It is a treacherous journey of thousands of miles that crosses arid deserts, steep mountains, rivers, armed checkpoints, barbed wire and metres-high concrete walls. But for the Afghans fleeing the Taliban, this inhospitable route – traversing Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and into the Balkans – is the pathway, they believe, to freedom.
Some worked for the previous government or US and Nato forces and believe it is only a matter of time before they are hunted down by Taliban fighters. Others fear the Taliban will impose the same harsh interpretation of sharia law on the country as before, keeping women imprisoned in their homes, targeting minorities and carrying out public executions. There are also growing concerns that Afghanistan is heading towards a humanitarian crisis, with food shortages, drought and no money in the banks.
Yet the message from all of Afghanistan’s neighbours and much of Europe, where most hope to reach, has been that Afghan refugees are not welcome. Pakistan has almost completed a wall along its notoriously porous border with Afghanistan, Turkey has built a 93-mile (150km) wall along its border with Iran, and Greece has also just built a border wall. “Our country will not be a gateway to Europe for illegal Afghan migrants,” said the Greek migration minister, Notis Mitarachi.
Nonetheless, Afghans have persisted. Since the withdrawal of US troops in May, the UN migration agency has reported a 40% increase in those crossing over into Pakistan, usually the first stage of the journey. Organisations on the ground in Afghanistan said they expected a mass exodus to begin in the coming weeks as more and more desperate Afghans took their chance on attempting to get to Europe, usually by paying large sums to people smugglers.
Astrid Sletten, the Afghanistan country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, said the chaotic crowds at Kabul airport over the past two weeks, with thousands of Afghans – many without passports and papers – clamouring to get on evacuation flights, were an indicator of “the level of desperation to leave”.
“I foresee that this will be a humanitarian catastrophe, and when that happens, people will flee,” said Sletten. “And when people get that desperate, the borders with Iran and Pakistan will mean nothing.”
The illegal land route most commonly used by people-traffickers is known as the golden crescent, which is also popular for smuggling narcotics. Afghans are brought through the deserts of Nimruz province over the border into the Balochistan region of Pakistan.
From here they move south, then cross over into Iran from towns such as Mashkel, travelling across the hostile, mountainous terrain between the two countries. There are multiple entry points into Iran, but all take the refugees up into Iranshah, where they make the arduous 1,400-mile journey across the country and are dropped close to the Van border region of Turkey.
Two people smugglers confirmed to the Guardian that there had been a steep rise in demand. “We have seen a boom in human trafficking after the Taliban took over the power,” said one. “Previously at least 50 vehicles carrying refugees entered into Pakistan from Nimruz province. But now at least 150 vehicles or more are entering into Pakistan through the golden crescent route.”
Despite the Pakistani government’s vows to keep out refugees, some have recently managed to use the Spin Boldak-Chaman border crossing, which has been kept open for those who are travelling as patients or visiting family, and where 6,000 people cross daily.
About 10,000 people from the minority Shia Hazara community from Afghanistan, members of which have been tortured and killed by the Taliban recently, have crossed over into Pakistan in recent days, according to Raza Royesh, a Hazara activist. Most are now living in mosques, marriage halls and the homes of their relatives in the city of Quetta, and many are contemplating trying to get to Europe.
Another smuggler said that Pakistan’s recent efforts to fence its border with Afghanistan had done little to stop people illegally crossing, often on foot. “It is impossible to fence the mountains and deserts,” he said. “We have people at all entry points to receive the refugees and take them to the next destination.”
A more treacherous route for Afghan refugees is to cross directly to Iran from Nimruz and Herat provinces. But this is heavily guarded and much more dangerous; in May, Iranian border guards were accused of drowning 50 Afghan refugees. Iran has been accused of collaborating with the Taliban in recent days to halt the flow of Afghans trying to get into the country, with dozens captured and deported back to Afghanistan.
Turkey, long seen as the entry point into Europe, has also embarked on a ferocious crackdown on Afghan refugees attempting to cross over from Iran. The country already hosts 4 million Syrian refugees and the anti-refugee mood is palpable. Afghans who have recently reached the country’s newly built three-metre-high concrete border wall are being violently detained and pushed back into Iran.
Ali Hekmat, the coordinator of the Afghan Refugee Solidarity Association in Turkey, said: “In the last two months, there has been a huge media campaign against Afghan refugees in Turkey, calling for the government to stop them. So now the government has sent many forces to the border with Iran, and even those who make it across into Turkey are getting captured and sent back to the Iran side.
“Even Afghan refugees in Istanbul are getting detained and deported. It’s very difficult to cross now.”
Wealthier migrants who do make it to Turkey can opt to take a sailing boat from a Turkish resort town west of Izmir to the eastern coasts of Sicily and Puglia, but the cost can exceed €8,000 (£6,800) per passenger.
With Greece also having completed a towering border wall and strengthened its border resources, the only choice for most Afghan refugees is to take the Balkan route, one of the most perilous and gruelling passages toward Europe. It takes them through Bulgaria, then North Macedonia or Serbia, then Bosnia, Croatia and Slovenia, from where they can finally reach Italy or Austria.
It is a voyage that can take months and is blighted by freezing temperatures and illegal pushbacks from border police in Croatia, who in recent years have been accused of beating, torturing and even sexually abusing migrants.
“Afghans are currently the second most prevalent nationality on the Balkan route,” said Laura Lungarotti, the UN migration agency’s chief of mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina and coordinator in the western Balkans. “After what is happening in Kabul, we expect their numbers to grow in the coming weeks and months.”