After the U.S. withdrawal and with their country’s economy collapsing, countless Afghans are trying to escape. Who does the West consider worthy of saving?
Credit…Illustration by Vanessa Saba; Photographs by Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times
By Matthieu Aikins
Mr. Aikins is the author of the forthcoming book “The Naked Don’t Fear the Water: An Underground Journey With Afghan Refugees.”
On a sunny day in late October, I visited a smuggler’s safe house, one of the many seedy hotels lining the main avenue in Zaranj, the capital of Nimruz Province in southwestern Afghanistan, near the border with Iran. It was two and a half months after the Afghan capital, Kabul, had fallen to the Taliban and a new wave of Afghans was fleeing the country, the latest in a 40-year saga of war, displacement and exile.
In a room with grimy walls and a few soiled blankets, I met Jawad and Shukria, a newlywed couple who had recently arrived from Kabul. Slender and reserved, they were wearing matching maroon sweaters, Shukria’s under a beige head scarf. (For their safety I am using only their first names.) Jawad had studied biochemistry, and had saved up enough by working in a hospital to open his own small medical lab. That was where he met Shukria, who hadn’t finished her university studies. Theirs was a love marriage, uncommon in Afghanistan; they had wed against his parents’ wishes. “I didn’t take any money from them,” Jawad told me with a touch of pride, as Shukria smiled.
Both in their mid-20s, they were part of a post-2001 generation that had grown up in a time of great hope for the country’s future, working their way up from the villages or slums into a precarious middle-class life in Kabul, an urbanized youth whose material and political basis had now been devastated by the collapse.
Earlier in the day, I had spoken to fighters at a nearby checkpoint who said that on that day, several hundred trucks had passed by on the eight-hour drive to the border with Pakistan, where the migrants, under the direction of smugglers, switched vehicles and continued deeper into the mountains. But Jawad and Shukria wouldn’t be taking that route. They were Hazaras, from a Shiite minority. The Pakistani deserts were stalked by Jundullah, a Sunni extremist group that kidnapped Hazaras for ransom and murdered them if they didn’t pay.
Now Hazara smugglers, like the one Jawad and Shukria had paid, were trying to move travelers, employing a combination of bribery and stealth, directly past the 15-foot-high wall that Iran had erected across the border. While Hazaras, a historically persecuted ethnic minority, have long predominated among Afghans migrating to Iran, they were particularly desperate to leave now that the Taliban had taken over.
In recent years, as the United States began to withdraw its troops, Jawad and Shukria had seen how violence and the government’s dysfunction had worsened; still, they clung to their dreams of a future in their own country until the bitter end of the republic, whose fall had come so suddenly. Now they had no way to fly out.
The desert road from Nimruz was normally used by the poorest Afghans, those who couldn’t afford passports or visas to Iran. The smuggler whom Jawad and Shukria had paid told me that most of his clients were going there to find work — what Western governments label “economic migrants.” But when the Taliban captured Kabul and the country’s border crossings, there’d been a rush of government officials, journalists and civil society activists who fled to Nimruz — I was told that a prominent female governor had passed through this hotel, in disguise, shortly after the collapse — to make the dangerous, illegal crossing alongside the male laborers.
“When the Taliban came, we were terrified,” Shukria said. Hazara women like her didn’t know what to expect from the Islamist fighters, who were mostly from the majority Pashtun ethnic group, and came from a more conservative, rural culture. “In the beginning, we were wearing black from head to foot, and covering our faces.”
For weeks, the couple had agonized over whether to sell what they had and flee to an unknown land; then Jawad was robbed and beaten by some men who claimed to be Taliban. “You can’t leave the house without being afraid,” Jawad said. “It’s not worth it to live in fear.” So they had come to Zaranj and put their lives into the hands of a smuggler. If they made it over the border to Iran, they would then try to cross the mountains. “Our only chance is to get to Turkey,” Jawad said, “and apply for asylum with the U.N.”
How Jawad and Shukria would be treated when they arrived in a foreign country hinged on whether they would be recognized as refugees or rejected as illegal migrants — the same question facing millions each year who make desperate journeys across hostile borders, and petition for safe haven. From the deserts of America’s southern border to the forests of Belarus, from the English Channel to the shores of Bangladesh, mass migration has become one of the most important crises of our time, roiling politics with its central question: Who deserves to be given refuge?
In everyday discourse, the refugee, as someone forced to leave her home, cannot be turned away as easily as a migrant who chooses to seek a better life elsewhere. Of course, refugees are a specific kind of migrant, and part of thinking clearly about these ethical stakes requires us to look at the ideological history behind the term.
The modern legal definition of the refugee came into existence at a United Nations-sponsored conference in Geneva in 1951, under the shadow of the new Cold War. With World War II fresh on everyone’s mind, some delegates argued for a definition that would include anyone escaping violence, but the United States was keen to narrow it for anti-communist uses.
America got its way. According to the Geneva Convention, the foundation of international refugee law, a refugee is defined as someone with “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion” — criteria tailored to the Cold War dissident — and not someone simply fleeing war or disaster.
In such cases, the United States and its allies could be generous: to Hungarians fleeing the Soviet occupation in 1956, or to the approximately 140,000 Vietnamese allies and their families who were evacuated and brought to the United States after Saigon fell to the communists.
But the end of the Cold War changed how the West saw refugees. Conflicts in poor countries were no longer deemed proxy battles between superpowers and their ideologies. Three years after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the government was toppled by United States-backed Islamist rebels, who turned on each other and tore the country apart while the West looked away.
In the face of increasing migration from the developing world, the West has tightened immigration rules and strengthened policies meant to keep asylum seekers from reaching their borders in the first place. A cordon of visas and rules regulating air travel exists to keep refugees out, part of a stratified system of mobility that allows citizens of wealthy nations to travel freely, but keeps much of the developing world’s populations restricted by borders.
The paradox of being a refugee is that the more likely you are to have a valid claim for asylum in any given country, the less likely you are to be able to travel there: Afghanistan has the worst passport in the world when it comes to visa-free travel, a direct result of producing so many refugees. Germany first introduced visa requirements for Afghans in 1980, a year after the Soviet invasion.
When the United States toppled the Taliban in 2001, millions of Afghans returned home, in the largest voluntary refugee repatriation program in U.N. history. They wanted to rebuild their country, and hoped that the West would keep its promises of security and development. But as violence got worse, Afghans started to doubt those promises and leave again, heading overland to Europe, or taking boats from Southeast Asia to Australia. And as their asylum claims rose, Western countries stepped up efforts to keep Afghans out. It became increasingly difficult for them to get visas to visit or study abroad, for fear they would claim refugee status.
Yet Afghans kept fleeing. During the European migration crisis in 2015, when more than a million people crossed the Mediterranean, Afghans were the second largest nationality after Syrians. Under the weight of the people, the borders had briefly and miraculously opened.
Then they closed again, as I witnessed myself. In 2016, I accompanied a friend as he made the journey to Europe to report on the migration crisis for my new book. To do that, I had to travel undercover as an Afghan refugee. (I pass for a local and speak Persian.) My friend was a former translator for the U.S. military whose emigration application had been rejected on the grounds of insufficient paperwork.
He had hoped to make it to Europe while the borders were open, but by the time we made the journey, the door had slammed shut. Over three months, we witnessed the grave dangers that migrants were willing to face to get there: the long treks through the deserts and mountains, the filthy safe houses run by violent smugglers, the little rafts they took to reach the Greek islands that are the gates the European Union, where my friend and I spent weeks imprisoned in a detention camp, until we were able to escape and continue.
Since then, E.U. countries built new border barriers and paid countries like Turkey billions to keep refugees from coming. Deportations of Afghans back to their war-torn country were stepped up. For a while it worked; asylum claims fell, even as the war got worse. This past August, as the Taliban advanced and the government began to collapse, six E.U. countries sent a letter urging the bloc to continue deporting rejected Afghan asylum seekers: “Stopping returns sends the wrong signal and is likely to motivate even more Afghan citizens to leave their home for the E.U.”
Ten days later, the Taliban captured Kabul.
I was living in the capital when it fell to the rebels, and I stayed to report on the bloody, chaotic evacuation that followed. Struck with guilt and horror at the disastrous end of the war, the West was suddenly clamoring to rescue Afghans, especially those who had worked for N.G.O.s and civil society groups, or as translators for the Western military forces. After watching some of my Afghan friends wait years in vain for visas, it felt as if the polarity of an immense magnet had suddenly reversed — if only those offered asylum could get into the airport.
Guarded by the Taliban and a C.I.A.-backed paramilitary unit, the airport had become a fortress besieged by throngs of people desperate to escape — though many others, like Jawad and Shukria, were afraid to risk the crowds, especially after a lethal suicide attack by the Islamic State. In the end, more than 100,000 Afghans were evacuated, with some 70,000 resettled in the United States.
By the time I arrived in Zaranj in October, there was a trickle of evacuation flights to Qatar, but regular commercial ones still weren’t available. Western embassies had fled; visas for neighboring countries were difficult to get. And the central passport office wasn’t functioning, either. Jawad had his already, but, like so many Afghans, Shukria didn’t. There was no way she could leave the country legally. And so they, alongside thousands of others, had come to Nimruz to cross the desert.
When I returned the next day to the safe house, I sat in the windowless little room that Jawad and Shukria had rented for privacy. In their tense expressions, I recognized the twin torments of waiting, the discomfort and boredom of long days spent on filthy carpets and the mounting anxiety over the journey ahead.
I’d heard from their smuggler that he was sending a group of migrants to try to scale the border wall that night, but when I asked if he was leaving, Jawad shook his head. “We’re resting right now,” he said.
A few nights earlier, they had been driven out to the desert and were told to scale the wall just outside of Zaranj. Using ladders, their large group made it over, but only got a couple hundred yards into Iran before the border guards caught them. The Iranians usually didn’t bother holding migrants for long, though they could be brutal with them. But their group was sent back to Afghanistan without incident. “They didn’t beat us because we were families,” said Jawad.
Still, the experience had been grueling. Shukria had injured her feet, scrambling all night with a backpack on. “We’ve never been smuggled before,” she said.
The history of the border at Zaranj illustrates how border controls can make travel more dangerous for refugees, and more lucrative for smugglers, without reducing migration. In the aftermath of the Soviet invasion, migrants could simply walk across. In the ’90s, after Iran tightened border controls, Afghans started making short trips on foot near the frontier city of Zahedan, paying smugglers around $150 to get to Tehran. Then Iran built the 15-foot wall manned by armed guards, and migrants were forced deeper into the desert through Pakistan. Yet more migrants were crossing than ever. Since October, more than one million Afghans have crossed into Iran through southwestern Afghanistan, many of them through the desert route.
Because of the extremist groups there, Shiites like Jawad and Shukria were now afraid to go that way, but if they couldn’t get over the wall, they would have no other choice. The journey to Tehran, longer and deadlier than ever, was also more expensive, sometimes costing upward of $700, yet the smugglers were overwhelmed with customers. Jawad and Shukria had to pay a higher “family” rate. Though they were young and healthy, there was no way for her to go with groups of young men; it was culturally inappropriate, and potentially dangerous. “Of course it’s harder as a woman,” Shukria said. “I was afraid to come this way but it wasn’t safe to stay home either.”
Borders concentrate violence, and women who cross them illegally risk assault at the hands of smugglers, guards and fellow migrants. The harsher the border, the greater the risk. The profile of the typical illegal migrant — an able-bodied young man — is often cited to justify strict border controls but it is in fact a consequence of such policies. For the poor, mobility is a part of male privilege.
The couple were able to afford the extra cost thanks to the money Jawad made from selling everything he owned, including the laboratory he’d built. “There’s nothing left for us back there,” he said, looking at his wife. “We’ll get past, eventually.”
After I left Nimruz, I kept in touch with Jawad and Shukria over WhatsApp. Two nights later, they again tried to scale the border wall near Zaranj, but were caught and sent back. Desperate to cross, they decided to risk the southern route through the deserts of Pakistan, despite the extremist groups there that kidnapped Hazaras. Crammed into a pickup, they rode for hours into the badlands, then walked across the border hills. Once more, they were arrested by the Iranians. Once more, they entered the desert with smugglers, and this time they made it into Iran, traversing the country on circuitous back roads, Jawad having to spend some of the journey stuffed inside the trunk of an old sedan. After six days, they reached Tehran. “We had no choice, we had to take our lives in our hands,” Jawad told me later.
From the Iranian capital, they found another smuggler to take them to Turkey. To get there, they had to go over the Zagros Mountains, the old frontier between the Persian and Ottoman Empires, a porous border crossed by Kurdish smugglers. The illegal route here was shorter but still dangerous, winding over rugged alpine trails where refugees sometimes froze to death.
By now, it was getting late in the season. Jawad and Shukria’s group had to spend a night bivouacked in the open, huddling together. “We slept outside in the snow and rain,” he said.
Finally, they made it to the safe house in Turkey, where they were held prisoner until they had relatives back home pay their smugglers the money they had agreed in advance. From the city of Van, not far from the border, they headed for Istanbul, but on the way they were arrested by the police. After all they’d suffered, they were terrified of being deported back to Afghanistan. Would the Turks treat them as refugees or migrants?
Today, Turkey hosts the world’s largest population of refugees: more than 4 million people. Few of them, however, are eligible for permanent asylum under Turkish immigration law. Instead, they receive conditional status, while they await resettlement in a third country. Millions of people live in limbo in Turkey, either in the hope of one day returning to their own countries, or being offered sanctuary in the West.
Even if Jawad and Shukria qualified for conditional asylum in Turkey, they would also have to apply at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to be considered for resettlement. They would have to tell their story. “In a refugee camp, stories are everything,” Dina Nayeri, who fled Iran as a child, wrote in her book “The Ungrateful Refugee: What Immigrants Never Tell You.” “Every day of her new life, the refugee is asked to differentiate herself from the opportunist, the economic migrant.”
When the U.N.H.C.R. seeks to determine if a migrant is a refugee, the interviewer listens for a “coherent” and “credible” story that demonstrates a “well-founded fear of persecution” on an “individual basis.” War and other collective misfortunes are not sufficient. Although the 1951 definition was created during the Cold War, its scope has expanded since then, as courts in the West have come to apply it to persecution based on gender and sexuality.
But as the number of asylum seekers has grown, the Convention’s protection has been granted to a shrinking percentage of applicants in the West, in accordance with the more basic law of supply and demand. For example, after a huge spike in applications in Sweden, in the two years after the 2015 crisis, the acceptance rate for Afghans dropped from 74 percent to 38 percent. They became half as deserving.
As Hazaras, Jawad and Shukria certainly were at risk of sectarian violence. Several of their relatives had been killed and injured in terrorist attacks on Shiite mosques and neighborhoods in Kabul, some claimed by the Islamic State, which considered them infidels. A year ago, their case might not have been enough — Afghans had regularly been deported back from Europe, and some had been killed afterward. But with the collapse of the government and the arrival of the Taliban, it might — now Afghans lived under a regime that was ideologically opposed to the West. As a woman, Shukria was facing new restrictions under the Islamic Emirate, which had still not officially allowed high school girls to return to class.
“I don’t know what our chances at the U.N. are,” Jawad had told me in Zaranj. “I don’t know much about cases. I’ll just tell the truth. Everything is getting worse here.”
The N.G.O. workers I’d spoken to in Turkey told me that Afghans were known to have trouble telling the right story because of cultural norms of modesty as well as their relative lack of education as compared to, say, Syrians or Iranians. For example, an illiterate Afghan farmer who’d escaped from the Taliban-controlled countryside, where his sons were subject to forced recruitment, and his village to airstrikes, might say that the reason he and his family had fled, the last and proximate straw, was because the harvest failed, and there was nothing to eat — in other words, for economic reasons. That’s the wrong answer. The right answer to the question of why you left was: Because I was forced. Because I had no choice.
What does it mean to be free in our world? We are used to measuring freedom in terms of formal rights, such as those to work and study, or to buy and sell. The traditional definition of a refugee is someone who, because of persecution, is deprived of those rights, and is therefore forced to migrate. But this idea of freedom — freedom from external restraints — overlooks the coercive forces faced by many of those in the global south who are fleeing across borders: Their lives are restricted by poverty and corruption, by predatory companies and ecological disasters. Their desperation to escape puts them in literally the same boats as others the West might consider “real” refugees, even if their stories no longer fit neatly into an outdated system.
While I was visiting Zaranj, I spoke to some migrant workers from western Afghanistan as they loaded onto a pickup truck bound for the desert. Fareen, 35, told me he hoped to find a job as a laborer in Iran. There was no work in his hometown. “We’re going because of hunger,” he said. The word he and other migrants used, “gushnegi,” was both a common expression for need and a literal reference to the famine looming in the country. “We’re forced to go.”
To many Afghans, the compulsion to provide for oneself and one’s family was just as strong as any threat from war or the Taliban. “Every pain passes, except the pain of hunger,” goes a local proverb.
Though they are unlikely to qualify as refugees under the 1951 treaty, these laborers were fleeing an economic catastrophe that was the direct result of the West’s failed intervention. The United States and its allies created an Afghan state that was entirely dependent on outside aid; 75 percent of public spending was financed by foreign grants. The sudden withdrawal of that support has had predictable consequences. Western sanctions against the Taliban are now punishing the entire country; a shortage of cash has crippled the financial system. The state is on the verge of collapse, and about half the country now faces life-threatening food insecurity. As the International Crisis Group recently warned, “Hunger and destitution following the Taliban’s takeover of the country seem poised to kill more Afghans than all the bombs and bullets of the past two decades.”
Cases like Jawad and Shukria’s trouble the idea of clean distinction between refugees and economic migrants. Their fate is representative of an entire country’s, where economic and political disaster, along with the ravages of war, have merged into singular misery. Which Afghans deserve refuge from it? There are millions of Shiites in Afghanistan; women comprise nearly half of the population. Whether they are granted asylum depends on having the resources and luck to make it across borders, the particular country they arrive in, and the story they tell when they get there.
Similar conundrums exist in the case of West Africans traveling to Europe, or Central Americans going to the United States. There are more people forcibly displaced today than at any other time since World War II: some 84 million, 26 million of them refugees outside their own borders.
Ultimately, the root causes of this crisis are a tangle of political, economic and ecological factors that push people to escape, coupled with an extreme global inequality that pulls them to a life in the West, where the average salary might be 10 or 20 times that of a person in a poor country. Inequality is the slope of the frontier; it is the height of a wall someone is willing to scale. Ending the crisis would require radical change.
But the plight of Afghan refugees can be an opportunity to rework migration and asylum policies for a future that will increasingly blur the distinction between traditional refugees and migrants fleeing economic and social disasters, including those that are the result of climate change.
It’s not just former translators and journalists who need help. Afghans migrating out of hunger and desperation are also the victims of the West’s failed war. Even if mass starvation is averted, Afghans will continue to leave their country, out of a combination of fear and because they want a better life. The Afghan middle class, which has seen its savings and livelihoods evaporate, will use the resources they have to emigrate. The outflow of Afghan migrants will not end in the short term; nor should it. Indeed, Afghan migration should be seen for what it is, a rational strategy undertaken by people who find agency in the midst of great adversity. Afghans are capable of helping their own communities, if we allow them. Remittances, or money sent home by migrants, contribute three times more to the developing world than international aid.
Whether we meet them with compassion and reason, or prejudice and violence, people will never stop trying to cross borders.
After they were arrested by the Turkish police, Jawad and Shukria were taken to a detention camp and separated from each other. Alone, each wondered if they would be returned to face the Taliban, and hoped they would at least be sent back together.
In the end, they were spared deportation. They were given conditional permission to remain in Turkey, and assigned to live in a provincial city in the Anatolian highlands. When I last spoke to the couple, they had recently arrived there. An Afghan shopkeeper took them in for a few days; they found a little apartment for rent and swept it out. After months on the road, they had a room of their own.
But it was precarious. They knew they wouldn’t get permanent asylum in Turkey; they were waiting for their papers so that they could apply to the United Nations for resettlement. But already they had their doubts, seeing so many other Afghans refugees stuck there. The Turkish economy was in bad shape, but they hoped to find work and start saving money. They’d escaped the Taliban, but they wanted to start a family, and secure a future for their children. “We can’t stay here forever,” Jawad said. “If we have to, we’ll keep going further. We’ll take the smuggler’s road to Europe.”
Matthieu Aikins (@mattaikins) is a fellow at Type Media Center and the author of the forthcoming book “The Naked Don’t Fear the Water: An Underground Journey With Afghan Refugees.”
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