Iran Deporting Up to 30K Afghans Per Week As Illegal Migration Spikes Under Taliban Rule

Iran has become a hub for Afghan migrants looking to escape hardships brought by the Taliban's takeover, with the country deporting over one million Afghans as of November 21, according to the Associated Press.

Many hopeful migrants start in Afghanistan's western city of Herat, then make the treacherous 300-mile journey south through deserts and mountains, where they cross into Pakistan, then Iran.

The International Organization for Migration found that Iran's number of deportations as of the end of November is 30 percent higher than the total number of deportations in 2020. Iran has had to send back an average of 20,000 to 30,000 Afghans per week, the AP reported.

Among a host of other issues, the August Taliban takeover ceased all international donor funds–one of Afghanistan's main income sources, the AP reported. This has left hundreds of thousands of state employees with no income and has made many jobs disappear, as there is no more funding for them.

An anonymous smuggler in Herat told the Associated Press that since the Taliban takeover, she has been moving about 300 people per week, a dramatic increase from her pre-takeover numbers of 50 to 60 per week.

"The country is destroyed so people have to leave," she said. "I feel like I'm doing the right thing. If some poor person asks me, I can't refuse them. I ask God to help me help them."

Afghanistan, Herat, migrants
Iran has deported over one million migrants as of November 24, 2021, a 30 percent increase from 2020. Above, Afghan men wait to embark at a bus station in Herat, Afghanistan on November 22, 2021, for a 300-mile trip south to Nimrooz near the Iranian border. Petros Giannakouris/AP Photo

Every day, multiple buses rumble out of Afghanistan's western city of Herat, carrying hundreds of people to the border. There they disembark, connect with their smugglers and trek for days, sometimes crammed into pickup trucks bumping through wastelands, sometimes on foot through treacherous mountains in the darkness, eluding guards and thieves.

Once in Iran, most will stay there to look for work. But a few hope to go farther.

"We're going to get to Europe," said Haroun, a 20-year-old sitting in the bus next to his friend Fuad. Back in their village, there is no work. "We have no choice, the economy here is a wreck. Even if it means our death on the way, we accept that."

Afghans are streaming across the border into Iran in accelerating numbers, driven by desperation. Since the Taliban takeover in mid-August, Afghanistan's economic collapse has accelerated, robbing millions of work and leaving them unable to feed their families. In the past three months, more than 300,000 people have crossed illegally into Iran, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council, and more are coming at the rate of 4,000 to 5,000 a day.

The European Union is now bracing for a potential swell in Afghans trying to reach its shores at a time when EU nations are determined to lock down against migrants in general.

So far, a post-Taliban surge of Afghan migrants to Europe hasn't materialized. Afghan entries into the EU have "remained mostly stable," according to an EU weekly migration report from Nov. 21. The report noted that some Afghans who arrived in Italy from Turkey in November told authorities they had fled their country after the Taliban takeover.

But a significant portion of migrants likely intend to stay in Iran, which is struggling to shut its doors. It already hosts more than 3 million Afghans who fled their homeland during the past decades of turmoil.

Herat, Afghanistan's third largest city, is a main hub for Afghans from other parts of the country making their way to Iran.

The city is only about an hour's drive from the Iranian border, but the frontier is too heavily patrolled here. Instead, migrants embark on a 300-mile (480-kilometer) trip south to Nimrooz, a remote region of deserts and mountains that is Afghanistan's most sparsely populated province. Here, the migrants cross into a corner of Pakistan, from where they can more easily slip into Iran.

It's an arduous journey. Reza Rezaie, a Herat resident, made the trip with his 17-year-old son. The most harrowing moment comes at the Iranian-Pakistani border, where migrants must ascend and then descend Moshkelghar, literally "Difficult Mountain," on narrow trails along steep drop-offs.

"It's pitch darkness and you can't turn on flashlights for security," he recalled. On the way up, they walk in single file, each holding the scarf of the person in front of them. Descending on the Iranian side, they gingerly crawl down so they don't tumble off the edge. "If you fall, no one will help you because they will fall too," he said.

At one point in Iran, he and others hid in the luggage compartment under a bus to get around checkpoints. He worked for a few weeks doing construction in Shiraz before he was caught in a police raid and expelled.

But he is undaunted. His father recently died, so he has to wait for the 40-day mourning period to end. Then he'll try Iran again.

"What else can I do? Here, there is nothing," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Iran, Afghanistan, deportation
Iran has deported 20,000 to 30,000 Afghans per week since the Taliban's August 15 takeover. Above, deported Afghan migrants enter Afghanistan from Iran at the Islam Qala border crossing on November 24, 2021. Petros Giannakouris/AP Photo