A. the weary Zebah Gul and her eight children are quietly gathered in a small room at a transit center in Herat, northeast Afghanistan. His six-month attempt to escape the war and find safety has failed.
They have just spent a week in detention by Iranian police after being caught trying to cross the border into Turkey, and are beginning to return to their besieged home province of Takhar, on the opposite side of the expanding country.
“Our town was surrounded by the Taliban and government forces. Air strikes and shootings between the two sides were a daily occurrence, ”says Gul, 35, whose husband is still in Iran after evading arrest.
Her husband had worked as a farmer until it became too dangerous. His plan had been to stay only a short time in Iran because the pandemic and US sanctions have made it difficult to find work there and life is more expensive. The family’s priority was the safety of their children; they were so desperate to leave that they didn’t even know which Turkish city they would reach.
“Afghanistan is not a good place to be, there is war and the security situation is not good,” says Gul.
The family agreed to pay a smuggler $ 650 (£ 471) for each person if the crossing was successful, but their attempt was thwarted by the Iranian border police. All except Gul’s husband were arrested.
“We are devastated to have to return to Takhar. It’s not safe, ”says Gul.
Without property, with few job prospects, and facing daily conflict, the family has little to return to other than a few relatives. His story is not unique; As Taliban fighters have spread across the country in recent weeks, civilians have been caught in the crossfire. July 21 the Pentagon admitted that half of all district centers are now in the hands of the Taliban, which surround 17 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals.
Afghanistan is battling additional crises, including a severe drought, the impact of Covid, and declining aid funding – the UK has cut its direct aid to Afghanistan by 78%, amid international military withdrawals and huge territorial gains for the Taliban.
Less than a quarter of the $ 1.3 billion (£ 290 million) in global aid that the UN says is necessary this year it has been delivered in Afghanistan, leaving humanitarian organizations unable to provide assistance on the ground.
Cross-border returns have increased since the start of the pandemic in early 2020. About 550,000 people have returned to Afghanistan so far this year, says Nick Bishop, an emergency response officer at the International Organization for Migration (IOM). That’s double the usual rate, he says, and 55% of those people arrived after being deported back to the country.
“We normally see 500,000 [people] one year; There are many circular migration flows, which are linked to seasonal agricultural migration, so it is not unusual to see that number. But in the last five years, in particular, socio-economic conditions have deteriorated a lot: 90% of Afghans live on £ 1.50 a day, ”says Bishop.
“As the conflict escalates, more people will be displaced. There are new powers in different parts of the country, and many people are concerned about what comes next in terms of education and the future of women. “
Smuggling networks through Afghanistan carry people across the border, and entering Turkey through Iran is a common route.
Hafizullah and Shaiesta, and their two young children, left their home in Takhar two months before reaching the transit center. It was a dangerous journey to Tehran, from where they had planned to travel to Turkey and eventually Europe, but Hafizullah was arrested by the Iranian police before the family had a chance to cross.
“I had no job in Takhar and there was so much fighting … there were suicide attacks, the security situation in Afghanistan is bad,” says Hafizullah, who did not give his middle name. “We walked for 18 hours without food at one point to get to Iran. The children were crying, my wife and I were terrified that the police would shoot us. “
In Tehran, Hafizullah says he worked illegally as a shop assistant for 200 Afghans (£ 1.83) a day, until he believes he was reported to the authorities.
Since the beginning of the year, the fighting has driven nearly 223,000 people from their homes, according to the UN. Turkish media have reported that between 500 and 1,000 Afghans cross the border into Turkey illegally every day.
“The Turkish-Iranian border is heavily fenced. The fact is, for Afghans to cross, there will be family separation and attempts to cross Lake Van. There will be a lot of Afghan deaths, ”says Bishop, who says 8,400 Afghans have been sent back on deportation flights from Turkey this year.
It says opportunistic criminals are targeting Afghans in Iran.
“We have several Afghans in captivity for extortion. A family of 17 had sold all their possessions, moved to Iran with the intended destination of Turkey, and were later extorted for $ 20,000. They had to raise that money, an exorbitant amount of money, and then they were turned over to the Iranian authorities, ”Bishop says.
“People are trying to find new solutions for themselves. Afghans would like to stay home, they are very nationalistic. It is a symptom of a broader economic security dynamic across the country. “