More than a million Afghans fled as the economy collapsed

ZARANJ, Afghanistan – From their hiding place in the desert ravines, the migrants could only see the white light of the Iranian border shining on the horizon.

The air was cold and their breathing heavy. Many had spent the last of their savings buying food for weeks before and pooling cash from relatives, in the hope of escaping Afghanistan’s economic collapse. Now, looking to 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, staring at smugglers scouring the moonlight landscape to patrol the Taliban. He then jumped to his feet when the smugglers barked at the group to flee.

Since the United States withdrew its troops and the Taliban took power, Afghanistan has been plunged into an economic crisis that has brought millions of already living people to the brink. Incomes have disappeared, life-threatening hunger is widespread, and much-needed aid has been stymied by Western sanctions on Taliban officials.

António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, said more than half of the population was facing “extreme” hunger last month. He added: “For Afghans, everyday life has become an icy hell.

Now with no immediate respite in sight, hundreds of thousands of people have had to flee to neighboring countries.

According to migration researchers, from October to the end of January, more than a million Afghans in southwestern Afghanistan began one of two main migration routes into Iran. Estimated Aid Organization about 4,000 to 5.000 people are going into Iran every day.

Although many are choosing to leave because of the immediate economic crisis, the prospect of long-term Taliban rule – including restrictions on women and fear of retribution – only adds to their level. cypress.

“The number of people leaving Afghanistan via this route has grown exponentially, especially given how challenging this journey has been over the months,” said David Mansfield, a researcher who tracks Afghan migration. winter”. According to his estimates, four times more Afghans are leaving Afghanistan for Pakistan and then Iran each day in January than at the same time last year.

The exodus has raised alarm across the region and in Europe, where politicians fear a repeat of the 2015 migration crisis, when more than a million people, mostly Syrians, sought asylum in the country. Europe, sparking a populist backlash. Many people fear that this spring when the temperatures soar and the roads are covered with snow becomes easier to traverse, a wave of Afghans could reach the borders of the European Union.

Identified to prevent migrants in the area, The European Union last fall committed more than 1 billion dollars in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and neighboring countries receiving Afghans who have fled.

“We need new agreements and commitments to be able to support and help an extremely vulnerable population,” said Jonas Gahr Store, prime minister of Norway. in a statement at the United Nations Security Council meeting on Afghanistan last month. “We must do what we can to avoid another migration crisis and another source of instability in the region and beyond.”

But Western donors are still grappling with complex 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 release their stranglehold on the economy, making some promises about girls’ education and other conditions imposed by the government. The international community sets out for support. When the humanitarian situation worsensThe US also issued some waivers to sanctions and pledged $308 million in aid last month – bringing the total amount of US aid to the country to $782 million since October 2018. last.

However, experts say aid can only go so far in a country facing an economic downturn. Unless Western donors move faster to release their stranglehold on the economy and revive the financial system, job-hungry Afghans are likely to continue to look abroad. .

Crouched in the midst of a caravan of migrants in the desert, Akhlaqi has trained himself for the desperate plunge ahead: A mile-long scramble over trenches, a 15-foot-high border wall with a barbed wire fence and a vast expanse of land. with Iranian security forces. In the past month, he said, he crossed the border 19 times. Each time, he was arrested and returned across the border.

Mr. Akhlaqi, a police officer under the former government, hid in a relative’s home for fear of Taliban revenge. When the meager savings to support his family ran out, he moved from city to city to find a new job. But work is scarce. So in early November, he linked up with smugglers in Nimruz province to resolve to go to Iran.

He lamented: “I am afraid of the Iranian border guards. However, he said, “I can’t stay here.”

Even before the Taliban took over, Afghans made up the second-highest number of them request asylum in Europe, after Syria and one of the countries with the largest population in the world refugees and asylum seekers – about 3 million people – most live in Iran and Pakistan.

Many fled through Nimruz, a remote corner of southwestern Afghanistan that straddles the Iran-Pakistan border that has been a smuggling haven for decades. In the capital Zaranj, Afghans from all over the country flock to smuggler-run hotels along the main road and gather around hawkers’ barbecue stalls, exchanging stories of their journeys. hardship ahead.

In a town center parking lot known as “The Terminal,” men piled into the back of pickup trucks bound for Pakistan while young men wore sunglasses and water bottles. . On a recent day, their sales pitch – “Who wants a drink?” – almost muffled by the honking of car horns and the angry screams of men bargaining for tattered Afghan banknotes for Iranian tomans.

Queuing to climb into the back of a pickup truck, Abdul, 25, had arrived a day earlier from Kunduz, a mall in northern Afghanistan that was hit by heavy fighting last summer during Taliban blitzkrieg. As mortars engulfed the city, his business came to a halt. After he was taken over, his shop was empty as people saved the little money they had for basic things like food and medicine.

Months passed, and Abdul borrowed money to support his family, sinking deeper and deeper into debt. In the end, 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 The Times to use only his first name for fear that his family might face a crisis. revenge. “If the economic situation continues like this, there is no future here.”

As the economic crisis worsened, local Taliban officials sought to profit by regulating the lucrative smuggling business. At the Station, a Taliban official sat in a small silver car collecting a new tax – 1,000 Afghans, or about $10 – from each car arriving in Pakistan.

At first, Taliban officials also taxed the city’s other main migration route, a journey escorted by smugglers across the desert and across the border wall straight into Iran. But after allegations in September that a smuggler raped a girl, the Taliban reversed course, wreaking havoc on the desert route.

However, such efforts have not done much to stop smugglers.

Speeding through a desert road around midnight, a smuggler, S., who preferred to only get his first license because of the illegal nature of his job, blasted Arabic pop music from the orchestra. his floating bar. A music video showing a woman swinging in a tight black dress played on the car’s navigation screen. As he approached his safe house, he cut off the rear lights to avoid being tracked.

Moving people every night required a delicate dance: First, he struck a deal with a low-ranking Iranian border guard to allow a certain number of migrants to cross the border. He then told other smugglers to take the migrants from their hotel to a safe house in the desert and coordinate with his business partner to meet the group across the border. As the sun went down, he and others drove for hours, scouring the area for Taliban patrols and – once the route was clear – bringing migrants from their safe homes to the border. .

We don’t have a home, home is our car, driving all night near the border – one day my wife will kick me out,” S. said, laughing.

Border crossing is only the first hurdle that Afghans have to overcome. Since taking over, both Pakistan and Iran have stepped up deportations, warning that their fragile economies cannot handle the influx of migrants and refugees.

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

Sitting on the ragged green carpet of a hotel is Negar, 35, who has only one name. She climbed the border wall to Iran with her six children two nights before desperate to start a new life in Iran. For several months, she had siphoned off her family’s meager savings, buying less bread and firewood to survive. When the money ran out, she sold her only goat to make the journey here.

But as she touched Iranian soil, a group of border guards descended on the group of migrants and fired shots into the pre-dawn darkness. Lying on the ground, Negar called out to her children and realized in horror: Her two youngest sons were missing.

After two days of suffering, smugglers in Iran found her sons and sent them back to her in Zaranj. But shivering from the loss of them, she floundered over whether or not to try again.

“I am worried,” she said. “What if I can never go to Iran?” More than a million Afghans fled as the economy collapsed

Fry Electronics Team

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