What drives an Afghan teenager to make the perilous crossing to Iran for work? In interviews for IranWire, four teenagers recounted the dangers of putting their lives in the hands of people smugglers. They ranged in age from just 14 years old to 17 years old.
“If there is work in Afghanistan, why bother?” said 17-year-old Mohammad Shah. “At the border there is death, there is wounding, there is thirst and hunger. All sorts of dangers. Why not be here in our own country? Why not work here?”
According to the World Bank, each year more than 400,000 Afghans enter the labor market in Afghanistan and there is not enough work to meet demand: more than one-fifth of its adult population is aged between 15 and 24, while youth unemployment is at 28 percent.
All the teenagers who spoke to IranWire faced hardship at home: 55 percent of Afghans live in poverty and nearly 70 percent of the working-age population are illiterate. Mohammad’s father is a farmer. His crop yield declined dramatically after a drought and Mohammad’s older brothers were unable to provide for their families. So Mohammad agreed to pay a smuggler 1.6 million tomans (USD$1,300) to travel to Iran and find work.
“The vast majority of Afghans traveling by this method have no awareness of the inherent dangers,” said a spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration in Afghanistan (IOM). “And many believe this is more of a service like a travel agent than an illegal or dangerous practice which can put them at significant personal risk.”
In many cases these smugglers are actually traffickers, or become traffickers, exploiting young people wanting to travel to Iran by taking them to places they hadn’t agreed to go to, turning them over to the authorities after taking their money, or handing them over to employers who take advantage of their situation and vulnerability.
One in three Afghans has migrated or been displaced in the past six years, according to a Displacement Tracking Matrix report published by the IOM.
Poor Treatment, Lies and the Taliban
The journey to Iran is an arduous and dangerous trek. Eslamoddin, 17, started the 12-day journey from Nimruz, which has is known locally as a human trafficking hub. After walking for five hours, traffickers handed him over to the Taliban. They hiked for another nine hours from Moshkel mountain and were then transported in a car, which crashed after hitting a pothole.
“Three people were thrown out of the car. Two died and one was injured. The trafficker left the dead bodies where they were,” he says.
Reza remembers passing out from thirst, at the age of 16, when traffickers took him across the Moshkel mountain border. He described them as cruel and inhumane: insults and threats were common, as well as assault.
"The traffickers lied to us because they said they would take us through the Rabatak path, but they took us through the Moshkel mountain, which was a very difficult and dangerous path. [One of the traffickers] said, ‘Don't talk or else I'll leave you here.’ I was scared and said nothing. Because there was no other way, I had to keep going. If he had left me there, I would not have known what to do."
Reza saw an old man fall from the mountain. The traffickers did not allow anyone to help him and were told to continue their journey: "There was no way to bring him back. His body stayed there. God bless him."
A "Miserable" Attempt to Stop Trafficking
In September 2019, the UN launched its Global Action to Prevent and Address Trafficking in Persons and the Smuggling of Migrants in Afghanistan. Its goal is to protect victims and vulnerable migrants, “closing the impunity gap” for traffickers and smugglers. The project also aims to improve investigations and prosecutions, making it easier to identify and target illicit financial flows. The teenagers who spoke to IranWire not only had to pay between 1.5m-1.7m tomans (USD$3,600-USD$4,000) to smugglers or traffickers, border guards also had to be bribed along the way. One teenager told IranWire that the Taliban demanded between 15,000-30,000 tomans (USD$4-USD$7) from each individual in addition [$1.25 - $2.50].
In 2017, the government of Afghanistan passed a law criminalizing sex trafficking and labor trafficking, carrying a sentence of between five and eight years’ imprisonment. A new criminal code in 2018 introduced a penalty of 10 to 16 years’ imprisonment if the victim was a woman or child. In its report on people trafficking in summer 2019, the US State Department reported that the Afghan government had not fully met minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking despite significant efforts. It singled out a failure to prosecute officials who were complicit with traffickers. A migration expert in Afghanistan who spoke to IranWire was highly critical of the government’s efforts to crack down on trafficking, describing its record as “miserable.”
The teenagers who talked to IranWire also faced dangers once they reached the border with Iran. All of them reported incidents where the Iranian border guards had fired at them. Mohammad Shah described how 400 migrants were arrested and taken to the desert after arriving near a checkpoint in Kerman. “An Iranian soldier came and shot from above … the bullets were shot without even thinking. They shot right in front of our feet. Twenty of us ran and escaped. Everyone was thinking about saving his life.”
Human rights activist Seyed Ashraf Sadat told IranWire: “The Iranian government has never looked upon Afghan citizens with respect. The shootings should stop.”
All the teenagers face an uncertain future. Mohammad Shah went home after a year. Reza has been working in construction in Tehran since he arrived three years ago. Eslamoddin was arrested soon after his arrival and deported.
“I can’t go home,” he says, “And if I do, they would say you have not brought any money. My dad is old and can’t work and has pain in his legs. My three big brothers work on the farm.”
The US State Department has reported that Afghans returning from Pakistan and Iran may be vulnerable to labor and sex trafficking. Traffickers have specifically targeted unassisted returnees in Herat, Nangarhar, Badakhshan and Nimruz provinces for forced labor in agriculture, brick kilns and carpet weaving.
With few prospects of employment, it is not surprising that Iran remains an attractive option for young Afghans. One teenager told IranWire that Iran was the land of his dreams: all the boys and men he knew had traveled to work there and sent money home. And it was now his turn to do the same. The journey to Iran, however dangerous, almost appears to have become a rite of passage - if not a necessity.
This article was based on a series of interviews conducted by citizen journalists for IranWire. The names of the Afghan teenagers have been changed to protect their identities, as many of them said they feared retribution for talking to the media.