The Iran-Afghanistan border has been closed since Taliban overran Kabul in September. Since then thousands of activists, members of the media, ex-officials and ordinary citizens have fled the country by any means possible. Those without visas – and who didn’t secure a coveted seat on the international evacuation flights last month – have now largely resorted to the time-worn route of people-smuggling.
Human trafficking is booming in the country, and the costs for would-be customers have soared. The smugglers barely have to look for business anymore; for every Afghan citizen that changes their mind, ten more will be willing to take this dangerous path.
Unemployment, poverty, hunger and fear of the Taliban have overwhelmed day-to-day life in Afghanistan. As was predicted, women have paid the heaviest price. The city walls have been scrubbed of images of women, and an untold number have lost their jobs practically overnight. Whatever the Taliban says on paper, women’s formal socio-political activities have been stifled, even as they take to the streets to protest.
Under these bleak circumstances, people-smuggling as a route out of Afghanistan is on the rise. A new wave of Afghan emigration is not only being felt in neighboring countries, but in Europe as well. So far few of the affected nations have come up with a humane solution; the official response to this surge in new arrivals has often been violent, with Western countries tightening restrictions instead of helping to bring these desperate people to safety.
Firouz – not his real name – is a former media worker still trapped inside Afghanistan. Formerly employed by a private firm, he lost his job after the Taliban came to power and is now trying to find a way out. He told IranWire he’s already spoken to several smugglers.
“I worked for various media outlets in Herat for more than 10 years, but now I’m unemployed,” he said. “I’m going to leave Herat soon and go to Iran. The smuggler has said I have to wait until the Iranian border is clear so that I can reach my destination."
Zaranj, the capital of the border province of Nimrouz in southwestern Afghanistan, is one of the main crossings for human trafficking to Pakistan, and from there to Iran. The first challenge for would-be illegal migrants and asylum seekers, therefore, is getting to Zaranj once they have secured passage with a smuggler. Recently, some locals say, there seem to be more operating in the area than before.
"Before the fall of Afghanistan, the fare from Kabul to Zaranj was 1,300 Afghanis [US$14.50], but now it’s 1,600 afghanis [$17]," Mohammad Rafi, a taxi driver, told IranWire. "The more passengers there are, the higher the prices. People are being smuggled to Iran because of unemployment and fear of the Taliban."
Gholam Farouq is a human trafficker in Herat. He has been in the trade for five years. Contacted by IranWire under the guise of an Afghan citizen seeking an illegal trip to Iran, he said the trip would cost six million tomans ($222) and it would take four to 10 days to get to Iran. “There’s no guarantee,” he added, “and you might get killed. Hunger and thirst are standard. No-one can guarantee the smuggling route to Iran and I don’t give out the details to anyone. Let me know if your decision is final. I don’t have a lot of time. If you don’t come, there are dozens of others waiting.”
Earlier this month, Iranian Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi urged Afghan refugees to refrain from trying to cross the Iranian border. There was little chance the country would accept Afghan refugees, he said, and border police were currently instructed to push back would-be migrants.
Despite the warning, Mobin Ghaderi, Herat's director of immigration affairs, told IranWire that “hundreds” of Afghans were managing cross the border to Iran from Herat every day, including single women, children and adolescents.
Not all of them succeeded. Ramez Mohammadi is among the Afghans who were deported back to their home country on getting to Iran, but he says he’s undeterred. “Widespread poverty and hunger gives us no choice but to leave. I have to go to Iran and work so that I can feed my family of five. Of course, the smuggling route into Iran has become more dangerous than before, and Iranian border guards have increased their patrols along the border."
The world has failed to grasp the extent of poverty and hunger now gripping Afghanistan. For many, there is no option but to attempt the perilous route to Iran: even if it means being captured and sent back, over and over again, or at best, working cheaply and illegally under an unscrupulous Iranian employer. Obscured beneath the naked violence of the Taliban are countless hidden, indirect violences that are pushing the innocent people of this land to gamble with their lives.
This article was written by a citizen journalist in Afghanistan under a pseudonym.