Even inside Afghanistan, this is a crisis that is hard to spot. The numbers involved are massive, but there are no scenes of mass flight; no images of refugees walking towards the horizon. Because this is an exodus from Afghanistan’s rural areas, where the media spotlight seldom reaches.
This is where the fighting is concentrated and poverty most entrenched. Trickles of people leaving villages across the country have turned into a silent wave heading to Iran. It is seen as a lifeline, and the only hope of a better life for their children, much like the way the US has become a lifeline for people from Central America.
No one knows exactly how many Afghans have made the journey to Iran in recent years, as most enter without papers, paying smugglers to spirit them over the border via the remote southern province of Nimruz. Among them are an increasing number of children. Some are fleeing Taliban recruitment campaigns. Many have been told to go by their families to earn money to send back. Though some initially travel with relatives, they often become separated.
The result of this stealth migration is hundreds of thousands of undocumented Afghans – young and old – living a precarious existence in Iran, doing any job they can find. Reports of children being exploited and abused are widespread.
Tougher border controls imposed by Iran’s western neighbour Turkey have also swelled the number of Afghan refugees inside Iran. In the past, many hoped to use it as a stepping stone to Europe. But the Iranian government has had enough of this influx. Staggering under the weight of sanctions imposed by President Trump, it has been stepping up efforts to arrest and deport Afghans, arguing that it does not have the resources to support them. Many boys reported rough treatment at the hands of the Iranian authorities – adding to the traumatic experiences they have been through at earlier points in their childhood.
Once arrested, they are brought to a detention centre in the border region and then bussed to the crossing that leads to the Afghan province of Herat. This is the one place where the scale of this crisis becomes clear, and where the stories emerge of those who are caught up in it.
Zero Point, Islam Qala border crossing
Afghans are deported from Iran by bus – and left to walk the last few yards into Afghanistan across a windblown stretch of no-man’s land known as “Zero Point”. Its boundaries are marked by two shipping containers, used as shelters by border guards, with the one on the Iranian side painted in their national colours. The name of this place is apt, as the Afghans being left here are back to “zero” – their hopes of building a new life shattered. In many cases, they have lost all their money and belongings too. “All I have is the clothes I am wearing,” says 30-year-old Amanullah, who was deported on the first Iranian bus to arrive during my visit. Over the next few hours, I watched a succession of buses bring several hundred Afghans to Zero Point.
Among them was 16 year-old Mohammad (not his real name), originally from the province of Takhar, hundreds of kilometres away on the other side of Afghanistan. He had been trying to reach the Iranian capital, Tehran, in the hope of finding work there to support his family. “My parents have no money,” he reveals, “and I felt pressure to go.” But he never got further than the border region. Soon after crossing over, he was arrested.
Just inside Afghan territory, at the official Islam Qala border crossing, a large reception centre has now been built to deal with this exodus – funded by German taxpayers. And here, the British charity War Child is running a programme to care for unaccompanied minors such as Mohammad, and then re-unite them with their families. But, in an echo of the repeated attempts of asylum-seekers trying to get from Calais to Britain, he and others I spoke to said they would try to return to Iran if they could. “Of course I would prefer to stay in my own country,” says 15-year-old Rasul, another deportee. “But there is no work here, so I will try to go back as soon as I can.”
“We have to accept that this is a circle,” said Mobeen Qaderi, the Afghan official in charge of the reception centre. “The only solution,” he said, “is peace in Afghanistan. Otherwise, this will keep going.”
I met 16-year-old Lotfullah (not his real name) in a temporary shelter that War Child runs for deported children in the nearby city of Herat.
Recounting his experiences to one of the charity’s social workers, he said that he had twice fled from the Taliban. The first time was when they tried to recruit him and other boys in his village, in the northern province of Kunduz. He was just 14 then. “The Taliban gave me a gun to try it out,” Lotfullah remembers. “They offered to pay me if I joined.” Like so many other Afghans in conflict-stricken rural areas, his family was barely surviving on his father’s earnings as a farm labourer.
But when his father found out his son was considering the offer he was furious. “He beat me,” Lotfullah says, and “then he told me I had to go to Iran.”
After making it to Iran, he teamed up with other young Afghan boys in the city of Shiraz, doing whatever work they could find. But then he was caught without papers and deported. After making it back to his home village, he found the Taliban were more entrenched. Lotfullah says he skipped prayers one day, and then heard that the local Taliban commander had put his name on a list for punishment – and so he fled again. He made it back to Shiraz and found work in a tile factory, until he was caught and deported again. Fearing for his safety in his home village, he was asking to be taken to stay with an aunt and uncle elsewhere in Kunduz province. But then, Lotfullah says, “I will try to return to Iran.”
12-year-old Samiullah was the youngest boy I met who had joined the clandestine exodus to Iran. He had left his home in western Afghanistan with a small group of men and other boys from his village. Already poor, the region had been devastated by several years of drought and many families were struggling to find enough to eat. Samiullah had had just a couple of years at school before his mother had pulled him out to earn money. She’s a widow – his father died when Samiullah was a toddler – and life is especially hard for widows in rural areas. Tradition bars them from remarrying, and they have even fewer work options than men. “There is nothing in our village,” says Samiullah. “My mother told me I had to go [to Iran].” But barely a week after crossing over, he was spotted by Iranian police, arrested and deported.
When I met 17-year-old Saeed at the War Child reception centre, it was the day after he had been deported from Iran for the third time. As we talked, I noticed a lattice of cut marks on both his arms, some old and fading scars, some clearly relatively new. Several other boys also bore similar marks indicating self-harm, and other signs of mental health issues. It’s a microcosm of a nationwide crisis in Afghanistan, with studies showing widespread psychological problems linked to the continuing conflict.
One of the charity’s social workers asked Saeed if he was prepared to talk about the cuts on his arm and he agreed. It was because he missed his mother, he explained. “I was four or five when she died,” he said. “I do it less than I used to, but I can’t stop myself,” he continued. “When I cut myself, it makes me feel just a bit more calm.”
All the children interviewed and drawn gave their informed consent in the presence of the NGO workers caring for them, their de facto guardians in the circumstances. Real names were not used to ensure their protection.
Drawings Andrew North