More than a million Afghans flee as economy collapses

ZARANJ, Afghanistan — From their hiding place in the desert ravine, the migrants could barely make out the white lights of the Iranian border shining on the horizon.

The air was cold and their breath heavy. Many had spent the rest of their savings on food weeks before and hoarded money from relatives, hoping to escape Afghanistan’s economic collapse. Now, looking at the border, they saw a lifeline: work, money, food to eat.

“There’s no other option for me, I can’t go back,” said Najaf Akhlaqi, 26, as she watched smugglers scour the moonlit landscape for Taliban patrols. Then he jumped to his feet when the smugglers barked for the group to run away.

Since the United States withdrew its troops and the Taliban took over, Afghanistan has plunged into an economic crisis that has pushed millions of people already living hand to mouth. Incomes disappeared, life-threatening hunger became widespread and much-needed aid was blocked by Western sanctions against Taliban officials.

More than half the population faces “extreme levels” of hunger, United Nations secretary-general António Guterres said last month. “For Afghans, daily life has become a frozen hell,” he added.

Now with no immediate relief in sight, hundreds of thousands of people have fled to neighboring countries.

From October to the end of January, more than a million Afghans in southwestern Afghanistan alone took one of the two main migration routes to Iran, according to migration researchers. Humanitarian organizations estimate that around 4,000 to 5,000 people enter Iran every day.

Although many are choosing to leave due to the immediate economic crisis, the prospect of long-term Taliban governance – including restrictions on women and fears of reprisals – has only added to their urgency.

“There is an exponential increase in the number of people leaving Afghanistan via this route, especially given how difficult this journey is during the winter months,” said David Mansfield, an Afghan migration researcher. According to his estimates, up to four times as many Afghans were leaving Afghanistan for Pakistan and then Iran each day in January compared to the same period last year.

The exodus has raised alarm bells across the region and across Europe, where politicians fear a repeat of the 2015 migrant crisis, when more than a million people, mostly Syrians, sought asylum in Europe, triggering a populist reaction. Many fear that this spring with rising temperatures and snowy roads become easier to cross, a deluge of Afghans could arrive at the borders of the European Union.

Determined to contain migrants in the region, the European Union pledged last fall to provide more than a billion dollars in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and neighboring countries hosting fleeing Afghans.

“We need new agreements and commitments in place to be able to aid and assist an extremely vulnerable civilian population,” Norway’s Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Store said in a statement at the UN Security Council meeting on Afghanistan last month. “We must do what we can to avoid a new migration crisis and another source of instability in the region and beyond.”

But Western donors are still grappling with complicated questions about how to meet their humanitarian obligations to ordinary Afghans without supporting the new Taliban government.

In recent months, Taliban officials have called on Western officials to loosen their grip on the economy, making promises on girls’ education and other conditions set by the international community for aid. As the humanitarian situation worsened, the United States also granted sanctions waivers and committed $308 million in aid last month, bringing total U.S. assistance to the country to $782 million since October this year. last.

But aid can only go so far in a country facing economic collapse, experts say. Unless Western donors act more quickly to loosen their grip on the economy and revive the financial system, Afghans desperate for work will likely continue to look abroad.

Crouching among the group of migrants in the desert, Mr. Akhlaqi braced himself for the desperate race ahead of him: a mile-long run over dirt trenches, a 15-foot-high border wall topped barbed wire and a vast expanse of scrubland exposed with Iranian security forces. In the past month he had crossed the border 19 times, he said. Each time, he was arrested and taken back to the other side of the border.

A police officer under the former government, Mr. Akhlaqi hid with relatives for fear of reprisals from the Taliban. As the small savings that supported his family dried up, he moved from town to town in search of a new job. But work was scarce. So, in early November, he teamed up with smugglers from Nimruz province who were determined to get to Iran.

“I’m afraid of the Iranian border guards,” he lamented. Still, he said, “I can’t stay here.”

Even before the Taliban takeover, Afghans accounted for the second highest number of asylum applications in Europe, after Syria, and one of the largest populations of refugees and asylum seekers in the world – around 3. million people – most of whom live in Iran and Pakistan.

Many fled through Nimruz, a remote corner of southwestern Afghanistan wedged between the borders of Iran and Pakistan that has served as a haven for smuggling for decades. In its capital, Zaranj, Afghans from across the country crowd into smuggler-run hotels that line the main road and gather around street vendors’ kebab stalls, swapping stories of the grueling journey ahead.

In a downtown car park known as “The Terminal”, men pile into the back of vans bound for Pakistan while young boys hawk goggles and water bottles. On a recent day, their selling points – “Who wants water?” — were nearly drowned out by the sound of car horns and the angry cries of merchants exchanging tattered Afghan banknotes for Iranian tomans.

Queuing to climb into the back of a pick-up truck, Abdul, 25, had arrived the day before from Kunduz, a commercial hub in northern Afghanistan that was ravaged by fighting last summer during of the Taliban’s lightning offensive. As the mortar rounds engulfed the city, its business came to a standstill. After the takeover, his store was empty as people saved what little money they had for basics like food and medicine.

Over the months, Abdul borrowed money to feed his own family, going deeper and deeper into debt. Eventually, he decided that going to Iran was his only option.

“I don’t want to leave my country, but I have no other choice,” said Abdul, who asked that the Times use only his first name, fearing his family would face retaliation. “If the economic situation continues like this, there will be no future here.”

As the economic crisis deepened, local Taliban officials sought to cash in on the exodus by regulating the lucrative contraband trade. At the terminal, a Taliban official sitting in a small silver car collects a new tax – 1,000 Afghans, or about $10 – on every car heading for Pakistan.

At first, Taliban officials also taxed the city’s other main migrant route, a journey escorted by smugglers through the desert and the border wall directly to Iran. But after accusing a smuggler in September of raping a girl, the Taliban backtracked, cracking down on this desert road.

Yet these efforts have done little to deter the smugglers.

Speeding across a deserted road around midnight, a smuggler, S., who preferred to use only his first initial due to the illegal nature of his work, played Arabic pop music on his stereo. A music video featuring a swinging woman in a tight black dress played on the car’s navigation screen. As he approached his hideout, he switched off the taillights to avoid being followed.

Moving people every night requires a delicate dance: First, he strikes a deal with a low-ranking Iranian border guard to allow a number of migrants to cross. Then he tells the other smugglers to get the migrants from their hotel to a safe house in the desert and coordinates with his business partner to meet the group across the border. Once the sun goes down, he and others drive for hours, scouring the area for Taliban patrols and – once the road is clear – taking migrants from the shelter to the border.

We don’t have a house, our house is our car, driving all night near the border — one day my wife will kick me out of my house,” S. said with a laugh.

Crossing the border is only the first hurdle Afghans have to overcome. Since the takeover, Pakistan and Iran have stepped up deportations, warning that their fragile economies cannot handle an influx of migrants and refugees.

In the last five months of 2021, more than 500,000 people who entered these countries illegally were deported or voluntarily returned to Afghanistan, likely fearing deportation, according to the UN’s International Organization for Migration.

Sitting on the tattered blue carpet of a hotel was 35-year-old Negar, who goes by only one name. She had scaled the Iranian border wall with her six children two nights before desperately trying to start a new life in Iran. For months, she had been building on her family’s meager savings, buying little more than bread and firewood to survive. When that money ran out, she sold her only goat to make the trip here.

But once it hit Iranian soil, a pack of border guards descended on the group of migrants and fired shots in the pre-dawn darkness. Lying on the ground, Negar called her children and had a horrifying realization: her two youngest sons were missing.

After two agonizing days, smugglers in Iran tracked down her sons and returned them to Zaranj. But shaken by losing them, she didn’t know if she should try to cross again.

“I’m worried,” she said. “What if I can never get to Iran? »

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