Afghan Asylum Seekers in Iran

Zobair Movahhed

2018 - 2020

Iran; Zahedan, Sistan and Baluchestan, Iran

Afghanistan has recorded the world’s most prolonged armed conflict in the last 150 years. Two generations have been born into war and have lived during war without being able to imagine a peaceful future. The only thing most Afghans remember is seeing their towns and country, as a whole, being passed around among different groups and belligerent countries. They see that the endless cycle of war has only led to bloodshed and bloodied soil on graves. This forty-year conflict has brought cold-blooded massacre, ruins, and unprecedented emigration. For those who have chosen emigration, illegal passage across borders is the quickest, and yet the most dangerous way, to reach their destination. This story is only a glimpse of the sorrowful journey – with little chance for survival and success – that these travelers embark on.

Passing the border of Iran and Afghanistan is very difficult due the rigorous border control. The journey begins at Shahr-e-Naw located in the southern part of Afghanistan. The smugglers take the immigrants across the border to Pakistan. They reach the border of Iran and Pakistan after a 9-day journey of 700 kilometers to the south. The immigrants walk for a full day in mountainous and impassable areas. The whole journey from Shahr-e-Naw to Tehran is managed by a few key smugglers. Each one of them has organized a group of drivers as well as workers to clear the roads and attend to rest stops. These workers and drivers are well versed in the local terrain and are paid a set amount of money per individual they smuggle across. The Afghan immigrants are packed together in vehicles. The drivers drive at blood-curdling speeds on the dangerous roads just to avoid police ambush. If there is an accident, at times not even one person survives. It is estimated that 30 to 50 people die on the road because of accidents, drowning, or being shot by the military or police. The Afghan immigrants pass intercity police checkpoints by walking deep into the night. They use damaged houses or unfinished buildings to hide and rest while waiting to be delivered to the next smuggler. There are no proper facilities. They lie on the ground – just bare dirt, eat an insignificant amount of food, and have to whisper for fear of being detected. Children are not allowed to play. One mistake could lead to a police raid, meaning that all their efforts and hardships were in vain.

Terror, hunger, humiliation, and beatings inflicted by the smugglers or officers are common on this twenty-day journey. Omid, the son of one of the smugglers, prepared the immigrants to get in a car by using offensive and vulgar swearwords. A smuggler beat and made an immigrant, who was stronger than him physically, take off his leather coat just because he liked it. The immigrant’s lack of resistance led him to being locked up for two weeks.

When I was a child, my city welcomed many immigrants who had fled from their country because of the Soviet invasion. A shared language, common culture, and similar clothes, enabled me to connect with them more. I have continually witnessed the emigration of Afghan people since then. I have always been stuck by the reality of the situation. These people must have been so helpless and desperate in their home country that they were willing to undertake such hardships and risks, just for the hope of a better future.

Ayyub was an immigrant who had left his bride just six days after their marriage. Zakir had to leave his home one month after his brother and father had been brutally murdered by the Taliban. They both said that terror, insecurity, and unemployment had surrounded them and their families. They had no choice but to make the journey. They believed that it would have been better for them to stay if they had a good paying job in Afghanistan and were able to provide for their families.

Many Afghan immigrants experience this journey multiple times. They work in Iran for a few years and return to Afghanistan for a few weeks to see their wives and children. They honestly believe that the journey is getting harder and more perilous every year. They say the only thing they really want is to be sure that they will reach their destination safely.

This project has attempted to give a voice to those who have been lost and left behind in the middle of the clamoring conflicts between the politicians, countries, and international organizations. It aims to ask what makes a human being choose dying on the road over staying at home.

{{ readMoreButton }}

  • Afghan refugees continue their trek into Iran after having just crossed the Iranian-Pakistani border.

  • Smugglers hide food and supplies in brush along the side of the road.

  • Afghan refugees, after having recently crossed the border into Iran, wait to be transported to their next destination.

  • Afghan refugees, after having recently crossed the border into Iran, wait to be transported to their next destination.

  • An Afghan refugee, after having recently crossed the border into Iran, prays alone while waiting to be transported to his next destination.

  • Afghan refugees, after having recently crossed the border into Iran, wait to be transported to their next destination.

  • Afghan refugees, after having recently crossed the border into Iran, wait to be transported to their next destination.

  • Afghan refugees, after having recently crossed the border into Iran, show the identification documents from their home country.

  • A young Afghan refugee, after having recently crossed the border into Iran.

  • Curds and sweets in plastic bags that are used as sustenance fry Afghan refugees during their treks into Iran.

  • An Afghan immigrant family in Tehran, Iran. The man, his wife and four children have been locked up for more than a week. He was robbed on the road and he cannot pay the smugglers now

  • Graffiti adorns the walls of a room on the Afghanistan-Iranian border, scrawled by Afghan refugees.

  • Afghan refugees packed into the trunk of a car during their trek into and through Iran. Between 12 and 15 people usually ride in each car.

  • A motorcyclist rides along the Kuhak rode in the Baluchistan region of Iran, next to the Pakistani border.

  • Local Iranian people pray over the bodies of Afghan refugees who died in a car accident.

  • A lone hand is visible through a body bag in a dumpster full of the dead bodies of Afghan refugees.

  • An Afghan immigrant suffers a seizure and is carried by others. He had escaped the smugglers’ lock-up near Tehran. They beat him so hard after they caught him that he had a seizure.

  • Afghan refugee workers, who have been hired as sanitation workers, rest in their dormitory in Tehran, Iran.

  • Two Afghan immigrants in a store. Morad and his friend sell the clothes that their wives have embroidered. They lay out clothes on the sidewalk where people walk.

  • An Afghan refugee child sells toy assault rifles on the side of a highway in Tehran.