EXIT AFGHANISTAN

Published September 26, 2021
Screengrabs of a video uploaded on Twitter that shows thousands of Afghans fleeing Afghanistan via Pakistan | Kiran Sharifi/Twitter
Screengrabs of a video uploaded on Twitter that shows thousands of Afghans fleeing Afghanistan via Pakistan | Kiran Sharifi/Twitter

Although the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan has not resulted, so far, in the kind of massive refugee influx that Pakistan feared, thousands of refugees are still willing to brave harsh uncertainties in Balochistan’s remote lands to find their way, eventually, to safety in Iran or Europe. But what do they hope awaits them on the other side?

As the sun goes down and the evening sets in, the guests staying at a khwaabgah (rest house) in Mashkhel tehsil of Washuk prepare for maghrib prayers. Children being children, run around in the old haveli in the desert that has been converted to a rest house. They seem to be blissfully unaware of how their life has been upended by the fall of the government in Afghanistan.

Several Afghan families, illegal refugee women and children are temporarily staying at the khwaabgah. The migrants say their namaz and many say a silent prayer for a more certain future.

Hayatullah* is one of the temporary residents here, unaware of what the future might hold for him and his family. Not too long ago, he was a policeman working with the Afghan National Police. Today, he is one of the thousands who have fled Afghanistan and entered Pakistan within the past month.

Although Hayatullah is not Pakhtun, he has dressed like a Pakhtun man. He is wearing a cap and a weskit over shalwar qameez. He clearly wants to avoid drawing attention to himself. Initially, he even tries to hide his previous professional identity while speaking to Eos, but cannot help but reveal it when he gets into the flow of conversation.

As part of a police force that, eventually, had to lay down its arms, Hayatullah saw the Taliban take control of his country from the frontlines. “Within the past two decades, the Taliban’s popularity has risen, and they have emerged victorious after incorporating all the ethnic groups in Afghanistan,” he says, adding that all this was made possible by bad governance by those previously in office, and rampant corruption.

Hayatullah has arrived in Pakistan along with his wife, two children and very little else. He regrets that the life he had built over the past 20 years has been left behind. He and his family aren’t even at the point of starting over yet. At the moment, they are simply on the run.

“We are on the run, because it is crystal clear that the Taliban’s amnesty scheme is a farce,” he says, adding that the “evidence” of this is the thousands of Afghans abandoning their homes to save their lives and seek peaceful places to stay. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) data, over 9,000 Afghan refugees have entered Pakistan since the fall of the Afghan government in August.

Hayatullah left his country over four days ago and, like other Afghans, has been at the mercy of human smugglers to slip into Pakistan. From Pakistan, he plans to move forward and seek refuge in Iran.

“We have an understanding with the human smugglers,” he says while sitting at the khwaabgah with his children and wife. “In case anything goes wrong, they won’t be paid. That is the only assurance we could take.”

THE AFGHAN EXODUS

There is no end in sight for the Afghan exodus, which has continued over the last four decades. Background interviews with human smugglers suggest that illegal migration has also continued for decades, with many Afghans moving to Iran via Balochistan. While security threats have remained a pertinent concern in the region, it is said that Afghans have also been migrating for economic reasons. With the UNDP estimating that up to 97 percent of Afghanistan’s population might slip below the poverty line by 2022, this issue is only likely to grow.

Due to its geographic proximity and other ethnic and cultural similarities, Pakistan has housed Afghan refugees for decades. According to the UNHCR, at the end of 2020, over 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees were living in Pakistan. As per government estimates, the country currently houses some 3.5 million Afghan refugees.

In 2017, Pakistan started fencing the Durand Line, its 2,634-kilometre-long border with Afghanistan, and the fence is reportedly nearly complete. Among other reasons, Pakistan fenced its border to stop illegal Afghan refugees, who have been entering the country for decades.

But, despite the fact that officially Afghan refugees are not allowed to enter Pakistani territory, they have continued to do so. Most, including Hayatullah’s family and others quoted in this story, enter courtesy of human smugglers, often risking their lives in the process.

A DIFFICULT JOURNEY

Afghan nationals stand at the Dowqarun border crossing between Iran and Afghanistan | Reuters
Afghan nationals stand at the Dowqarun border crossing between Iran and Afghanistan | Reuters

The journey taken by most Afghan refugees is a difficult one, that no one would embark on unless they absolutely had to. Over the years, the journey has also ended for some of these refugees in death by starvation.

After arriving in Pakistan, the human smugglers take the illegal immigrants to one of two routes. They are either taken to Rajay in the Chaghi district or Mashkhel in the Washuk district (where Hayatullah and his family are temporarily staying). Rajay, which borders Iran, was the more popular route. But this route is now completely fenced. So the refugees have to head to Mashkhel and from there onwards to Jodar to cross into Iran.

One of the drivers Yousaf* claims that he earns 12,000 rupees a day doing double shifts. Attaullah*, another human smuggler who transports immigrants by motorbike to far flung areas that border Iran, has an even bigger payday. He transports Afghan immigrants on his motorbike and, because other vehicles cannot go near the border unnoticed, the immigrants, including women and children, have no choice but to take the ride. Attaullah, who charges 1,000 rupees per person for the approximately five-kilometre-long ride, has been doing good business with the surge of Afghan immigrants. The young man is saving the money for his upcoming wedding ceremony.

Most people he leaves at the border are hoping to eventually land up in Europe, he says.

Aasiyah is travelling with her two younger brothers and mother. She had to leave her father behind in Afghanistan and does not know where he might be.

But the journey is dangerous and not everyone makes it. Saeed Zehri, a former tehsildar posted in Naukundi town, which borders Afghanistan and Iran, once shared that three bodies of Afghan immigrants were found in the region. The immigrants had died due to thirst and hunger.

Not too long ago, a pick-up truck loaded with Afghan immigrants that was en route to Iran, was captured by robbers. The Frontier Corps got it released after a shoot-out.

Recently, there have also been cases of Punjabi immigrants reportedly dying of thirst and starvation in the same border region, after being left in the lurch by the human smugglers.

WOMEN ON THE RUN

A file photo shows Afghan refugees waiting to get registered at a UNHCR centre in Peshawar | AFP
A file photo shows Afghan refugees waiting to get registered at a UNHCR centre in Peshawar | AFP

Many families from Afghanistan are forced to take this uncertain journey without the men in their family. Aasiyah’s* is one such family, temporarily staying at another khwaabgah. She is travelling with her two younger brothers and mother. She had to leave her father behind in Afghanistan and does not know where he might be.

Aasiyah used to teach English and work with a non-governmental organisation (NGO) in Afghanistan. She fears that her work may have led to her father’s disappearance. “My father did not return home and we fear that he was picked up by the Taliban due to my work,” she says, adding that she fears for her father’s life more than the journey ahead.

At the NGO, Aasiyah would help conduct surveys with the Americans. She says that her father was a shopkeeper who had nothing to do with her work. After going into hiding following her father’s mysterious disappearance, Aasiyah felt she had to rely on human smugglers and escape Afghanistan.

The NGO paid her 40,000 Afghanis (about PKR 79,000 at current rates) monthly. She would use the money to attend university herself and had recently started taking shabba (evening) classes. “Everything is ruined now,” she says, as her voice cracks. “I thought I would have a brighter future after completing my studies. Instead, I have become the cause of my father’s abduction for daring to venture out and work with a foreign NGO.”

Yasmeen*, another Afghan woman in her 30s, is also travelling with her elderly mother and three sisters. Her brother, who was a part of the Afghan National Army, was killed in fighting with the Taliban in the Ghazni province of Afghanistan. “He was the main breadwinner of our family of four sisters, one brother and a mother... While I used to earn a little income by running a beauty parlour,” she says while sobbing. “The Ashraf Ghani government did not pay us even a penny for his martyrdom.”

When the Afghan government fell, Yasmeen and her family decided it was time to leave. Soon, photographs of defaced hoardings outside beauty parlours in Kabul began appearing in the media.

Yasmeen and her sisters say that they are left with nothing. “We are homeless and countryless,” Yasmeen says, while wiping her tears with her black dupatta.

As fears regarding the Taliban rule’s impact on women’s rights in Afghanistan mount, it is no surprise that more and more women are trying to flee.

A LONG HISTORY

General view of the Chaman border with Pakistan’s flag on one end and the Taliban flag on the other | Reuters
General view of the Chaman border with Pakistan’s flag on one end and the Taliban flag on the other | Reuters

Hailing from Balochistan, anthropologist Dr Hafeez Jamali has spent a considerable amount of time with Afghan immigrants and human smugglers in the border region, and understands the nuances and ground realities better than most.

“Afghanistan has been in a war-like situation since 1979,” he says, adding that, in times of crisis, people temporarily move to different places, only to return home once the conflict is over. However, he adds, if such situations persist over generations, as is the case in Afghanistan, then permanent moves become more common.

He says that when a sufficient number of people from a region or ethnic group migrate because of a conflict, a certain kinship network develops between the migrants in other countries. This network also facilitates their movement in other places. And it motivates others to move to places where they may find peace during war time in their own home country.

“Contrary to the US perception, Afghanistan was not a peaceful country under the US occupation,” Dr Jamali says, adding that during the so-called ‘war on terror’, Afghans had good reason to move out of the country. “Similarly,” he adds, “now that the Taliban have taken over, the number of Afghans leaving the country has increased.”

AN UNCERTAIN FUTURE

As more Afghan refugees make their way towards Pakistan, National Security Adviser Dr Moeed Yusuf has maintained that, while Pakistan will do whatever is possible to help the Afghans, the country is in “no condition to accept more refugees.”

But not all refugees are embarking on this journey to settle in Pakistan.

Sultan Afridi, a retired assistant director of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), tells Eos that Europe is the destination for most Afghan immigrants.

Afridi has headed the FIA’s anti-human smuggling operations a number of times. In 2009, he and his team arrested human smugglers after at least 46 Afghan immigrants died and 60 became unconscious in a locked container in the Hazarganji area of Quetta. All of the victims were trying to enter Iran through unfrequented routes of Balochistan.

Background interviews with officials suggest that they believe the movement of immigrants will come to an end after the completion of the fence with Afghanistan and Iran.

But not everyone is convinced. Dr Jamali cites the example of the US-Mexico border to point out that these fences alone cannot stop movement. “It is heavily patrolled, guarded and surveilled. Despite all this, people cross it,” says Dr Jamali.

He gives the example of patches on the US-Mexico border, in parts of Arizona and Texas, that are so hot that they are deserted. Yet, bones of migrants are sometimes found here. “They perish but they do not give up,” he adds.

Nonetheless, the number of Afghans entering the country is lesser than what was initially expected by many when the Taliban took control of Afghanistan. The fence and more stringent controls on the borders may have contributed to this.

Nonetheless, people such as Hayatullah, Aasiyah and Yasmeen, ready to leave everything behind to escape a conflicted-ridden homeland, will continue to embark on dangerous journeys.

The migrants are fully aware of the possible dangers and the uncertainty ahead, and that a brighter future may not be waiting for them on the other side. Hayatullah sums it up best by saying, “We are headed to a mirage.”


Continue reading: WHY THE HAZARAS ARE LEAVING AFGHANISTAN


*Name changed to protect identity

The writer is a member of staff. He tweets @Akbar_notezai

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 26th, 2021

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