Hundreds of thousands of people have fled their homes in Afghanistan with thousands being smuggled out of the country each day amid a Taliban onslaught that has sparked fears of a new refugee crisis.
Smugglers in the city of Zaranj – a border crossing between Afghanistan and Iran that was captured by the Taliban last week – say the number of people looking to leave the country has trebled in recent months amid fears the Islamists will soon retake power.
One smuggler, speaking to MailOnline, said that on a ‘good day’ he takes now 150 people across the border to Tehran compared to 50 in recent years – with many hoping to escape Iran into Turkey and then onwards to Europe and the UK, where they intend to claim asylum.
The Taliban are sweeping through the country, taking Ghanzi and Herat today, taking to 11 the number of provincial capitals that have fallen in less than a week. With Ghanzi and Pul-e-Khumri, the Taliban now control the two cities on the main highway north and south of the capital Kabul.
The government offered a power-sharing deal on Thursday in the hope of stemming the offensive, although experts doubt the Taliban will accept it.
Most migrants make their way to the smuggling hub of Herat – which has come under attack by the Taliban in recent days – before they are either taken north to the Khosan border crossing with Iran, or south to Zaranj – which has also fallen into Taliban hands.
The northern route is the most expensive and also the most dangerous – with migrants forced to swim a river and then crawl for two hours to avoid security cameras – but carries the least risk of getting caught. A second route goes from Zaranj directly into a Iran and to a safehouse in Kerman, before a final journey to Tehran.
The third route – the cheapest and most commonly used – goes into Iran via Pakistan, then to Kerman and Tehran. It is also the safest route, but carries the greatest chance of getting caught.
Rapid advances by the Taliban has led to warnings from anti-migrant Turkish opposition that new refugee crisis mirroring 2015 is looming – with opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu saying up to a million Afghans could come.
Frontex, the EU’s migration agency, said just yesterday that migration through the Balkans almost-doubled in the first half of this year compared to last, driven mostly by an increase in Afghans and Syrians. That prompted Greek migration minister Notis Mitarachi to warned the EU is ‘not ready’ for another migrant crisis.
The Foreign Office and Border Force refused to comment about whether they fear an influx to Britain of Afghan refugees fleeing the Taliban.
Thousands of Afghans are fleeing the country every day, smugglers have said, mostly on three routes all of which begin in Herat – a smuggling hub. The most direct, expensive, and dangerous route goes from there to Tehran via a crossing at Kohsan where migrants have to swim a deadly river, but stand the least chance of getting caught. A second route goes south to Zaranj before the crossing into Iran, to a safehouse in Kerman. From there, the migrants are taken to Tehran when the coast is clear of guards. The third and most-common route goes via Pakistan to Iran – it is the cheapest, but has the largest chance of capture
An Afghan family at the border crossing with Pakistan in Spin Boldack waits to cross after the border was shut when the Taliban took control of it a week ago
Afghan refugees sit in a camp in the capital Kabul, where thousands of people have fled fighting in the rest of the country
The UN estimates that 400,000 Afghanis have fled their homes since the start of the year due to fighting between the Taliban and Afghan army which is likely to intensify in the coming weeks
An Afghan child looks out of a tent in the capital Kabul where makeshift refugee camps have been springing up to house thousands of people displaced by fighting in the country
Pakistan’s paramilitary soldiers stand guard in front of people who gather and wait to cross at the Friendship Gate crossing point in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border town of Chaman. Pakistan, which has seen the largest number of Afghan refugees cross its border, has refused to take any more
UN data reveals that 400,000 people have fled their homes inside Afghanistan since the start of the year, with almost 300,000 of those fleeing since May as fighting between the government and Taliban stepped up.
The vast majority of those are still inside the country, the UN says, but with Islamist fighters making rapid gains in almost every region and government forces in retreat, many are looking to leave the country.
Just how many is largely unknown. The UN says just 200 crossed the border into Iran on the weekend just gone, but only counts those who are officially registered as refugees.
But with the Taliban in control of most major border crossings and foreign nations shutting their doors – Pakistan, the largest recipient of Afghan refugees to date, has refused to take any more – it is perhaps not surprising that many, if not most, of those fleeing are doing so under the radar.
Speaking to the MailOnline by phone from Zaranj, one smuggler said: ‘I and my team here used to send around 50 or even fewer people to Iran on our pickup trucks each day for years it now stands at 100 or 150 on a good day.
‘I should thank Trump, Biden and the Americans. Many of these people are highly educated, sometimes I regret sending them out, but it may save their lives.
‘We are responsible for getting these people to Teheran, and our job ends there.
‘But I know through talking with many of them that their final destination is not Iran. Many have plans for Europe in their heads. Thousands are being sent out of Afghanistan each day through this city.’
But the perilous 1,500 mile journey across Iran holds its own dangers for the refugees as they must negotiate mountain ranges and canyons as they head west.
The reason they are leaving the war-torn country in a mass exodus is explained by 16-year-old Adul Tawab, who lost his uncle Saranwah Nadir in a brutal Taliban attack on his village.
Adul’s graphic photographs, shot on his mobile phone, showed appalling scenes of carnage from the site in Mohammad Agha district, about two hours south of Kabul, with women and children among those slaughtered.
Adul told MaiOnline that people suspected of working with the government, including his uncle, who was a judge were tortured and executed. Some were beheaded and their heads displayed on stakes, while others were thrown into a wheat threshing machine. His uncle was shot, then his body dragged around, wrapped in barbed wire.
The Taliban has taken the city of Ghanzi, just 80 miles south of Kabul, and Herat in the west of the country. The fall of Ghanzi means Islamist fighters now control the main highways leading both north and south out of the capital Kabul. Herat is the country’s third largest city and was the 11th provincial capital to fall in a week
Adul Tawab, a 16-year-old refugee, fled his village after a brutal Taliban attack which killed and wounded villagers – including children – before the jihadists murdered his uncle in cold blood for supporting the government
A blood-covered woman stands next to children who are also bloodied from a Taliban attack in images taken by 16-year-old Adul Tawab, underlining the reason why many want to flee Afghanistan
One migrant who spoke to MailOnline before leaving Afghanistan for Iran told us his final destination was Italy.
A second said he would go anywhere, but admitted that the UK would be top of his list, saying: ‘That’s always my favourite – I may decide to go there if possible.’
The smuggler explained the circuitous route followed by the caravan of pickup trucks carrying the migrants.
‘We board around 20 to 25 people to each pickup, then we go through the desert towards the Pakistani border.
‘After the border, we switch vehicles and hand over to our Pakistani colleagues. They transfer the people to near the Iranian border.
‘This first stage takes around 24 hours. The drivers go as fast as possible. before reaching Iran, the people will have to walk for 3 hours, until they pass a deep ditch that the Iranians dug to mark the border.
‘Once in Iran, the migrants board another vehicle and again speed through the Iranian desert, usually to the city of Kerman where the smugglers have guest houses. They lie low until the road is quiet with few security forces. Then they board around 12 people in each Peugeot pickup and head for Teheran. Added the smuggler:
‘In the capital, again we have guesthouse, where we hold the refugees until they pay our money. After their relatives send us money, we let them go.’
The whole journey depends on the situation along the road, some days, they reach Teheran in three days and some in five.
It costs around 3 to 3,5 million Iranian Toman [$130] per person. Other smugglers will handle the journey from Teheran to Van in eastern Turkey.
But the climate in Turkey is becoming increasingly hostile for the refugees, with right-wing political parties threatening to ‘send home’ the refugees, whether Syrian, Kurdish or Afghan, who have swelled their population already.
A forbidding 3-metre high Trump-style concrete wall is being built on the border near Van and will stretch for 40 miles along the rugged borderland.
Along its length will be so-called ‘smart towers’ equipped with infra-red detection devices to spot people moving at night.
The vast majority of those displaced by fighting are still inside Afghanistan, while 90 per cent of those who leave the country go to Ian and Pakistan – but there are fears a significant number could head to Europe if the country falls to the Taliban
A woman carries her child through a refugee camp in the Afghan capital of Kabul where thousands are now living after being displaced by fighting elsewhere in the country
Makeshift camps are springing up around Kabul to house thousands of refugees who have fled their homes due to fighting
Families forced to flee their homes due to fighting in Afghanistan drink tea as they sit in a refugee camp in Kabul
Families rest in a camp in Kabul after they fled their homes due to fear of the Taliban and sought shelter in government areas
Pakistan’s Army soldiers talk with people who gather to cross at the Friendship Gate crossing point in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border town of Chaman
The Turkish opposition Republican People’s party (CHP) has been vocally anti-refugee, with leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu pledging last month to ‘send them home’ if his party assumes power, reported the Guardian.
‘The real survival problem of our country is the flood of refugees. Now we are caught in the Afghan flood,’ he declared in a video released on social media, adding that he believed there could be between 500,000 and one million displaced Afghans coming to Turkey.
He has criticised the government for having agreed with the EU in 2016 to keep refugees in exchange for financial support.
In July, the CHP mayor of the north-west city of Bolu, Tanju Özcan, announced plans to charge ‘foreign nationals’ 10 times more for water and waste services.
‘We want them to leave. This hospitality has gone on too long,’ he says, adding on Twitter that Turkey has ‘become a dumping ground for migrants’.
The proposal drew both anger and support, and resulted in the launch of an investigation into Özcan by the chief prosecutor’s office.
Europe cannot cope with repeat of 2015’s Syrian migrant crisis EU ministers have warned, as they nervously watch the growing flow of refugees from war-torn Afghanistan.
With up to 1 million Afghan refugees could be heading for Turkey, claimed opposition leaders in Ankara, stoking fears of another Syrian-style crisis on Europe’s doorstep.
And inevitably, in that event many would head for Calais in the hope of joining the record 22,000 expected to have crossed the Channel to the UK in flimsy boats by the end of this year.
The rapidly deteriorating situation in Afghanistan as the Taliban sweep away western-trained government forces in several provincial capitals, has displaced more than 400,000 people within the country already this year, according to the UNHCR.
One of the main escape routes for those fleeing the Taliban is westwards into Iran, where around 1m Afghan refugees are already given shelter, following the last 40 years of turbulence in their country.
But an estimated 500 to 2,000 Afghans a day are now crossing Iran and entering Turkey to join the 4m or so mostly Syrian refugees on Europe’s eastern flank.
A Taliban soldier holding a rocket launcher poses for the cameras in the town of Ghazni after it was captured on Thursday
A Taliban fighter stands on the streets in Ghazni, a strategically important provincial capital captured by the Islamists
A Taliban fighter in Ghazni, Afghanistan, which was today captured by the Islamist group which is sweeping the country
The Taliban flag flies over the main square in Ghazni, Afghanistan, signalling its capture by jihadist fighters