Features | Society | South Asia

The Ceaseless Struggle of Afghan Migrants

Some Afghans find themselves trapped in a dangerous, endless cycle of migration in a search for work, safety, and a better life. 

By Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska for
The Ceaseless Struggle of Afghan Migrants

In this March 18, 2020, file photo, thousands of Afghan refugees walk as they enter Afghanistan at the Islam Qala border crossing with Iran, in the western Herat Province.

Credit: AP Photo/Hamed Sarfarazi

Karam, 21, stood one meter deep in muddy water with his hands cuffed. He saw the police fire shots in the air and he wondered if these were the last moments of his life. It was May 1 and along with a group of 52 Afghans – aged between 15 and 71 – he was trying to cross into Iran through an unofficial border.

This was not his first time making the journey. Since there are few job opportunities in his village in the western province of Herat, Karam periodically travels to Iran where he earns a living collecting and selling garbage. He returned home four months earlier, but since the pandemic began, poverty and hunger had pushed him to leave again. 

This time the trip did not go according to plan. His group was spotted by Iranian border guards who forced the migrants into the Harirud River. Scared and fatigued, they were praying for their lives. There was no one to come to the rescue. 

“We left because of poverty, we had nothing to eat and that’s why we decided to go to Iran during the coronavirus outbreak,” said Karam in a phone conversation with The Diplomat. “The economic situation has deteriorated, there is no work. We know that they may shoot at us at the border but we have no choice.”

They were lucky. The Iranians handed them over to Afghan border guards. Others had less luck. That same day, another group of migrants was allegedly tortured and forced into the water by Iranian guards. Forty-five out of 57 people reportedly drowned. The Iranians deny any involvement in the deaths and the case is still being investigated. 

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According to the International Organization for Migration, since the beginning of the pandemic, over 285,000 Afghan migrants have returned home from Iran in what has been the biggest migration wave back to the country in Afghanistan’s recent history. The pandemic, which took a heavy toll on Iran early on, the lack of jobs or medical assistance, and the discrimination migrants face every day all forced thousands to return to Afghanistan.

But not for long.

The economic crisis, increasing violence and unemployment in Afghanistan, coupled with the pandemic – which, according to the Biruni Institute, has already seen 6 million Afghans lose their jobs – is pushing many Afghans to leave again. 

Those who choose to head to Iran often live for years without papers, performing menial jobs and relying on daily income to survive. Thousands of others pass through Iran on their way to Turkey and Europe. But even when they reach the “promised land,” few find what they were looking for. 

Murtaza, 22, stands in front of a mosque in a Shia area in Kabul, surrounded by his family and neighbors. His story is frequently interrupted by his father, who prefers to give his version of events. Murtaza takes it with a huge degree of patience; his father has always supported him against all odds.

It was 2015, when Murtaza, along with nine friends, decided to leave Afghanistan. He was only 17 and had no money of his own. His father, knowing there is nothing good awaiting his son in Afghanistan, gave him the family’s savings and borrowed money from the neighbors to pay for his trip to Europe. 

At the time, the European Union was going through what came to be called the “migration crisis.” Thousands of people were reaching the shores of Greece and Italy each day in search of safety and a better life. Many of them died trying. 

Murtaza and his friends were determined. They did not realize, however, that not all of them would make it to the journey’s end. The first problems occurred close to home, at the Afghanistan-Iran border. 

“It was a difficult terrain. There were many thieves and our belongings got stolen. Then, armed guards shot at us at the border. But when you begin the journey, there is no way back,” Murtaza says. “I did regret leaving several times, but since the trip was so costly, I could not return. It never crossed my mind.”

The boys crossed Iran without many difficulties, but on the Iranian-Turkish border the horrors began. Three of the friends fell on a mountain into a deep precipice. The smuggler who led them through the illegal crossing did not help the boys. Murtaza and his companions tried to get them out but did not succeed. They left their friends’ motionless bodies where they fell.

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The remaining friends reached Europe, but Murtaza does not know what happened to the rest of the group. They split during the trip. After an arduous sea journey to Greece, Murtaza decided to head for Sweden, where he applied for asylum. He spent four and a half years in a refugee camp waiting for status. 

“The time in Sweden was hard. I did not have documents and I couldn’t work. I did nothing all day apart from reading books. In the end, they did not accept my application,” Murtaza says. He was deported to Afghanistan almost a year ago and ever since he has been staying with his family. He has not managed to find a job.

“I felt awful. My goal was to get to Sweden, work and earn money to support my family. So when I returned to Afghanistan empty-handed, I felt ashamed,” he says bitterly. “When I landed in Kabul, I had no plan but I knew I had to build my life in Afghanistan anew. I still haven’t paid the debts I took for the trip.”

Murtaza’s story is all too familiar to thousands of Afghan migrants, as over the past several years, deportations have become a norm. Most European countries consider Afghanistan a safe country, despite the evidence to the contrary. The Islamic State continues to target civilians in ruthless attacks and despite a deal the United States signed with the Taliban in February this year, violence has persisted in Afghanistan. An Eid ceasefire over the weekend granted a small reprieve, but Afghanistan is anything but a safe place. 

Abdul Ghafoor has experienced the journey from migration to deportation himself. He claimed asylum in Norway in 2010, but three years later he was sent back to Afghanistan. Upon return, he decided to support those with a similar story to his own. He set up the Afghanistan Migrants Advice and Support Organization, the first NGO to work with deportees. 

“I had no social network, I had nothing. What motivated me was the will to help people who have been deported,” Ghafoor says sitting in his office in Kabul. “When I started, I did everything voluntarily, there was no one who did this kind of work in Afghanistan. People did not know what happens to those who have been deported.”

As he explains, deportations to Afghanistan have never been consistent and it is hard to estimate how many people have been sent back. The forcible returns increased sharply in 2016, when the European Union signed an agreement with the Afghan government, which agreed to accept 80,000 Afghan deportees in return for financial compensation. While this number has not been met, deportations continue regularly. 

“Norway deports people each week. They usually detain Afghans on Friday, as their lawyers are off over the weekend and cannot support them. They are deported on Sunday or Monday,” says Ghafoor. “In Sweden each month or two there is a charter flight bringing 30-40 people, usually in cooperation with Austria. Germany also deports regularly – every month or two.”

Some countries, like Germany, Sweden, and Norway, offer financial support of around 1,000 to 2,500 euro to those who have been deported, which often is all the migrant has to begin a new life. Ghafoor runs a shelter for deportees where those who return can spend some time before they find a job and place of their own. 

As he explains, many of them face trauma, especially those with no social networks or family who could support them. Some cannot go back to their provinces because of the war. Some try to commit suicide. Many get into drugs or join Islamist groups. But even those who reunite with their families face difficulties. 

“People believe that because you have been deported, you are a criminal. Families sometimes try to do their own kind of justice. They kick people out or beat them up. They are blaming them for the deportation,” says Friederike Stahlmann, an anthropologist from the University of Bern who has been researching the situation of deportees from Germany. 

“Many people fled making debts. They borrowed money from their neighbors or extended family and often those debts cannot be paid back. But the humanitarian threats also exist because of the traditional roles in Afghan society. In a family, money should first go to the children, to the sick, the old, the pregnant, and the last one will be the young adult man. They are the ones who should traditionally support the family.”

According to Stahlmann, only those who have active emotional and financial support from their families or friends in Europe, or those coming from well-connected families, stand a chance to survive. The vast majority however, decide to re-emigrate. 

“The cycle does not end. They leave again illegally and not necessarily directly to Europe. They often first go to Iran, spend some time there, save some money and then leave for Europe,” says Ghafoor. “The environment does not encourage people to stay in Afghanistan. They spend a lot of money and risk their lives again. The only difference is that if a person was deported from Sweden, this time they would go to Germany.”

Like Mohammad Haidar Barati, a 35-year-old tailor, who was deported to Afghanistan from Norway in 2014. With the help of Ghafoor, he tried to build his life in Kabul anew. He opened a tailor business but after two years of financial struggles, he decided to leave – this time to Iran. Now, he’s planning to try his luck in Europe again.

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“Ten years of my life have passed in migration. I wasn’t accepted in any country,” explains Mohammad over the phone. “I have been planning to go to Europe, but when the coronavirus pandemic began, I decided to put it on hold. This time, France is my destination. I’ll leave as soon as there is an opportunity.” 

Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska is a journalist focusing on the post-Soviet space.