Between War and Water: The Ordeal of Migrants from Afghanistan to Europe

Jalil Rownaq and Amir Behnam | Translated by Kazim Ehsan

“Hi. Are you okay? Is everything fine at home? We arrived in Italy. We are still on the boat. I’m connected to someone’s Wi-Fi. Just want you not to worry.”

This was the last voice message that Abdullah Qureshi sent to his older brother, Aziz. Abdullah, his wife Gulsoom, and their two daughters Zahra and Ruqiyah were on the doomed voyage across the Mediterranean Sea, the most lethal crossing for refugees.

While replying to his brother and wishing him good luck, Aziz hurried down to the first floor to share the good news with his parents. They were skeptical, but after listening to their son’s message three or four times, they were filled with excitement and happiness, relieved to know their loved ones were safe.

A few hours later, while watching TV, Aziz saw a breaking news report about a boat carrying migrants that had capsized and wrecked near the Italian city of Crotone. He felt a surge of panic when he heard that some of the passengers were Afghans. He quickly turned off the TV and left the house.

Aziz could only reach Abdullah through WhatsApp, but Abdullah’s status showed that he had been offline for hours. Aziz grew increasingly anxious and sent him dozens of messages and calls, but Abdullah didn’t answer. Unable to wait any longer, Aziz called Abdullah’s brother-in-law in Germany. He confirmed the news and told Aziz he was going to Italy.

After a grueling 22-hour drive to Crotone, he searched for his relatives. When shown photos by the police, he recognized Zahra, Roqieh, and Gulsoom, but Abdullah was still missing. The boat carrying Abdullah’s family and about 200 other people, mostly Afghans, was attempting to reach Europe via the most dangerous route in the Mediterranean Sea when it capsized and wrecked near the Italian city of Crotone on October 23, 2021. As a result, at least 60 people, including Afghans and nationals of Iran, Pakistan, Tunisia, Somalia, Syria, and Palestine, were dead or missing.

Abdullah, Gulsoom, and their daughters Zahra and Roqiyeh.

Abdullah Qureshi worked in Provincial Appellate Prosecutor’s Office in Logar before the Taliban took over Afghanistan. Due to fears of being captured by the Taliban, Abdullah, a group of prosecutors, judges, and their families escaped the country. They embarked on their journey at night, traveling towards the border city of Herat. With the assistance of smugglers, they made their way into Iran on a journey that lasted a week.

Following his escape, Abdullah’s brother was tortured for a week by the Taliban in an attempt to locate him. Meanwhile, Abdullah and his family resided illegally in Iran for a month before being smuggled into Turkey. The journey from Iran to Istanbul took about a month and a half. He remained in Turkey for over a year, doing complex manual jobs.

In one of their last conversations, Abdullah told his brother that he could no longer bear living in Turkey and intended to make another attempt at crossing the Mediterranean Sea with his wife and children. Abdullah arranged with a reputable Pakistani smuggler, despite his brother’s objections, to facilitate their journey. “Each person had to pay $8,000 to get to Italy. They had also paid $3,700 in advance”, Aziz says.

The bodies of Gulsoom and her two daughters were sent back to Afghanistan for burial, but Abdullah himself remains missing. The ordeal that Abdullah and his family went through is a tragic example of the difficulties facing those fleeing conflict and persecution. As individuals and families risk their lives to seek safety, they encounter dangerous journeys, human smugglers, and uncertain futures.

From Afghanistan to Europe: What happens to migrants?

Habibullah Akbari, a young economics student in Kabul, found his life upended when the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan. With the former government in disarray, he and several friends made the difficult decision to abandon their studies and embark on a perilous journey to Europe.

A. Getting to Iran:

Habibullah and his friends packed essential items and left for the western province of Nimroz. They found a human trafficker who charged Hazara passengers 9 million Iranian Rials ($200) from Nimroz to Tehran, compared to 6 million Rials ($130) for passengers of other ethnicities. The trafficker justified the disparity by saying that taking Hazara passengers poses a danger to terrorist groups that target their ethnic community.

Habibullah and his 25 fellow Hazara passengers braved the risks and were crammed into a single Toyota vehicle as they began their journey. When they reached the first Taliban checkpoint, the group members stopped the vehicle carrying the Hazara passengers and demanded that each pay 50,000 Rials (about $1.5) to proceed. Upon crossing into Pakistani territory, they faced another checkpoint where they had to pay an additional fee of 300,000 Iranian Rials ($7) per passenger.

Habibullah Akbari and his friends in Nimroz Province.

Once the group arrived in an area dubbed “Mushkil” (Problem) due to the unpredictable and challenging circumstances Afghan refugees face, Hazara refugees were placed in separate dorms. They were required to pay an additional fee of 30,000 Rials ($1) for staying there.

Habibullah and his 25 Hazara companions joined 300 other migrants in Mushkil. They paid 50,000 Rials ($1.5) per person, five times more than different ethnicities, to local guides who then led them on an eight-hour journey through treacherous terrain to Iranian territory in Khash, a region in Sistan and Baluchistan that is not guarded due to its dangerous and impassable landscape. Once the group reached Khash, they were handed over to local Iranian smugglers, who transferred them first to Kerman and then to other parts of Iran.

B. Iran-Turkey border: world’s busiest crossroad of migration.

Habibullah found a human trafficker in Tehran and agreed to pay $800 to take him to Turkey. He and eight others were crammed into a Peugeot vehicle at Azadi Square at 4:00 p.m. and arrived in Urumiyeh after midnight. The following night, they were taken to a dormitory and transported to Chaldoran, a high-altitude region on Iran’s western border with Turkey. Many houses in the area were crowded with migrants bound for Turkey, including Habibullah and his companions.

Human traffickers guided Habibullah and 300 other refugees through a snowstorm toward the Turkish border under cover of darkness. They trekked for three hours to reach the border, marked by barbed wire fencing. Habibullah and 300 other refugees crossed the barbed wire 20 meters from a Turkish police station. They pass through two 44-meter ditches, with ground and aerial drones monitoring their movements, often in collusion with individuals inside the Turkish border guards. Once across the border, they were handed over to local Turkish traffickers.

Habibullah and the other refugees were packed into minibusses before being loaded into container trucks heading to Van, with 100 to 120 people in each container. He describes the conditions inside as unbearable, with passengers standing face-to-face and only one ventilator for the entire group. The situation was so suffocating that some passengers fainted, forcing the driver to stop. They then had to continue on foot, accompanied by Turkish smugglers on horseback, through the forest for five more hours before reaching the city of Van, a hub of global migration.

Habibullah Akbari and his friends in Sistan and Baluchestan Province, Iran.

From Van, they were ferried across the lake Van on small fishing boats, 75 per vessel, before disembarking on the other side at Tatvan after a five-hour journey. They then walked to a gas station for three hours, where traffickers shared the location via WhatsApp. However, the site was compromised, but Turkish police raided it. Habibullah and some fellow travelers managed to evade capture and continued towards Kayseri, often on foot. From Kayseri, they took a bus to Istanbul.

C. Fear of Death in the Mediterranean

Habibullah agreed to pay $9,000 to a local smuggler in Turkey to take him to Italy. The smuggler transported Habibullah and 76 other migrants from Istanbul to a truck-loading site outside the city. From there, they were transported in a truck to the coast of Izmir to board a ship to Greece. The police discovered the ship’s location and were forced to walk through the forest to another coastal point to board a boat sailing across the Mediterranean. Their boat broke down a few minutes later, leaving them stranded overnight until it was repaired the next day, allowing them to continue their journey to Italy.

After a five-hour journey, they faced a storm. Fear overwhelmed everyone on board as their boat struggled against towering waves. “The fear of death had found its way into everyone’s hearts,” Habibullah recalls. “Each time a wave came, we thought the boat would sink. The waves pushed the boat in different directions. Many of us fainted,” he adds. Although the smuggler had warned them not to contact Turkish, Greek, or Italian authorities under any circumstances, they had no option but to contact the Greek police, who promptly rescued the group.

D. “Lake of Death”: From Greece to Italy

In Afghanistan and Iran, navigation apps are impractical for irregular migration, but in Turkey, smugglers use locator apps, while in Greece, traffickers provide maps for refugees through messaging apps. Using this method, Habib and another Afghan migrant walked nine hours from Athens to reach the Albanian border and another five hours to cross it following a smuggler’s map guide. After being caught and deported back to Greece, they retraced their steps and traveled through Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, and Switzerland before reaching Germany.

Along the way, migrants cross the Sava River between Bosnia and Croatia. The steep river and its fast waters make the crossing treacherous, earning it the nickname “The Death River” due to the high number of drownings. Despite the risks, many Afghan migrants still attempt to cross the river to avoid detection by the police. A local smuggler loaded twenty-five people, including Habib, on a boat to cross the river, but Croatian police intercepted them. Habib and seven others managed to escape, spending four hours evading capture on foot through the forest.

Fifty-Five thousand dead in less than a decade.

The International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) Missing Migrants Project reported that 54,919 refugees were killed or went missing due to shipwrecks, traffic accidents, violent attacks, or illnesses while in transit from 2014 to March 2023. The Missing Migrants Project has not included those who died in refugee camps or after settling in destination countries. The project does not account for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) who have disappeared or died.

According to the IOM’s Missing Migrants Project, the Mediterranean Sea is the deadliest route for migrants and refugees, with 26,148 people disappearing or losing their lives over the past nine years. The highest number of casualties and disappearances occurred in 2016, with 5,136 dead or missing. In 2022, 2,406 migrants died or went missing in the Mediterranean, making it the deadliest year after 2020. This year, the trend continues, with 390 reported deaths or disappearances in the past two and a half months, averaging 5-6 fatalities daily.

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