As Thousands of Afghans Leave Their Country, Many Head for Iran

It is early morning in the Maimana city bus station, and crowds of young men are waiting to board buses that will take them far away.

Yuldash Mohammad, 27, stows his bags under the seat of a bus leaving for Balkh province, but his ultimate destination is Iran.

“I am a farmer,” he told IWPR. “I sold my bull and my farming equipment, and I am going to Iran. There I hope to find work and make money to send to my family.”

His farm, he said, was all but barren due to the recent drought.

“What else can I do?” he sighed. “My children are hungry. We cannot find any work here, so I have to leave so that my family can survive.”

Ezatullah, who runs the bus station, told IWPR that his business has boomed. “Everyday, seven to eight buses, each with 50 passengers, leave for Balkh province,” he said. “Most of these people are going on to Iran.”

Afghanistan has seen wave after wave of its citizens leave over the decades, fleeing the successive wars and conflicts in the country. Many had returned following the fall of the Taleban, but now economic and climatic conditions are forcing them to depart again.

There are currently about one million Afghan refugees in Iran and two million in Pakistan. Both countries are encouraging the Afghans to return home; Iran, especially, has undertaken harsh measures in recent years to force the refugees to leave.

But the buses continue to roll out of Maimana, the capital of Faryab.

Faryab is a remote province situated in northern Afghanistan, where agriculture is the main source of income. Farmers rely on natural sources -- rain and snow -- to water their lands. There are no irrigation canals or other artificial means of getting water to their crops.

A severe drought which has plagued the north this past year has driven many farmers to ruin. The government, although concerned by the exodus, lacks the resources to help.

“Poverty, high prices and drought are driving the young people away, but we cannot help them,” said Mohammad Osman Murid, head of Faryab’s department of refugees and returnees. “People, especially young people, are leaving for Iran in groups.”

According to Osman, more than 16,000 young men have departed in the past year. The statistics, he added, might be misleading: the actual number was likely to be far higher, as it’s hard to keep check on the migration.

Local officials say that this year’s exodus is unprecedented and extremely worrying.

Provincial Governor Abdul Haq Shafaq traces the problem to the drought, and the resulting hunger among Faryab’s inhabitants, nearly 65,000 of whom are suffering real deprivation due to the lack of rainfall.

“The government has distributed 9,700 tonnes of wheat to those affected by the drought,” he said. “In addition, the Red Cross, Norway and the European Union have also provided assistance to these people. But still, not even 20 per cent of (the drought-stricken) have been covered.”

Humaira, 50, supports nine members of her family in Maimana. Since the drought, she cannot feed them adequately, and has to beg bread from her neighbors.

“I have sent two of my young sons and my son-in-law to Iran to work and send us money so that we can feed ourselves and the children,” she said. “I have not heard from them yet nor has the government provided any assistance to us.”

The governor said that he lacks the resources to help everyone.

“More than two million people live in this province,” he said. “Helping all of those affected would require more resources.”

The international community and the central government should intervene to avert a humanitarian crisis, he insisted.

The problem is spreading to neighboring provinces. Officials in Samangan province announced in December that they were facing famine in their area.

Economic analysts blame the government for a failure of vision.

“A lack of a proper economic strategy by the government over the past seven years has caused the unemployment crisis,” said Abdul Wahed Wahidi, deputy head of the economics faculty at Balkh University.

But Aziza, the head of Faryab’s department of labor and social affairs, disagrees.

“The governor has done his utmost to create job opportunities,” she told IWPR. “But there are many more people looking for work than we had planned.”

According to Aziza, the department has found work for 3,459 people so far and has given vocational trainings to 1,082 others.

“The government does not have the resources to do more,” she said. “Civil society and private organisations should employ these people so that they do not leave the country.”

Sayed Zainuddin Abidi, a professor of higher education in Faryab province and a social affairs analyst, is very concerned about the loss of the younger generation.

“The migration of young Afghans has negative economic, social and political impact on the country,” he said.

Sayed Alauddin, a young man who was recently expelled from Iran, blames the government of President Hamed Karzai for his misfortune.

“If there were jobs and factories in our country, why would we leave go to Iran?” he asked. “Afghans are punished, first by God, who has sent this drought, then by the warlords in Karzai’s government, who have built themselves luxury palaces. They never care about the poor people of Afghanistan.”

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