Few options remain for Afghans seeking to leave
By Dan Bilefsky and Zia Ur-Rehman
The tens of thousands of Afghans desperate to flee the Taliban now face a harrowing dilemma: Where to go?
After the last American evacuation planes departed from Kabul on Monday, the Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said that the Afghan capital’s airport would reopen for air traffic within days. He also tried to assuage fears of retribution, saying that Afghans with passports and visas would be allowed to leave the country, regardless of their role during the U.S. occupation.
But with the airport’s future uncertain and evacuation flights no longer an option, some Afghans are scrambling for neighboring borders. Hundreds gather each day at Torkham, a major border crossing with Pakistan, hopeful that Pakistani officials will let them pass.
The United Nations refugee agency recently warned that as many as half a million Afghans could flee by the end of the year, and urged countries in the region to keep their borders open for those seeking refuge.
Filippo Grandi, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, has estimated that about 3.5 million people have already been displaced by violence within Afghanistan.
“Most have no regular channels through which to seek safety,” he said this week, warning of an intensifying humanitarian crisis.
For those Afghans seeking to escape to Pakistan, however, there is a serious hurdle. Pakistan has said that it will not accept any more refugees from Afghanistan. Border officials only allow Pakistani citizens to cross, and the few Afghans who have a visa.
Standing on the Afghanistan side of the border at Torkham, about 140 miles east of Kabul, some families in recent days have been huddling with their belongings, determined to flee the Taliban’s rule. There are also laborers from neighboring Afghan provinces who want to cross to earn a livelihood amid spiraling cash and food shortages.
Last week, after a suicide bomb attack at the Kabul airport that killed scores of Afghans, large numbers of refugees — some helped by smugglers — managed to enter Pakistan through the Spin Boldak-Chaman crossing, roughly 70 miles southeast of Kandahar.
But Pakistani border officials said that Islamabad had since ordered tighter controls. While Afghan refugees living in Pakistan shuttled back and forth for decades without being asked questions, in recent years, Pakistan has made access more difficult, and built up a fence 1,600 miles long with Afghanistan.
In recent months, as the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan was collapsing, 30,000 Afghans were leaving Afghanistan every week, many through the Iranian border, according to the International Organization for Migration. Afghans have moved to the top of the list of asylum seekers seeking to make their way to Turkey, and then to Europe.
But there is a public backlash in Turkey against the migrants, while European governments want to avoid the 2015-16 migration crisis fueled by the war in Syria, which fanned far-right nationalist movements.
European Union ministers pledged on Tuesday to increase humanitarian aid for Afghanistan and its neighbors, but did not agree on amounts or on a common approach to resettling Afghan refugees.
Nevertheless, some Afghans are preparing for a new life abroad. This week, a large-scale mission at Ramstein Air Base, in Germany, was underway to help thousands of people, most of them Afghans who were evacuated in the final days of the mission in Kabul, prepare for resettlement.
Five babies have been born during the evacuation, including, a girl named Reach, aboard a C-17 aircraft that was bringing evacuees to the base.