‘In search of a better life’: Afghans in desperate need inside and outside the country

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More than two weeks after the Taliban swept into Kabul, there is still no working government, leaving Afghans increasingly anxious about their future.

The United Nations predicts up to half a million Afghans may try to flee by the end of this year, many to Pakistan, but currently there are few options out.

“We hope they get the protection that they deserve,” Babar Baloch, global spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, told CBC News in Islamabad, “and also that the world will not abandon them,” whether they try to make it inside the country or leave.

At the Torkham border crossing with Pakistan — a vital link through the Khyber Pass — CBC News saw a steady stream of brightly painted transport trucks carrying fresh produce moving through the border into Pakistan Thursday, but only a trickle of people.

Women in burkas with families, a few men in wheelchairs, crossed in and out.

A few young boys hiding on the wheel wells of large transport trucks jumped off on the Pakistan side with burlap bags, reportedly trying to sell wares in the nearby markets. 

Painted transport trucks line up for kilometres down a winding road to the international border at Torkham, Pakistan, a vital link between that country and Afghanistan. (Jared Thomas/CBC)

“The government of Pakistan is not allowing anybody without our visa” to enter at the land border crossings, Interior Minister Sheik Rashid Ahmad told CBC News, although there are exceptions for those needing medical attention.

He suggested that according to ministry counts, there’s been only a 15 per cent increase in people moving across the border, but many are trying to on the Afghan side, particularly in the south.

On Thursday, Pakistan temporarily closed its border at Chaman, south of Kandahar, Afghanistan, where a large crowd had gathered and one man was trampled to death.

Pakistan and other neighbouring countries — Iran and Turkey — are bracing for more, especially as economic conditions inside Afghanistan further deteriorate. 

Considering the options

Over decades of war, Pakistan has taken in millions of Afghan refugees, but maintains it cannot absorb or handle tens of thousands more.

They are considering options, said the minister, but he did not elaborate.

Pakistan’s Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmad says there’s no other option than to trust the Taliban. ‘We have to wait and see.’ (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

He acknowledged that while some in Pakistan welcome the neighbouring Taliban regime, the change poses new instabilities and Pakistan is on alert for extremist elements to take advantage, slipping across the borders.

On the outskirts of Islamabad is the legacy of past waves of Afghan migration. Three thousand people live in makeshift shelters made of mud and scraps of canvas and metal. They have no running water or electricity. 

Still this week, there were new arrivals.

Zakirullah, 17, and his family drove for three days, through Afghanistan and Pakistan to get here. His mother is seeking medical treatment at an Islamabad hospital.

Wrenching choice

“The situation is worse” in Afghanistan, said Zakirullah, who didn’t give his family name. “We are in search of a better life. That’s why we came here.”

But his prospects in this desperately poor camp do not look much brighter. For many Afghans, their sudden departure was a wrenching choice.

People in the Afghan Village refugee camp in Islamabad live in shacks with no running water or electricity. (Jared Thomas/CBC)

But with the power shift to the Taliban, and no functioning government, Afghans are facing rising food prices and falling currency, and many haven’t been paid in weeks, even months.  

“The public is confused how the Taliban will deal with us. That’s why people don’t trust them,” said Nasir Khan, an Afghan who was born a refugee in a camp like this and has never gotten out. 

WATCH | Afghans look for a better life: 

Looking for a better future

The Torkham border crossing through the Khyber Pass is one of the few routes out for Afghans desperate to leave their country and enter Pakistan. 1:49

In spite of his harsh life, his relatives are trying to join him in Pakistan, but he said they are stuck at one of the crossings. 

The Taliban has said it will grant free passage to Afghans with valid documents who want to leave the country, but during the air evacuation, many people reported being barred from getting to Kabul’s airport. Now with the airport closed, the only option is to go to land borders.

“It’s very important that protection is there for them in the neighbourhood and beyond,” said the UNHCR’s Baloch. 

While much of the focus in the last few weeks has been on the 120,000 people who were evacuated by air, more than half a million people are internally displaced inside the country, according to the UNHCR, and humanitarians are warning of an impending deeper crisis, on top of 14 million Afghans who already need food assistance.

Babar Baloch, global spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, says this is ‘not the time for the world to walk away from Afghanistan. Afghans need the world’s solidarity more than ever.’ (Jared Thomas/CBC)

The World Food Program this week added 16 trucks and took 600 tonnes of food into the region. But the WFP says it needs to position critical food and supplies in Afghanistan and at its borders before winter and that will require an extra $200 million. 

Canada committed a further $50 million in humanitarian aid to Afghanistan last week to be co-ordinated through the UN.

“Probably this is the most critical juncture” in the last 40 years in the country, Baloch said.

“This is not the time for the world to walk away from Afghanistan.”



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