international analysis and commentary

Afghan migrants: dreaming of Europe but ending up in Iran and Syria


Almost fourteen years after the toppling of the Taliban government in Kabul at the hands of an international military campaign, Afghanistan still suffers from frequent terrorist attacks and very fragile security. Today, Afghan youth have to deal with the dire implications of 30 years of war and poverty that have rendered their lives extremely difficult in an unstable present that promises a very bleak future.

On September 16, the Afghan Media and Research Center stated that the majority of immigrants arriving daily in Europe are young Afghans. The search for a better life has driven massive numbers of Afghans to choose the long and hard journey toward Europe. However, many soon find themselves confronted by Iran’s Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution that stands at the borders with Turkey to prevent Afghan migrants from continuing their journey to the West. Since the beginning of the Afghan civil war in the 1980s, Iran has accepted more than three million Afghan immigrants who mainly work in construction and are not entitled to hold Iranian citizenship or enjoy other essential rights even though they share many cultural customs with their hosts (including strong linguistic bonds). Moreover, most of the Afghans live in Iran illegally, which further demonstrates their marginalization in that country.

Living conditions often do not improve as Afghans take the next step to reach Europe: immigrants of different war-torn countries, including Afghanistan, have recently ended up engaging in violent clashes in foreign cities for seats on trains to European destinations. The Daily Mail reported on September 18 that deadly clashes broke out between Syrian and Afghan migrants as they fought to board trains across Croatia.

Afghan journalist Najim Rahim of Kunduz was quoted on The New York Times on September 19 saying that more than 100 of his friends, neighbors and acquaintances had recently left everything behind and taken off toward Iran and Turkey in hopes of reaching Europe. Rahim described shops being closed and entire families being uprooted because they would rather risk their lives in a perilous and uncertain journey than endure their reality at home. To make this journey, Afghans begin to face challenges when they line-up at the break of dawn to obtain passports in Kabul and find “brokers” who charge massive amounts of money, sometimes reaching up to $6,000, for Turkish visas.

While many Afghan officials have chosen to turn a blind eye and ignore the mere existence of the alarming phenomenon, former President Hamid Karzai recently pleaded with young people to stay and help their country. With the UN refugee agency estimating that more than 50,000 Afghans have made the trip to Europe since the start of this year, the Afghan leaders fear no one will be left to rebuild the country. On September 22, an article published by The Atlantic highlighted the Afghan government’s social media campaign “Stay with me” that aims to dissuade young Afghans from abandoning their country and urges them to stay and develop it.

Afghanistan’s Refugees and Repatriations Ministry’s envoy to Iran, Mohammad Asef Zardabi, declared on September 28 that approximately 2,000 Afghans cross the borders into Iran illegally every day. In a statement published on Al-Bawaba, the Afghan official said that most of the migrants try to reach Europe through Iran, and many end up losing their lives in the process.

Official statistics speak of almost 2.5 million Afghan refugees in Iran, a million of whom live in the country illegally thereby holding no official documents that would allow them to receive benefits like education or healthcare. On September 29, Gulf Magazine published an article on the grim prospects for Afghan immigrants who are left to choose between discrimination in Iran and war in Syria. The Wall Street Journal published a related report last year that shed light on how Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are sending illegal Afghan immigrants to fight in Syria for a monthly salary of $500 and the chance to obtain an official permanent permit of residence upon their return from war. Confirming this was a BBC interview with several Afghan refugees who had made it to Europe through Turkey then Greece. They reaffirmed that Iran offers the illegal Afghan migrants a monthly salary and a promise of permanent residence in exchange for fighting in support of the Assad regime.  

When these hopeful Afghans first decide to embark on a migrant’s journey towards a better and brighter future, they expect hardship and uncertainty, but they do not foresee the fate of a warrior in a foreign land. However, when struck with the bitter choice, some take any promise they can get and any job they are offered. It should thus be kept in mind that, among the individuals who receive military training and travel to Syria as foreign fighters, at least some do not risk their lives because they care for the cause they are defending, but because they desperately need a job to provide a much needed income – and perhaps a stable future in a land that will finally welcome them as full citizens.