickers based largely in neighboring Pakistan and employing Afghan middlemen to aid their business. Demand to leave is so strong that prices of "packages" paid by Afghans to seek asylum elsewhere are soaring.
For those that have the money, a package might mean a new identity, a visa and flight to a new life, while for lesser sums it could secure a flight to a third country and a risky asylum journey by boat or land at the other end.
Gulzad does not see his work as illegal. He arranges tickets, as well as pointing people to others able to provide fake identity documents, invitation letters and even passports, to either underpin asylum bids or secure precious visas.
While he does not set the prices, and takes only a cut of money paid to traffickers who send work his way, Gulzad says that as the difficulty of getting people through foreign borders has increased, so has the cost.
A few years ago, people were asked to pay $16,000 to secure passage to Europe. That has now risen to about $25,000, a huge amount in a country where many live on only a few dollars a day.
For countries like Canada, where there are opportunities for education to build a better life, the price has shot up by almost half, from $35,000 to as much as $50,000. The United States is generally seen as too difficult an option to pursue.
"Every day, 10 to 20 people are coming to our office and asking for a visa to leave, to go, to Europe, to anywhere," says Gulzad. "Five years ago no one wanted to leave. If they had money they were investing here. But now Afghans with any money are not ready to invest even $1,000."
Racked by decades of conflict, first against occupiers from the Soviet Union and then among Afghan warlords before the Taliban arrived in 1996, Afghanistan is already the world's top source of refugees, with 2.6 million by the close of 2012, according to the United Nations.
That number is on the rise, as NATO's departure deadline draws nearer and U.S.-Afghan talks stall over the size and role of a U.S. troop presence beyond 2014.
"NOT GETTING BETTER"
With Western countries swamped with visa applications, Afghans are opting to seek asylum, helping drive the number of displaced people globally last year to a 20-year high of 45 million, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Almost 37,000 left last year, the highest level since 2001, and outstripping the number returning. The rich buy property in Dubai, but changes last year to legislation making it easier for foreigners to buy property in Turkey have made that country an attractive destination for Kabul's middle class.
Much of the high cost, Gulzad says, goes to Afghans working in major Western embassies who are able to issue under-the-counter visas, although foreign diplomats scoff at the possibility of that happening given strict controls in place.
Western countries have "tight controls in place to prevent fraud in the issuing of visas", says David Lewis, Australia's deputy head of mission in Kabul.
People are warned they get no refund if their visa is refused, Gulzad says, although many take the risk.
The package cost is lower for people willing to get on boats after travelling to another country, and then risking final passage as an asylum seeker after waiting two or three months. People travelling to Australia that way would usually go first to India or Malaysia, and then Indonesia.
"That route carries a 60 percent risk of death at sea or capture. We cannot get people there by air," Gulzad says.
Australia's government this month introduced draconian laws that will see all asylum seekers settled in poverty-stricken Papua New Guinea, rather than on Australian soil.
People with more money pay higher sums to get legal visas - often using a false identity - and fly direct, with the highest chances of success in Turkey and Germany, Gulzad says. Canada is also possible, and is usually done from Pakistan using fake ID.
Hedayat Malang, 25, has already paid thousands of dollars saved working for NATO as a translator and hopes to get to Europe. He says while countries like Australia have tightened border controls, nothing could be worse than life in Afghanistan.
A decade of Western intervention and $90 billion spent in reconstruction money and aid to the Afghan government has not changed deep ethnic divisions that fuelled the civil war and fear of future oppression, he says.
"It's not just the Taliban," says Malang. "The sons and daughters of the warlords are back. We thought warlordism had gone away when NATO came. But the new generation is bullying us, shooting us or stealing our land. It's not getting better."
Political instability is expected to increase in the run-up to an election in April next year to find a successor to President Hamid Karzai.
A Germany-based middleman said on condition of anonymity that he would prepare and send invitation letters to Afghanistan by courier, charging 2,100 euros ($2,773) for a document backing visa applications for Romania, Italy or Germany.
"We receive half of the money in advance. It is our profession here in Germany. There is no guarantee if we make the invitation and you reject it," the contact said in an email.
Efforts to get peace talks going, which saw the Taliban open a political office in the Gulf state of Qatar, seem to have done nothing to reassure people.
"(Afghans) don't trust the government or its international backers," said Gulzad. "They don't think too much about how to go and what might happen. They just want asylum, they just want to leave, at any cost."
(Editing by Ron Popeski)