By LEE KEATH and MSTYSLAV CHERNOV
HERAT, Afghanistan (AP) – On one final night, the bus waiting at Herat station filled with passengers over the course of an hour. Mostly young men, they had no luggage, just their clothes on their backs, maybe a bag of bread and water for the long way ahead.
This way leads you to Iran.
Every day, several buses rumble from the Afghan city of Herat in western Afghanistan, bringing hundreds of people to the border. There they get off, connect with their smugglers and wander for days, sometimes crammed together in pickups that rumble through wasteland, sometimes on foot through treacherous mountains in the dark to avoid guards and thieves.
In Iran, most of them stay there to look for work. But some hope to go further.
âWe will come to Europe,â says Haroun, a 20-year-old who is sitting on the bus next to his friend Fuad. There is no work back in her village. âWe have no choice, the economy here is a wreck. Even if it means our death on the way, we accept that. “
Desperate Afghans are pouring over the border into Iran. Since the Taliban came to power in mid-August, Afghanistan’s economic collapse has accelerated, robbing millions of jobs and being unable to support their families. In the past three months, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council, more than 300,000 people have entered Iran illegally, adding 4,000 to 5,000 every day.
The European Union is now preparing for a possible surge in Afghans trying to reach their shores at a time when EU states are determined to block themselves to migrants in general.
So far, an increase in Afghan migrants to Europe after the Taliban has not materialized. Afghan entries into the EU have “remained largely stable” according to a weekly EU migration report dated November 21. The report found that some Afghans who came to Italy from Turkey in November told authorities that they had fled their country after the Taliban came to power.
However, a significant proportion of migrants are likely to intend to stay in Iran, which is struggling to close its doors. It is already home to more than 3 million Afghans who have fled their homes in the past decades of unrest.
Iran is stepping up deportations and sending back 20,000 or 30,000 Afghans every week. This year, Iran deported more than 1.1 million Afghans on November 21, 30% more than all of 2020, according to the International Organization for Migration. The deported often try again.
In Afghanistan, the exodus emptied some of their husbands’ villages. In Jar-e Sawz, a village north of Herat visited by The Associated Press, an older man was the only man left after all the younger men.
A smuggler in Herat – a woman who has been in business for two decades – said that before the Taliban takeover, she transported 50 or 60 people a week into Iran, almost all of them single men. Since it was taken over in August, it has moved around 300 people a week, including women and children.
“The country is destroyed, so the people have to leave the country,” she said on the condition that she was not named because of her work. âI feel like I’m doing the right thing. If a poor person asks me, I can’t refuse. I ask God to help me, to help them. “
She charges the equivalent of almost $ 400 per person, but only about $ 16 upfront, and the rest is paid after the migrant finds a job. The pay later system is common in Herat, a sign that there are so many migrants out there that smugglers can take some risk that some will not be able to pay. On the way, smugglers hand out bribes to the Taliban and Pakistani and Iranian border guards to turn a blind eye, she said.
Everyone who goes gives the same reason.
“There is nothing here. There is no work and our families are starving,” said Naib, a 20-year-old who paused one night with a group of migrants in a desolate area within sight of the Iranian border outside Herat if it has to be. There is no other choice. “
Afghanistan was one of the poorest countries in the world even before the Taliban takeover, and the economy has deteriorated over the past year, made worse by the coronavirus pandemic and a punitive drought since late 2020.
When the Taliban came to power on August 15, the main artery of the Afghan economy – international donor funds – was severed. With the Taliban government unable to pay salaries, hundreds of thousands of state employees found themselves without a livelihood. With the funding of projects no longer available, many jobs disappeared from the labor market.
Farid Ahmed, a 22-year-old in Herat, went to a main square every day to be hired by contractors for a day’s work. Before that, he found work most days. “Now we wait all day and no one comes to hire us,” he said.
Last month he brought his wife and their two young daughters – aged 8 months and 2 years – over the border. He learned from a relative who was already there that a Tehran weaving mill had jobs for him and his wife.
The crossing was a nightmare, he said. They had to cross the border with several hundred other people in the dark for three hours. His daughters wept in the cold and darkness. When they arrived in Iran, the police caught them almost immediately and deported them.
Nothing has changed at home. He goes to the square every day but can’t find a job, he said. So he will try to take his family back with him. “After the winter,” he said. “It’s too cold now for the kids to cross.”
Herat, the third largest city in Afghanistan, is a major hub for Afghans from other parts of the country traveling to Iran.
The city is only about an hour’s drive from the Iranian border, but the border is too heavily patrolled here. Instead, migrants embark on a 300-mile (480-kilometer) journey south to Nimrooz, a remote region of deserts and mountains that is Afghanistan’s most sparsely populated province. Here the migrants end up in a corner of Pakistan, from where they can more easily slip into Iran.
It’s an arduous journey. Reza Rezaie, a resident of Herat, made the trip with his 17 year old son. The most shocking moment comes at the Iranian-Pakistani border, where migrants have to climb and descend the Moshkelghar, literally “difficult mountain”, on narrow paths along steep slopes.
âIt’s pitch black and for safety reasons you can’t turn on flashlights,â he recalls. On the way up, they walk single file, each holding the person’s scarf in front of them. Descending on the Iranian side, they crawl carefully down so that they do not fall from the edge. “If you fall, no one will help you because they will fall too,” he said.
At some point in Iran, he and others hid in the luggage compartment under a bus to avoid checkpoints. He worked on construction in Shiraz for a few weeks before he was caught in a police raid and expelled.
But he’s fearless. His father recently died so he will have to wait for the 40-day period of mourning to end. Then he will try again in Iran.
“What else can I do? There’s nothing here,” he said.
Associate press writers Abdul Qahar Afghan and Omid Haqqjou contributed to this report.