Desperate Afghans try to cross into Iran
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Afghans are streaming across the border into Iran in accelerating numbers, driven by desperation.
Since the Taliban takeover in mid-August, the country’s economic collapse has accelerated, robbing millions of work and leaving them too poor to feed their families.
In the past three months, more than 300,000 people have crossed illegally into Iran, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council, and more are coming at the rate of 4,000 to 5,000 a day.
"There is nothing here; there is no work," said Naib, a 20-year-old who was pausing with a group of fellow migrants one night in a desolate area within sight of the Iranian border outside Herat.
At night he and his brothers accompanied by a smuggler will crawl across the heavily guarded border to Iran.
One smuggler in Herat, a woman involved in the business for two decades, said that before the Taliban, she was transporting 50 or 60 people a week into Iran, almost all single men.
Since the August takeover, she moves around 300 people a week, including women and children.
She charges the equivalent of almost $400 per person, but only about $16 up front, with the rest paid after the migrant finds work. The pay-later system is common in Herat, a sign that there are so many migrants, smugglers can accept some risk that some will be unable to pay.
Over the course of an hour, the overnight bus waiting in the Herat station filled up with passengers. Mostly young men, they had no luggage, just the clothes on their backs and a bag with some bread and water for the long road ahead of them.
From Herat, they embark on a 300-mile trip south to Nimrooz, a remote region of deserts and mountains that is Afghanistan’s most sparsely populated province. Here, the migrants cross into a corner of Pakistan, from which they can more easily slip into Iran.
Every day, multiple buses rumble out of Afghanistan’s western city of Herat, carrying hundreds of people to the border. There they disembark, connect with their smugglers and trek for days, sometimes crammed into pickup trucks bumping through wastelands, sometimes on foot through treacherous mountains in the darkness, eluding guards and thieves.
Once in Iran, most will stay there to find work. But a few hope to go further to Turkey and Europe.
Afghanistan was already one of the poorest countries in the world, and the economy has been deteriorating the past year, worsened by the coronavirus pandemic and a punishing drought since late 2020.
When the Taliban came to power on Aug. 15, the main artery keeping Afghanistan’s economy alive international donor funds was cut off. With the Taliban government unable to pay salaries, hundreds of thousands of state employees found themselves with no livelihoods. With funding for projects gone, many jobs vanished, and the impact rippled across the labour market.
The European Union is now bracing for a potential swell in Afghans trying to reach its shores at a time when EU nations are determined to lock down against migrants in general.
So far, a post-Taliban surge of Afghan migrants to Europe hasn’t materialized. But a significant portion of those coming likely intend to stay in Iran, which is struggling to shut its doors.
Iran is stepping up deportations, sending 20,000 or 30,000 Afghans back every week. This year, Iran deported more than 1.1 million Afghans as of Nov. 21 – 30% higher than the total in all of 2020, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Those deported often try again, over and over.