Thousands of Afghans are escaping the country each week and many of them are paying smugglers to take them westward to neighbouring Iran, from where some hope to reach Europe, RFE/RL reported.
The journey is dangerous. Afghans who have illegally crossed borders in the region have been arrested, beaten, shot at, and even killed by border guards, smugglers and criminal gangs. Others have drowned or died of illness and exhaustion, the report said.
But for many Afghans, fleeing the Taliban’s repressive rule and the country’s devastating economic and humanitarian crises, their dreams of safety and jobs are worth the risk, the report added.
The number of Afghans fleeing abroad has surged since the Taliban seized control of Kabul on August 15. During a two-week evacuation effort that ended on August 30 and was marred by chaos and violence, Western nations airlifted over 120,000 Afghans abroad.
Since then, at least 300,000 Afghans have fled by land. Experts say there could be a full-blown migrant crisis on Europe’s doorstep by next year if the trend continues, like the massive influx of refugees and migrants who crossed into the continent in 2015, the report said.
Afghanistan’s neighbours have closed their borders for Afghans seeking to flee their war-torn country. Afghanistan’s land borders with Pakistan and Iran are currently open only to Afghans with the required passports and visas, while the borders with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are completely closed.
But that has largely failed to curb the exodus from Afghanistan.
“It is clear the border closures did restrict the number of people departing at the official crossings, but people continue to leave via the most difficult and circuitous routes and in large numbers,” said David Mansfield, an independent researcher who tracks smuggling networks in Afghanistan, RFE/RL reported.
Mansfield said hundreds of pick-up trucks packed with men, women and children leave daily from Zaranj, the capital of the southwestern province of Nimroz, Afghanistan’s smuggling capital. From Zaranj, the vehicles enter Pakistan and then cross over to Iran.
In May, up to 200 flatbed pick-up trucks, each transporting up to 20 people, departed daily from Zaranj, he claimed. Since the Taliban takeover, that figures have jumped dramatically.
“In October, up to 600 cars left each day with as many as 300,000 leaving Afghanistan that month alone,” he said.
The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) said last month that up to 5,000 Afghans have been illegally crossing into Iran daily since mid-August.
Some of the Afghan refugees and migrants who make it to Iran remain there illegally, taking on menial jobs to earn enough money to send back to their families in Afghanistan, the report said.
But Mansfield said many will “look to travel further and make it to Europe if they can.”
Among those fleeing are young, educated Afghans, many of whom were granted greater freedoms and opportunities following the US-led invasion in 2001 that toppled the then Taliban regime from power.