CHAMAN, Pakistan – Nine-months-pregnant Zainab was one of thousands of Afghan refugees who entered Pakistan through its porous border with Afghanistan, after the hard-line Islamist group took control of Kabul from the U.S.-backed government on August 15.
“I packed my dreams, aspirations, past and present, and my child’s future,” she told VICE World News.
She said she and her husband were waiting to board an evacuation plane when a suicide bomber attacked Kabul airport.
Her husband went missing in the attack and she was rescued from a sewage canal by her brother-in-law, in unbearable pain. Zainab said she wondered at that moment whether her baby was still alive, and if the child survived, would it end up orphaned. Zainab’s name, as with the other Afghans who crossed the border and were interviewed in this piece, has been changed for their protection.
Her distraught in-laws took her to a hospital, but it was overwhelmed with bombing survivors. Zainab’s uterus was cramping and bleeding, so a nurse advised her to seek medical help in Pakistan. “She asked me to put on a sanitary pad. I said I didn’t have one. I asked her for one, and she said, ‘I don't either, and the medical stores are closed and lack basic supplies.’”
From her husband's backpack, which she still had, she took out his white brief and used it as a sanitary pad. She entered Pakistan in a rented car with her in-laws, after a long and painful overnight journey from Kabul. “We crossed the border in the evening by bribing a lot of people,” she said.
Zainab is one of thousands of Afghans who’ve crossed the border to Pakistan since the Taliban’s return to power. One Pakistani official told VICE World News that at least 16,000 Afghans have crossed the border before Pakistan started clamping down on refugees fleeing the Islamist fundamentalist group.
Pakistan, which shares two borders with Afghanistan, has been hosting 60 percent of all Afghan refugees for over four decades. But Pakistan stopped issuing refugee cards to Afghans in 2015. Since then, Pakistan has been focusing on documenting existing unregistered Afghans in the country. There are currently 1.4 million registered and an estimated 1.3 million unregistered Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Many of them were born in the country to parents who fled Afghanistan in the first Taliban regime or forty years before during the Soviet War.
Now again, for many Afghans, their only feasible escape is overland, to Pakistan.
Currently, the Taliban are only allowing U.S. citizens, foreign nationals, and Afghans with visas to board commercial flights out of Kabul. But there’s a backlog for documentation even for eligible Afghans. According to the International Rescue Committee at least 263,000 Afghans have been affiliated with the U.S. mission, and many of them are eligible for Special Immigrant Visas. But more than 18,000 applications are stuck in the pipeline.
This is why many have virtually no option but to turn to their five bordering countries: Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Compared to others, Pakistan is the cheapest and easiest border country to cross into.
“Some Afghans are coming through the Chaman border. Some are allowed for medical aid, if they have family on the Pakistani side, or if they have any security concerns in Afghanistan,” Qaiser Khan Afridi, the spokesperson for UNHCR Pakistan, told VICE World News. But he said the number of people actually getting through is not that large.
The journey into Pakistan from Kabul is long, risky, and tedious. And it can cost up to $250, five times the monthly income of the average Afghan.
Dozens of drivers in Kabul have been loading up as many as seven passengers and charging them $175 per person for the journey to the border. According to drivers VICE World News spoke to, they are not charging passengers younger than 10 years old.
Their journey starts in the outskirts of Kabul city, with a prayer break at Ghazni, and then to Spin Boldak, the Afghan border town in Kandahar province. This 370-mile road trip used to take eight hours, but because of destruction from IED bombs along the roads the last few weeks, it can now take up to 15 hours to reach the Pakistani border town Chaman, where they might have a chance at making it through.
Pakistan requires most Afghans to have a visa to come to Pakistan, but there is an exception. On the Spin Boldak-Chaman border, Kandahar residents carrying Afghan ID cards can easily cross the border into Pakistan and Chaman residents carrying Pakistani identity cards can easily cross into Afghanistan. Before the Taliban regained control of Kabul, about 6,000-7,000 traders and daily wage earners would travel between the two countries every day through this porous border. Many of the Afghans we spoke to believed drivers and middlemen helped them cross the border through these resident ID cards.
But aside from the cost and the distance, getting to the border poses many other risks.
Wali, a 15-year-old who lost his father in the Kabul airport bombings and his mother and sister in a bombing earlier this year, set out on the journey alone. He said he paid a driver to take him to Spin Boldak from Kabul. “Upon hearing that I’m an orphan, he said he’d only charge $100,” he said. Wali told VICE World News he gave him the money and was surprised that he was the only passenger in the car.
“Once he hit the road, the driver said, ‘I can teach you how to drive now. Sit on my lap and I’ll teach you how to drive.’ This seemed weird to me, and I sat reserved and wasn't replying. Then after a while, he started touching me inappropriately. I told him not to do so or I will tell the Taliban at the next checkpost,” Wali said.
The driver soon attacked him, tore his clothes and took another $100 out of his pocket before throwing him out of the car.
Luckily, a neighbour of his family who was also trying to cross into Pakistan in a rented car spotted him on the side of the abandoned highway. Upon hearing of his ordeal, she tearfully negotiated with the driver to allow him to join them. After Wali paid him, he agreed.
For many Afghans, money offers an option for passage to Pakistan, but not a guarantee. Ahmad, a Kabul-based photojournalist, sold his camera to rent a car and take his family across the border into Pakistan.
They breezed through most Taliban checkpoints along the way. But once they reached Kandahar, he said he was asked to get out of the car for a physical search. They found his press credentials.
“While I was still answering their questions, they started beating me in front of my family. My wife begged them to leave me. They beat me black and blue and took all my money,” Ahmad told VICE World News.
Then they let him go. “My body was so bruised. I couldn’t even sit in the car,” he said.
He decided to go back to Kabul to borrow more money from a relative to try again. On the second time, he destroyed all evidence of his profession. “I had to burn all my pictures, cards, and everything before embarking on this heart-wrenching journey,” he said.
Ahmad and his family made it through to Chaman, where he was taken to a hospital immediately to treat his injuries.
Wali, too, managed to cross the border, by posing as his neighbour’s son. The neighbour used her sister’s Pakistani identity card to get through.
Ahmed and other Afghans VICE World News spoke with said once they got to Spin Boldak, the Afghan border town was swarming with Afghan middlemen known as Kajakbar. These men ask for the equivalent of $20-30 per passenger to facilitate crossing the border. And then they hire another driver for $60 or try to get a spot on a packed train that goes between the border towns.
It’s unclear how the middlemen or drivers navigate border patrol in Afghanistan. But drivers say if the passengers are Hazara, like Zainab, Ahmad, Wali and his neighbour, the Taliban at the border are happy for them to leave and don’t scrutinize their documents too much. Hazaras are a predominantly Shia Muslim ethnic group historically persecuted by the Taliban. Pakistan has a large Hazara population too, and Afghan Hazaras blend into that community easily.
“We have been told by everyone to stay in our country as the Taliban have changed now. But looking at the past record of religious persecution by the Taliban which involves ethnic cleansing, it is very hard to trust them,” another Afghan Hazara in Chaman told VICE World News.
This means business is good for drivers, middlemen and traffickers.
The drivers VICE World News spoke to in Chaman said Hazara passengers are like bounties for them, and they fight over them in Kabul. “They are vulnerable and ready to pay any price we ask for the journey,” one driver said.
Yet physically crossing the border still does not ensure escaping.
Last week, Pakistan sent 200 refugees who had come through one of their two shared borders back to land-locked Afghanistan, saying they didn’t enter with visas or government-issued refugee cards.
“These Afghan families were deported to Afghanistan as they entered Pakistan illegally,” Sohail-ur-Rehman Baloch, a commissioner from Quetta city, told local media. Until the government gave permission for them to stay, all undocumented Afghans entering Pakistan would be sent back, he added.
As thousands of new undocumented Afghans line up at Chaman, Pakistan continues to drag its feet on providing a clear strategy or response to the refugee crisis. It’s a problem that will only get worse, as more and more Afghans are expected to flee with experts warning of a looming economic collapse in Afghanistan, and the Taliban backtracking on initial statements ensuring more moderate policies.
So far, the country’s national security adviser warned that “Pakistan does not have the capacity to take on more Afghan refugees.”
Pakistani Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry told VICE World News that “if there is instability in Afghanistan, and more Afghans come through Chaman, we have earmarked camps at the border where they can stay.” However, he said Pakistan “will not let them through to the cities, like we did in the 1980s.”
Initially, the government of Pakistan reacted warmly to refugees arriving in the 1980s, hosting as many as 4 million refugees, and providing them some rights to work and live. This policy changed drastically during the first Taliban regime in 1996-2001: Refugees were accused of putting pressure on social services and the labor market, and after U.S. troops occupied the country, Afghan refugees were blamed for an increase in crime and terrorism in Pakistan. “Voluntary” repatriation became Pakistan’s policy response; 4.4 million Afghans returned through repatriation between 2002-2020. The “voluntariness” of these returns has been called into question, with one study claiming 82 percent did not want to leave.
Even though Pakistan hosts one of the largest refugee populations in the world, it is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and has no national refugee legislation. Instead, registered Afghan refugees receive biometric “proof of registration” (PoR) cards that entitle them to freedom of movement and temporary legal status. But PoR card holders cannot access formal education, work in the formal sector, buy property, or, in some cases, access public healthcare.
The country has an unconditional birthright citizenship policy on paper, but this isn’t extended to the children of Afghan refugees, even the ones who have never set foot in Afghanistan. In practice, only Afghan women can acquire Pakistani citizenship through marriage, like Wali’s neighbour’s sister.
Many of the Afghans Pakistan turned back last week are poor, ethnic Pashtuns and were from Kunduz, the strategic city that has become a pawn between the Taliban, the US and the Afghan government in the last 20 years. It was this city that the Taliban surrendered in 2001, and this was the first key city they took back shortly in 2015, before taking it again last month, a week before they entered Kabul.
While they were turned back, thousands of other Afghans have managed to find refuge in Pakistan, without visas or refugee cards. Many of them were initially welcomed in Shia mosques close to the border, but under directives from the government, caretakers of the mosques are now turning Afghans away.
“Initially, we opened our door to the undocumented Afghans. Later we were informed through our sources that the government will crack down on all those places giving refuge to the undocumented refugees so we had to ask them to leave and we are no longer allowing them in,” said a mosque official.
According to the UNHCR, 9,290 Afghans have fled to Pakistan since April and are seeking asylum. “A growing number of Afghans have contacted us on the phone or email that they are here in Pakistan. We are screening and interviewing them,” spokesperson Afridi said. He added that UNHCR is asking the Pakistani government to understand the situation of new Afghan arrivals and change their policy.
The UNHCR is also advocating for the governments of other neighbouring countries to open up their borders; historically, Pakistan and Iran have hosted 90 percent of all Afghan refugees. Currently, Iran hosts 780,000 registered Afghan refugees and 2.3 million undocumented Afghans. And similar to Pakistan, many of them were born in Iran and have limited rights and opportunities in their host country.
“We are asking all neighboring countries, including Pakistan, to allow Afghans in and open the borders to those seeking safety,” Afridi said.
Wali, Ahmad and Zainab are one of the few to make it out of Afghanistan, but many more are not as lucky.
Zainab managed to get medical treatment at a Pakistani hospital and is in stable condition. “Now I am sitting alone in this land of the unknown, waiting for my husband and the baby,” she said.
Her husband is still missing. But he’s not the only one whose fate hangs in the balance.
Despite making it to relative safety, Zainab and her baby’s future–like those of thousands of Afghans in Pakistan–are just as uncertain.