Migrant Stories – Afghans en route to Türkiye

This article brings together in-depth interviews MMC conducted in January 2023 with Afghans on the move, capturing three very different journeys from Afghanistan to Iran, Pakistan, and Türkiye. These stories detail the struggles of an Afghan family attempting to exit Afghanistan post-August 2021, an Afghan woman crossing over from Iran into Türkiye with the hope of travelling onwards to Germany with two children, and an unaccompanied young Afghan man who arrived in Türkiye to seek work.

Note: Personal information has been treated with strict confidentiality. The names of the respondents were altered to protect their identities.


The first thing we did was to destroy all of our identity and work documents. We borrowed some money from relatives and packed our things in backpacks.”

Qais, a 27-year-old Afghan man, originally from the Balkh province in North Afghanistan, fled the country two weeks after the Taliban takeover of Kabul and arrived in Istanbul, Türkiye, in December 2021. As a former soldier in the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), he feared for his safety and decided to leave the country with his wife and newborn child. Here he shares the story of how he managed to leave the country under the fear of being caught by Taliban forces en route to Afghanistan’s border with Iran.

We were following the news on TV and Facebook all day. Every minute, people were posting updates on Facebook that this district or that district has fallen into the hands of the Taliban, and they were getting close to Mazar. One of my former colleagues called me and said that he was leaving to the Hairatan [border point], hoping to cross it, over to Uzbekistan, and suggested I do the same. Soon after, we heard that the Hairatan road was closed. So, after consulting with my friends, I decided to take my family to Kabul and live with my brother who was working as a traffic policeman at the time. We immediately boarded a bus to Kabul. I covered my face to make sure that no one recognised me as a former ANSF soldier.

We saw many Taliban checkpoints along the road. I was afraid they would stop the bus to find people working with the army and the government. There were many videos posted and shared on Facebook of ex-soldiers who were executed by the Taliban militia. I also heard that the Taliban already had access to the government’s biometric data and had scanning devices to find military men and government officials. However, we were only stopped at one place where two Talib entered the bus and shouted that “Sharia is coming back to Afghanistan and all the infidels, and their servants are defeated by the true Muslims”. They asked us to repeat “Zinda bad Islam, Zinda bad Taliban [long live Islam, long live Taliban],” and we did so.

By the time we arrived in Kabul, the city was already captured by the Taliban. My brother was waiting for us at the terminal and took us directly to one of our relatives’ houses. The city was silent, and nobody knew what was going to happen – there was no news on Facebook or other media. In the coming days, we kept hearing that the Taliban are doing house searches all over the city to find former police and military men. After a week, my brother and I realised that there was no safe place for us, as Talibs had taken over all of the country. That was it. We decided to leave the country.

The first thing we did was destroy all of our identity and work documents. We borrowed some money from relatives and packed our things in backpacks. Then we made calls to some friends in Herat and Nimruz to make sure that they could arrange a good smuggler for us. The next day, we left for Zaranj,[1] where a smuggler was waiting for us. The travel to Zaranj was not easy. We were stopped at different checkpoints and Taliban militia searched our pockets and backpacks, asking us questions about who we were and where we were going. And each time, I answered that I am a shopkeeper in Mazar, that I am going to Nimruz to visit my wife’s parents. Along the way, I was afraid that they would step on the bus with a scanner device, or that somebody would recognise me, and then everything will be over for me.

On our arrival in Zaranj, we contacted the smuggler and met him in a small hotel near the bus terminal. The smuggler, a Baluch man, explained that the route via Pakistan was not safe at that moment because there were some criminal groups in Chahar Borjak[2] and on the Mushkil route that take hostages and ask for ransom. The risk was high, and we would have to wait until the situation improved. However, he added that there was another route to use to reach Iran which was quicker but much more expensive. As we were desperate to leave the country and had women and children with us, we instantly agreed to opt for the route through Iran. We agreed on an amount and after two days, we departed towards the Kang wall at the Afghanistan-Iran border in the middle of the night. At the wall, we saw two pickups of the Taliban guarding the border. The smuggler talked to them and then they just ignored us. I think [the smuggler] knew them and paid them to let us cross the border.

The Kang wall is about three meters high. My brother and I, with our families, climbed across the wall safely. But I remember that some of the other migrants who were with us were injured while climbing and jumping over. A woman broke her leg.

We walked for almost five hours in the dark until we reached a safe house in a small village to have food and rest for a day before resuming our journey.

[1] Zaranj is a city in southwestern Afghanistan, by the border with Iran.

[2] A district in Afghanistan, close to the border with Pakistan.


I got really worried as I had heard stories of women travelling without men en route who got raped and abused by smugglers. So, I refused to go with them.”

Shabnam, a 35-year-old divorced woman with two children, left Afghanistan in early 2020 to live with her parents in Semnan, Iran. After a year of living in Iran, she decided that she had to find a better life for her children elsewhere. She started her journey to Germany with her two children. After two failed attempts, she crossed the Iran-Türkiye border, only to realise that journeying onward from Türkiye is harder than one imagines. Here, she speaks about how the journey to Türkiye can be arduous and traumatic for unaccompanied women and children.

Life for a divorced woman can be very tough among Afghans. My life is hell because they see me as a disgrace, even my family. They see me as a person who has brought shame to her parents, brothers, and sisters because I got a divorce from my husband and left him. I thought life in Iran would be better, but it was like Afghanistan. What made it worse was that I couldn’t enrol my children in school as they didn’t have any documents. I tried to enrol them in a school for undocumented Afghans, but the school asked for their father or a male custodian.

One day, I heard that an Afghan friend was in Tehran and was planning to travel to Türkiye and then to Germany with her husband. Later that week, I secretly travelled to Tehran, met my friend and her husband, and begged them to take me and my children with them. But her husband said that taking children through the qachaq [3] route is very dangerous and a big responsibility for him. He didn’t agree to take us. But he agreed to put me in touch with the smuggler they were going to travel with.

The smuggler said he could take us to Ankara but asked for USD 800 for me and USD 500 for each child. I tried to bargain with him, but it was useless. I sold my belongings, and all the jewellery I had, borrowed some money from a friend abroad and then contacted the smuggler again. He took us from a meeting point in Tehran to Maku.[4] We stayed in a dorm for two nights and on the third night, he took us, around 40 people, in vehicles to a location near the border. We walked for about two hours before reaching the border. At the border, we saw Iranian border guards about 10-15 meters away, but surprisingly they didn’t arrest us. One of them even waved his hand for us. Later, the smuggler said that Iranians are happy that we are leaving their country.

We were only ten minutes in Türkiye when a patrol spotted us and started shooting in the air. Everyone fled, and in that moment it was only me and my children remaining, and another couple who held their children close. We were instructed by the smuggler that if something happened, we have to take care of our children and if the children were lost, it is totally our responsibility and no one will help us find them. So, I didn’t move, I took my children in my arms to not lose them.

The patrol began beating young boys and men in our group with batons and the butt of their guns. They were also shouting at us, at women and children, frightening all of us. As we were close to the border, they took us to the Iranian border guards and left us with them. The Iranians detained us for two nights and then sent us to Askar Abad camp near Tehran for deportation [to Afghanistan]. I talked to my parents on the phone, and after they paid an amount of money to the detention camp guards, my children and I were allowed to leave with my parents.

Once back in Semnan, I contacted the same smuggler and arranged for another journey. Again we crossed the Iran-Türkiye border on foot and fortunately avoided the patrols. In Türkiye, the smuggler took us on a two-day journey, on foot, through the mountains and hills in the cold weather. After two days, all of us were exhausted. We reached a khabgah[5] where we could rest a bit. The smugglers in fact imprisoned us there to ensure we don’t flee during the night. And as we didn’t know the local people and the village, we were afraid to go outside. At night, the smuggler, with two other men, came to the room and asked me and another woman to come outside. I got really worried as I had heard stories of women travelling without men en route who got raped and abused by smugglers. So I refused to go with them. But they got the other woman. They returned her after an hour, raped. I shouted at the other Afghan men in our group and asked them “where is your honour? Can’t you see that they raped an Afghan woman, and you are still silent?” But nobody said anything.

The following day, we continued our journey in vehicles to a city called Kayseri. There we called our hawaladar[6] to confirm that we had reached Türkiye and they can release the money to the smuggler. We tried to find another smuggler through the Afghans in Kayseri – a smuggler who could take us to Europe, but they all said that the border with Greece was closed and dangerous at that moment. Some also said that UNHCR in Ankara could provide us with some support as I was a single woman with two children. I took their advice and travelled to Ankara to register with UNHCR. After completing the registration, I was hoping to be resettled somewhere. But now I see a lot of women in a situation similar to mine who are waiting here for years to be resettled.

I am hopeless, I want to leave here [Ankara] and go someplace safe where my children can go to school and become successful and independent. But I have to wait till the borders are open. God knows, maybe this spring the situation will get better and we can go to Germany.

[3] A qachaq route is a route used to smuggle goods and persons to various destinations.

[4] Maku is a city in the West Azerbaijan Province, Iran.

[5] A khabgah is a dormitory, comprising of rooms without any facilities.

[6] In the Hawala System, hawaladars are money brokers who are mainly engaged in transferring funds from one location to another for a range of purposes. These transfers are made outside of formal banking, financing or remittance systems.


I am trying to work more and save money little by little for my travel to Greece, because I know that I cannot stay here [in Türkiye] forever.”

Samim, an 18-year-old young Afghan, reached Türkiye in August 2022. He began his journey from his village in Laghman along with a group of young boys from the same village who were sent by their families to work in Türkiye. However, en route to Türkiye, some of his friends were arrested in Iran and deported to Afghanistan, while others were caught in Türkiye and held in removal centres. Samim currently works on a farm near Eskisehir in Türkiye and is trying to save money for the next stretch of the journey to Greece.

The most difficult part of the journey was when I was lying in the trunk of a shooti[7] with four others on the route from Saravan[8] to Tehran. We were in the trunk for more than 12 hours and the car was going at a high speed through the roads. When I stepped out of the trunk, I fell down and couldn’t stand up. My whole body was numb, I couldn’t feel a thing in my feet.

When we crossed the border to Türkiye from Iran, the smuggler pointed in a direction and told us to go straight for half a day, after which, we would reach a village where his colleague would be waiting for us. But we got lost on the way and were stranded in the mountains for four days. Our food and water were finished on the second day. When we finally found a village, a local person offered to take us to Izmir for an amount of money. My friends said that we should find a bus that would take us to Izmir or Ankara. As I was too tired and afraid to try that, I went with the local to a house where I found many other people like me who had been smuggled from Iran. They [the smugglers] took us to Ankara where I contacted one of our relatives who paid the smuggler and took me to his house. Later, I received news that my friends had been arrested. Most were deported to Afghanistan, while two of them were still in a detention centre near Istanbul.

My relative found me work in a farm outside of Eskisehir. I work on an agricultural land and help the owner with the farm animals. The pay is not good. I cannot save enough money to send to my family in Laghman. But still, it is safe here and there are no policemen or patrols to arrest me. I am trying to work more and save money little by little for my travel to Greece, because I know that I cannot stay here [in Türkiye] forever. If I go outside the farm, for example to the main town, I am sure I will be arrested. Besides, I don’t know anybody and have no friends here. So, I want to go to Greece and from there to Europe. I don’t know where exactly, but I am sure anywhere in Europe is much better than here or in Afghanistan. All I have to do is work and save money. When I have enough money, I will find a good smuggler and try to go there [to Greece]. In the meantime, I just have to be careful and try not to get arrested or deported to Afghanistan by the Turkish police.

[7] Shooti are vehicles whose drivers are involved in smuggling of goods and persons in Central, South and South-east provinces of Iran. These vehicles carry smuggled goods and migrants at high speeds of up to 220 km/hr at night. Accidents cause by shootis are one of the main reasons for deaths of irregular migrants en route in Iran.

[8] Saravan is a city in the Sistan and Baluchestan Province, Iran.

The in-depth interviews presented in this piece were conducted before the earthquakes which struck Türkiye and Syria in February 2023. Data collection has been suspended and will be resumed as soon as is feasible. MMC Asia and the Pacific will be monitoring the impact of the earthquake on the refugee and migrant population it interviews.