Afghanistan

Crossing Afghanistan’s Border to Survive: The Story of Nargina

A year after the Taliban took control of Kabul in August 2021, millions of people in Afghanistan are living in situations of protracted displacement. Read the story of Nargina and her family who, like many others, attempted to flee to Turkey but were met instead with violence and human rights violations.

The surge in violence throughout 2021 and continued human rights violations, combined with hardships caused by political uncertainty and the dire economic and food security situation, has triggered an unprecedented movement of Afghans leaving their homes and attempting to cross international borders.

In fact, as of June 2022, an estimated 5.5 million people in Afghanistan are living in situations of protracted displacement as a result of widespread conflict, human rights abuses, targeted violence and insufferable poverty.

Just a few months ago, Nargina and her family were part of the increasing number of Afghans trying to flee the country. 

They told us: You are in hell and there is no God to save you.  Every moment we thought they could kill us. There was no hope of ever escaping.

Nargina, Afghan wife and mother

Nargina’s story: leaving everything behind 

Nargina’s husband is a mechanic in Kabul, Afghanistan, and was tasked with repairing private cars, including the ironclad armoured vehicles of the previous government. Due to his connection to the former regime, their family feared retaliation, and as a result, sought to flee to Turkey where they planned to join relatives who had already settled in the central province of Aksaray.  

Along with three other families, Nargina and her family first had to cross Pakistan via a dangerous mountain pass, moving at night in below-freezing temperatures and eating only once a day with the help of smugglers. The group was then transported from Pakistan to Iranshahr, Iran. In total, their perilous journey from Afghanistan to Iran lasted nine days.  

Kidnapped and tortured along the way 

However, before reaching Turkey, the families were met by aggressive criminals who took their belongings and bounded their hands behind their backs. For four excruciating days, the men were subjected to extreme physical torture, which was recorded and sent to relatives alongside a bank account number and a ransom demand of the equivalent of USD $1,125 per person in Iranian Rial.  

Nargina shares, “they told us: You are in hell and there is no God to save you.  They used a lighter to heat the blade of a knife and pressed it into the [men’s] arms, beating and torturing them right in front of us, in front of the children. Every moment we thought they could kill us. There was no hope of ever escaping.”   

After the relatives of the families sent a combined total of USD $18,000 to the kidnappers, the families were driven to the middle of the Iranian desert and left there stranded. Hours later, the group was met by the Iranian authorities along with a fine for entering the country illegally and were subsequently deported back to Afghanistan. 

It is important for the world to understand that this is not a choice. We do this to stay alive, and to keep our families alive. We know the nightmares of trying to cross the border, but there are no other options.

26-year-old Afghan refugee, recently deported from Turkey

Risking everything to survive 

The story of Nargina is from a coming advocacy paper ‘Dangerous Migration’ that will be published by DRC Afghanistan in the coming weeks.  

The advocacy paper also reveals that, like Nargina, many Afghans trying to flee report a lack of access to reliable information, such as the extent and prevalence of risks, needed to make informed decisions about their movement plans.

However, irregular migration to neighbouring countries and beyond is increasing significantly as the situation in Afghanistan becomes more and more desperate. A growing number of Afghans being sent home bring horrific accounts of human suffering, exploitation and abuse.  

Afghansk Dreng

With more than half the population under the age of 18, Afghanistan is one of the youngest nations in the world. The children are especially vulnerable, since they lack opportunities for self-sufficiency and are particularly susceptive to hunger, disease, injury, and trauma.

Photo: Kern Hendricks for DRC Afghanistan

According to a survey conducted by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), Afghans attempting to flee anticipate a wide range of potential problems that could arise on their journey, including deportation, hunger and thirst, and detention.

A high share of interviewees also mentioned a lack of shelter, robbery, financial extortion, physical abuse and death. According to DRC interviews with returnees, many are aware of the potential risks along the way but, consider that staying in Afghanistan is a death sentence.   

“It is important for the world to understand that this is not a choice. We do this to stay alive, and to keep our families alive. We know the nightmares of trying to cross the border but there are no other options. We love our country, but we cannot survive here. So, we take the risks,” explains a 26-year-old recently deported from Turkey who was interviewed in Nangarhar province of Eastern Afghanistan.  

Afghan Deportees Highres

Afghan deportees return from Iran through Islam Qala border crossing, Herat province, November 2019.

Photo: DRC

Support to micro, small, and medium enterprises, and even temporary cash-for-work schemes, have enabled families to stay in Afghanistan rather than take the often risky and dangerous journey to a third country.

Jaclyn Dolski, Programme Support Manager at DRC Afghanistan

DRC projects allow Afghans to avoid risky journeys 

DRC has a week-long presence at all major border crossings between Afghanistan and Iran and Pakistan. While international advocacy on this topic must be approached sensitively, DRC Afghanistan is supporting Afghan returnees through our multi-sector programmes. 

“As the economic crisis is an increasingly reported driver of forced migration, we are starting to conduct field research on the correlations between cross-border movements and our economic recovery programmes in provinces along the borders of Iran and Pakistan," tells Jaclyn Dolski, Programme Support Manager at DRC Afghanistan. She explains:

"We are hearing that support to micro, small, and medium enterprises, and even temporary cash-for-work schemes to a lesser extent, have enabled participants to stay in Afghanistan with their families rather than take the often risky and dangerous journey to a third country.” 

The crisis in Afghanistan continues

Although famine was averted last winter thanks to humanitarian response, the population in Afghanistan still face a severe food insecurity and malnutrition crisis due to severe economic shocks, skyrocketing food prices and droughts.

19 million people remain food insecure, of which 6.6 million are at 'emergency' levels, while more than half of all children under five are acutely malnourished.

Moreover, approximately 25 million people (more than half of the population) are now living in poverty, compared to 20 million in 2016.  

Due to the economic crisis, targeted violence and human rights violations, 7,400 people have fled their homes this year as of the end of July 2022, while 509,000 people have returned from neighbouring countries. In addition, 5.5 million IDPs are reported to be in protracted displacement. 

(Source: UNHCR)

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