As Fears Grip Afghanistan, Hundreds of Thousands Flee
KABUL, Afghanistan – Haji Sakhi decided to flee Afghanistan the night he saw two Taliban operatives drag a young woman out of her home and whip her on the sidewalk. Terrified for his three daughters, he piled his family into a car the next morning and hurtled down winding dirt roads into Pakistan.
That was over 20 years ago. They returned to the capital Kabul almost a decade later after the US-led invasion overthrew the Taliban regime. But now, as the Taliban surge into parts of the country as US forces withdraw, Mr Sakhi, 68, fears a return to the violence he witnessed that night. This time, he says, his family doesn’t wait that long to leave.
“I’m not afraid to leave my things behind, I’m not afraid to start all over again,” said Mr Sakhi, who recently applied for Turkish visas for himself, his wife, their three. daughters and a son. “What I’m afraid of are the Taliban.
Across Afghanistan, a mass exodus is unfolding as the Taliban continue their brutal military campaign, which has captured more than half of the country’s roughly 400 districts, according to some estimates. And with that, fears of a brutal return to an extremist regime or of a bloody civil war between ethnically aligned militias set in.
So far this year, around 330,000 Afghans have been displaced, more than half of whom have fled their homes since the United States began its withdrawal in May, according to the United Nations.
Many flocked to makeshift tent camps or crowded into relatives’ homes in cities, the last pockets of government control in many provinces. Thousands more are trying to obtain passports and visas to leave the country completely. Others have piled into smugglers’ vans in a desperate attempt to cross the border illegally.
In recent weeks, the number of Afghans crossing the border illegally has increased by around 30 to 40 percent compared to the period before the international troop withdrawal began in May, according to the International Organization for Migration. At least 30,000 people now flee every week.
The sudden flight is an early sign of a looming refugee crisis, aid agencies warn, and has sounded alarm bells in neighboring countries and Europe that the violence that has escalated since the start of the withdrawal is spreading already across the country’s borders.
“Afghanistan is on the brink of yet another humanitarian crisis,” Babar Baloch, spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said earlier this month. “Failure to reach a peace agreement in Afghanistan and stem the current violence will result in further displacement. “
The sudden exodus harkens back to earlier periods of heightened unrest: Millions of people left Afghanistan in the years following the Soviet invasion in 1979. A decade later, more fled when the Soviets withdrew and the country fell into civil war. The exodus continued when the Taliban came to power in 1996.
Afghans currently represent one of the largest refugee and asylum-seeking populations in the world – around 3 million people – and the second-highest number of asylum seekers in Europe, after Syria.
Today the country is on the brink of another bloody chapter, but the new wave of Afghans comes as attitudes towards migrants have hardened around the world.
After concluding a repatriation agreement in 2016 to stem migration from war-affected countries, Europe expelled tens of thousands of Afghan migrants. Hundreds of thousands more are being turned away by Turkey as well as neighboring Pakistan and Iran, which together host around 90 percent of the world’s displaced Afghans and have expelled a record number of Afghans in recent years.
Coronavirus-related restrictions have also made legal and illegal migration more difficult, as countries closed their borders and curtailed refugee programs, pushing thousands of migrants to Europe via more dangerous routes.
In the United States, the growing backlog of the special immigration visa program – available to Afghans at risk because of their work with the US government – has left an estimated 20,000 eligible Afghans and their families trapped in bureaucratic limbo in Afghanistan. The Biden administration has come under heavy pressure to protect Afghan allies as the United States withdraws its troops and air support amid a Taliban insurgency.
Yet as fighting between the Taliban, government forces and militias intensifies and civilian casualties soar, many Afghans remain determined to leave.
One recent morning in Kabul, people gathered in front of the passport office. Within hours, a line snaked around three blocks and past a mural of migrants with a ominous warning: “Don’t put your life and the lives of your family at risk. Migration is not the solution.
Few have been discouraged.
“I have to get a passport and get the hell out of this country,” said Abdullah, 41, who, like many in Afghanistan, has only one name.
Abdullah, who drives a taxi between Kabul and Ghazni, a trade hub in the southeast, recalls rushing towards the capital when fighting erupted recently, picking up a group of Afghan soldiers who asked to be accompanied along the way. Two days later, his boss called to say that Taliban fighters asked about a taxi driver seen evacuating the security forces – and recited Abdullah’s license plate.
Terrified, Abdullah says he will find a way to leave.
“Trying to leave legally is expensive, and if we leave illegally, it’s dangerous,” he said. “But right now the country is even more dangerous.”
Further west, a wave of Afghans has poured into Zaranj, a hub of illegal migration in Nimruz province, where smugglers’ vans meander south to the Iranian border every day.
In March, around 200 cars left Zaranj for the Iranian border every day, a 300% increase from 2019, according to David Mansfield, a migration researcher and consultant to the British Overseas Development Institute. At the beginning of July, 450 cars were heading towards the border every day.
Those who can afford it pay thousands of dollars to travel to Turkey and then to Europe. But many more are making pay-as-you-go deals with smugglers, planning to work illegally in Iran until they can afford the next leg of the journey.
“We don’t have the money or the means to get a visa,” said Mohammad Adib, who plans to migrate illegally to Iran.
Mr. Adib fled his home in Qala-e-Naw, in the northwest of the country, in early July after the Taliban besieged the city overnight. At dawn, he says the paw-paw-paw of the gunfire has been replaced by the moans of the neighbors. Power lines littered the ground. The doors of the houses were smashed down. The road was stained with blood.
“We cannot find another way out,” he said.
In Tajikistan, officials recently announced that the country was ready to welcome around 100,000 Afghan refugees, after the country received around 1,600 Afghans this month.
Other neighboring countries have expressed less willingness to welcome a wave of Afghans, instead strengthening their border security and warning that their economies cannot handle a new influx of refugees. Central European leaders have also called for strengthening border security, fearing that the current exodus could turn into a crisis similar to that of 2015, when nearly a million migrants, mostly Syrians, are entered Europe.
But in Afghanistan, around half of the country’s population is already in need of humanitarian assistance this year – twice as many people as last year and six times as many as four years ago, according to the United Nations.
Mohammad Nabi Mohammadi, 40, borrowed $ 1,000 to bring 36 relatives to Kabul after the Taliban attacked his village in Malistan district. Today her three-room apartment on the outskirts of town looks more like an overcrowded shelter than a house.
The men sleep in one large living room, the women in the other, and the children crowd into a small bedroom in the apartment with bags of clothes and cleaning supplies. Mohammadi borrows more money from his neighbors to buy enough bread and chicken – the price of which has almost doubled with soaring food prices – to feed everyone.
Now, sinking deeper into debt with no relief in sight, he doesn’t know what to do.
“These families are sick, they are traumatized, they have lost everything,” he said, standing near his kitchen counter, out of earshot of his family. “Unless the situation improves, I don’t know what we’ll do. “
Asad Timory contributed reporting for Herat; Zabihullah Ghazi of Laghman; Fahim Abed and Jim Huylebroek from Kabul.
#Fears #Grip #Afghanistan #Hundreds #Thousands #Flee