It’s difficult getting away from Afghanistan, especially if you’re one of the thousands of Afghans trying to escape. Depending on the direction you take, in front of you lie snow-covered mountains, deserts and arid scrubland. If you make it to a frontier, there are fences, barbed wire and watch towers. If trying to cross illegally, you risk being shot.
This is the reality for many Afghans, including those the Western governments insist the Taliban allow to leave. Some 120,000 people were airlifted out, but it’s thought 300,000 Afghans worked for NATO over 20 years. There are also large numbers of government employees who may be targeted by the Taliban, along with various minority groups, notably the Hazara Shia. It’s possible some may be allowed a single suitcase and entry through the checkpoints to Kabul airport, but the Taliban aren’t going to expedite free travel for most, especially those living outside of the capital.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that up to half a million people will spill out of Afghanistan in the coming months. If the Taliban repression is muted, and if there is stability, the estimate may not come to pass, but either way, large numbers of desperate people will try to leave.
They’ll go in one of three directions. The majority will head east towards Pakistan, which already hosts at least 1.5 million Afghan refugees and whose government is telling the world it can’t cope with more. Since August, the two main crossing points into Pakistan – Torkham and Spin Boldak – have frequently been completely closed to anyone other than traders. There are dozens of points along the border that are used by people smugglers, but getting to them requires passing through Taliban checkpoints along the highways and then crossing mountains or deserts. On arrival, people are confronted by two sets of double chain-link fences with barbed wire coils in the gap between them and signs saying: ‘Warning, entrants will be shot’.
Those heading west towards Iran must pass through the Dasht-e Margoh desert, known locally as the ‘Desert of Death’, which runs through Helmand and Nimruz provinces. Here, too, would-be refugees are met with border fences, barbed wire and watchtowers. Iran also hosts hundreds of thousands of Afghans and has made it clear it doesn’t want more.
To the north are Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The routes to all lie through inhospitable regions. Turkmenistan has closed its border to Afghans, as has the Uzbek government. Given that about 25 per cent of Afghans are ethnically Tajik, those heading north are most likely to head for Tajikistan. However, all the ‘Stans’ are making it clear that they can’t cope with an influx of refugees.
There is a short border with China. It leads up through the Wakhjir Pass, but this is rough terrain at high altitude with only dirt paths, and the Chinese side of the frontier is a closed region accessible only to the Chinese military. Few people would attempt this route.
Most people will head to Pakistan and Iran. Of those who make it out this winter, some will then head towards Europe. And here, too, they confront more hurdles. Turkey is building a 183-mile-long wall, complete with 58 watchtowers, along its mountainous border with Iran to prevent Afghans crossing. According to Turkish President Recep Erdoğan, Turkey has no ‘obligation to be Europe’s refugee warehouse’. Further west, Greece has completed a 30-mile fence on the Turkish border and its navy now frequently turns back boats that set out from Turkey. Bulgaria has put up razor wire along most of its 167-mile border with Turkey and Hungary; Slovenia and Austria have fenced their southern borders.
This year, a new route into EU countries has opened – via Belarus. The country’s dictatorial president, Alexander Lukashenko, responded to EU support for the opposition by allowing in flights from Baghdad and elsewhere full of people who immediately head for the borders with Poland and the Baltic states. Already well over 4,000 people, mostly Afghans and Iraqis, have illegally crossed into Lithuania – 50 times the number for last year. Lithuania, Latvia and Poland have declared states of emergency, built fences and are pushing migrants back across to Belarus, which refuses to take them – leaving them in no man’s land.
Afghanistan will start to fade from the headlines even as Western governments are attempting to get some people out via Kabul airport. That will be hard. The months-long routes through the deserts, over the mountains and past the guards will be even harder.