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Thousands of Afghans cross borders every day, “even if it means our death”


Over the course of an hour one recent night, the bus waiting in Herat station filled with passengers. Most of the young men had no luggage, just clothes on their backs, perhaps a bag with bread and water for the long road ahead.

This road takes them to Iran.

Every day, several buses leave the town of Herat in western Afghanistan, carrying hundreds of people to the border. There they disembark, connect with their smugglers, and walk for days, sometimes crammed into vans bumping through wasteland, sometimes walking through dangerous mountains in the dark, eluding guards and thieves.

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Afghans sit on a bus in Herat, Afghanistan on Tuesday, November 23, 2021, on a 300 mile journey south to Nimrooz, near the Iranian border.
(AP Photo / Petros Giannakouris)

Once in Iran, most will stay there to look for work. But a few hope to go further.

“We are going to go to Europe,” said Haroun, a 20-year-old sitting on the bus next to his friend Fuad. Back in their village, there is no work. “We have no choice, the economy here is a wreck. Even if it means our death along the way, we accept it.”

Afghans are crossing the Iranian border in increasing numbers, driven by desperation. Since the Taliban took power in mid-August, Afghanistan’s economic collapse has accelerated, depriving millions of jobs and leaving them unable to support their families. In the past three months, more than 300,000 people have entered Iran illegally, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council, with more arriving at the rate of 4,000 to 5,000 a day.

The European Union is now bracing for a potential increase in the number of Afghans trying to reach its shores at a time when EU countries are determined to protect themselves from migrants in general.

So far, a post-Taliban wave of Afghan migrants to Europe has not materialized. Afghan entries into the EU have “remained mostly stable,” according to a weekly EU migration report of 21 November. The report notes that some Afghans who arrived in Italy from Turkey in November told authorities they fled their country after the Taliban took control.

But a significant part of the migrants probably intend to stay in Iran, which is struggling to close its doors. It already hosts more than 3 million Afghans who have fled their homeland during the past decades of unrest.

Iran is stepping up deportations, returning 20,000 or 30,000 Afghans every week. This year, Iran has deported more than 1.1 million Afghans as of November 21, 30% more than the total for all of 2020, according to the International Organization for Migration. The deportees often try again, again and again.

In Afghanistan, the exodus emptied some villages of their men. In Jar-e Sawz, a village north of Herat visited by the Associated Press, an elderly man was the only man left after all the younger men left.

A smuggler in Herat – a woman who has been in the business for two decades – said that before the Taliban takeover, she was transporting 50 or 60 people a week to Iran, almost all single men. Since the August takeover, it has moved around 300 people per week, including women and children.

“The country is destroyed so people have to leave,” she said, speaking on condition that she was not named because of her job. “I feel like I’m doing the right thing. If a poor person asks me to, I can’t refuse it. I ask God to help me help him.”

She charges the equivalent of almost $ 400 per person, but only about $ 16 up front, with the rest paid once the migrant has found work. The late payment system is common in Herat, a sign that there are so many migrants that smugglers can accept some risk that some may not be able to pay. Along the way, smugglers pay bribes to Taliban, Pakistani and Iranian border guards to turn a blind eye, she said.

Everyone goes there gives the same reason.

“There is nothing here. There is no work and our families are hungry,” said Naib, a 20-year-old who paused with a group of migrants one night in a desolate area in sight. from the Iranian border outside of Herat. “We’ll crawl if we have to. There is no other choice.”

Afghanistan was already one of the poorest countries in the world before the Taliban takeover, and the economy deteriorated last year, made worse by the coronavirus pandemic and a punitive drought since late 2020.

When the Taliban came to power on August 15, the main artery that keeps the Afghan economy alive – funds from international donors – was cut. With the Taliban government unable to pay salaries, hundreds of thousands of state employees were left without means of subsistence. The funding of projects having disappeared, many jobs disappeared from the labor market.

Thousands of Afghans cross borders every day, “even if it means our death”

Taliban authorities check passports at Islam Qala’s Afghanistan-Iran border post on Wednesday, November 24, 2021.
(AP Photo / Petros Giannakouris)

Farid Ahmed, 22 years old from Hérat, went to a main square every day to be hired by building contractors for a day’s work. Previously, he found work almost every day. “Now we wait all day and no one is coming to hire us,” he said.

So last month he took his wife and their two young daughters – aged 8 months and 2 years – across the border. From a relative already there, he learned that a Tehran weaving factory had jobs for him and his wife.

The crossing was a nightmare, he said. They had to walk for three hours in the dark with several hundred other people across the border. In the cold and the dark, her daughters were crying. Once in Iran, they were almost immediately arrested by the police and deported.

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Back home, nothing has changed. He goes to the square every day but can’t find a job, he says. He will therefore try to take back his family. “After winter,” he said. “It’s too cold now for the kids to cross.

Herat, Afghanistan’s third largest city, is a main hub for Afghans from other parts of the country heading to Iran.

The city is only about an hour’s drive from the Iranian border, but the border is too heavily guarded here. Instead, the migrants embark on a 300-mile (480-kilometer) journey south of Nimrooz, a remote region of deserts and mountains that is Afghanistan’s least populated province. Here, migrants pass through a corner of Pakistan, from where they can more easily squeeze into Iran.

It’s a tough journey. Reza Rezaie, a resident of Herat, made the trip with his 17-year-old son. The most painful moment comes at the Iranian-Pakistani border, where migrants have to climb and descend Moshkelghar, literally “difficult mountain”, on narrow paths along steep drops.

Thousands of Afghans cross borders every day, “even if it means our death”

Two Afghan men pray at a bus station in Herat, Afghanistan on Tuesday, November 23, 2021, before boarding a bus for a 300-mile trip south of Nimrooz, near the Iranian border.
(AP Photo / Petros Giannakouris)

“It’s pitch black and you can’t turn on flashlights for safety reasons,” he recalls. On the way up, they walk in single file, each holding the scarf of the person in front of them. Descending from the Iranian side, they crawl carefully so as not to fall off the edge. “If you fall, no one will help you because they too will fall,” he said.

At one point in Iran, he and others hid in the luggage compartment under a bus to bypass checkpoints. He worked for a few weeks in construction in Shiraz before being caught in a police raid and deported.

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But he is fearless. His father recently passed away, so he must wait until the 40 day mourning period is over. Then he will try Iran again.

“What else can I do? Here there is nothing,” he said.

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