It is a treacherous journey of thousands of kilometers through arid deserts, rugged mountains, rivers, armed checkpoints, razor wire and several meter high concrete walls. But for Afghans fleeing the Taliban, this inhospitable route – through Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and the Balkans – is the path, they believe, to freedom.
EU leaves Afghan refugees in the hands of Iran and Pakistan in exchange for aid
After the fall of Kabul to the Taliban this month, after weeks of a rapid succession of victories across the country, the instinct of many Afghans has been to escape in any way possible.
Some worked for the previous government or for US or NATO forces and believe it would only be a matter of time before the taliban start chasing them. Others fear that the Taliban will impose the same harsh interpretation of the sharia law than before, and confine women in their homes, target minorities and carry out public executions. There is also growing concern that Afghanistan is heading for a humanitarian crisis, with food shortage, droughts and no money in the banks.
But the message from all of Afghanistan’s neighboring countries and much of Europe, which is where most want to go, has been that Afghan refugees are not welcome. Pakistan has almost completed a wall on its porous border with Afghanistan, Turkey has built a 150-kilometer wall on its border with Iran and Greece has also built a border wall. “Our country will not be the gateway to Europe for illegal Afghan migrants,” said Greek migration minister Notis Mitarachi.
Yet the Afghans insist. Since the withdrawal of US troops in May, the UN immigration agency has reported a 40% increase in crossings to Pakistan, which is usually the first stage of the journey. Local organizations in Afghanistan expect a mass exodus to begin in the coming weeks, as more and more desperate Afghans risk trying to reach Europe, paying large sums of money to human smugglers.
Astrid Sletten, the National Director for Afghanistan at the Norwegian Refugee Council, says that the chaos of crowds at Kabul airport in the last two weeks, with thousands of Afghans – many of them without passports or papers – clamoring to get on evacuation flights, they were an indicator of the “level of desperation to leave”.
“I anticipate this will be a humanitarian catastrophe, and when that happens, people will flee,” Sletten said. “And when people despair like this, borders with Iran and Pakistan will mean nothing. ”
The most frequent route
The most frequent illegal land route for people smuggling is known as the golden crescent, which is also used for drug trafficking. Afghans are led through the deserts of Nimruz province to cross the border into Pakistan’s Balochistan region.
From there they go south, then cross into Iran from towns like Mashkel, traveling through the mountainous and hostile terrain between the two countries. There are multiple entry points into Iran, but all lead to Iranshah, where the refugees undertake an arduous 2,200-kilometer journey through the country and are dropped off near the border with the Van region in Turkey.
Two human smugglers have confirmed to The Guardian that there was a sharp increase in demand. “We have seen an explosion in human trafficking since the taliban they seized power, “said one of them.” Before, at least 50 vehicles were transporting refugees to Pakistan from Nimruz province. But now at least 150 vehicles or more enter Pakistan via the golden crescent route. ”
Despite promises by the Pakistani government to keep refugees away, some have managed to enter through the Spin Boldak-Chaman border crossing, which they have left open for those traveling as patients or visiting relatives, and is crossed by 6,000 people per day .
Crossings to Pakistan
About 10,000 people from Afghanistan’s Shia Hazara minority community, whose members have recently been tortured and killed by the Taliban, have crossed into Pakistan in recent days according to Raza Royesh, a Hazara activist. Most now live in mosques, wedding halls and relatives’ houses in the city of Quetta, and many are contemplating trying to reach Europe.
Another smuggler has claimed that Pakistan’s efforts to fence its border with Afghanistan have done little to stop illegal crossings, which are often done on foot. “It is impossible to enclose mountains and deserts,” he says. “We have people at all access points to receive the refugees and take them to their next destination.”
A more treacherous route for Afghan refugees crosses directly into Iran from Nimruz and Herat provinces. But it is heavily guarded and much more dangerous; in May, Iran’s border guards were charged with drowning 50 Afghan refugees. Iran has been accused in recent days of collaborating with the Taliban to stem the flow of Afghans trying to enter the country, capturing dozens and deporting them back to Afghanistan.
The wall of Turkey
Turkey, long seen as the point of entry into Europe, has also embarked on a violent crackdown on Afghan refugees trying to cross from Iran. The country already hosts 4 million Syrian refugees and the anti-refugee mood is palpable. Afghans who have reached the recently built three-meter-high cement border wall are being violently detained and pushed back to Iran.
“In the last two months there has been a huge media campaign against Afghan refugees in Turkey, calling on the government to detain them. So now the government has sent many forces to the border with Iran, and even those who have already managed to enter. to Turkey they are being captured and sent back to the Iranian side, “says Ali Hekmat, coordinator of the Association for Solidarity with Afghan Refugees in Turkey. “Even the Afghan refugees in Istanbul are being detained and deported. It is very difficult to cross now.”
Richer migrants arriving in Turkey may choose to embark on a sailboat from a Turkish town west of Izmir to the eastern coasts of Sicily and Puglia, but the cost can exceed 8,000 euros per passenger.
The difficult passage to Greece
With the completion of a great wall and the strengthening of border resources in Greece, the only option for most Afghan refugees is the Balkan route, one of the most dangerous and hardest crossings to Europe. It takes them through Bulgaria, then North Macedonia or Serbia, then Bosnia, Croatia and Slovenia, from where they can finally reach Italy or Austria.
It is a journey that can take months and is plagued by freezing temperatures and illegal repression by the border police in Croatia, who in recent years have been accused of beating, torturing and even sexually abusing migrants.
“Afghans are currently the second most present nationality on the Balkan route,” said Laura Lungarotti, the head of the UN migration agency mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina and coordinator for the Western Balkans. “After what is happening in Kabul, we expect the numbers to grow in the coming weeks and months.”
Translation by Ignacio Rial-Schies