Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Perilous Road to Iran

Desperate to get to Iran, Afghans entrust their money and lives to smugglers.
By IWPR trainee

“I’m famous for smuggling. I’ve been at it for 21 years and I speak six languages,” said Toren, summing up why fellow Afghans turn to him when they want to travel to Iran illegally.

 

Facing desperate economic conditions in their own country, many Afghans make the journey to Iran every year in the hope of finding a better life there – or traveling on to other countries. Some go back and forth, returning home with money picked up from manual labour in Iran. It’s an arduous and costly trip, and they place their lives in the hands of men like Toren.

 

Now 43, Toren started out in the human trafficking business when he went to Iran as an illegal immigrant and found himself in desperate need of cash to pay off gambling debts.

 

“We’ve got dozens of networks and covert centres from Afghanistan to Iran,” he told IWPR. His group fixes a price and then transports would-be emigrants through Nimruz, a sparsely-populated desert region in southwest Afghanistan, across the border to Zahedan in Iran. Local Baluchi tribesmen assist in circumventing Iranian frontier controls. The illegals are then farmed out to different cities in Iran – but are effectively held hostage until their families back in Afghanistan have paid the agreed fee.

 

“If the money is not paid, we use the hostages for smuggling – (swallowing and) putting some narcotics in their stomachs – from the (Afghan) border to other cities in Iran, as well as to other countries including Europe,” Toren said.

 

IWPR spoke to people who had made the journey and they backed up Toren’s description, adding their own stories of accidents along the road and virtual imprisonment by the smugglers once they arrive in Iran.

 

An elderly man who told IWPR he had been to Iran at least 10 times described the perils of riding with the smugglers.

 

“On one occasion I was in a vehicle designed for 12 people which was carrying 40. A police car gave chase, and the driver speeded up, so we felt as if we were flying,” he said.

 

“Two people fell out because of the high speed, and one of them went under the wheels. We asked the driver to stop but he refused. After some time, we found the dead bodies. The two men were from my tribe.”

 

Abdulqudus, from the northeastern Badakhshan province, traveled illegally to Iran two years ago. Arriving in Shiraz, he and his companions were forced by the smugglers to stay in costly accommodation. They had to leave the youngest of their party behind while they tried to earn enough money to pay the bill. The man was raped repeatedly by the traffickers.

 

Another interviewee said that the smugglers often separate wives from their husbands before making the hazardous border crossing, and that the women may then be subject to abuse or even kidnap.

 

The United Nations is encouraging the Afghan and Iranian governments to ratify its protocol against human trafficking. This may not be too far off, though signing the protocol will not immediately resolve the problem but will merely open the door to discussions on how to class the thousands of Afghans who have entered Iran illegally, and continue to do so.

 

Burkhard Dammann, who heads the programme against human trafficking at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, says that there a number of issues that need to be resolved as countries sign up to the protocol.

 

“An internationally agreed upon legal definition of what constitutes human trafficking and a clear definition of what constitutes smuggling of migrants is the first step towards fixing the problem,” he told IWPR.

 

Afghans arriving illegally in Iran currently have no formal rights. They are not recognised as refugees because nowadays they usually come to find jobs, not to escape war. Nor are they seen as typical victims of human trafficking because – unlike young women kidnapped and taken abroad to work as prostitutes – they enlisted the smuggler’s services.

 

Iran’s interior ministry puts the number of Afghan refugees at 2.3 million. Many of them have official status as refugees, unlike the illegal immigrants. But their welcome is wearing thin, both because of popular resentment over the jobs they take and the cost to the state of providing humanitarian assistance.

 

Since the demise of the Taleban, Iran has been encouraging these official refugees to go back, and an estimated 400,000 did so in the year ending March 2003. To force them to go, the Iranian government is stripping them of their refugee status as of September this year. That will place refugees on the same footing as the illegal immigrants.

 

Whatever the environment for refugees is like in Iran, some Afghans will continue to go there as illegal aliens.

 

Kareemullah, an 18-year-old from Ghor province in central Afghanistan, nervously told IWPR why he has enlisted Toren’s services, “I want to go to Iran because there are no jobs here. I have to go there illegally because the Iranian consulate won’t give us visas, or if they do they take 350 US dollars as a guarantee on top of the visa charge.”