Afghanistan Analysts Network – English


Deciding To Leave Afghanistan (2): The routes and the risks

Jelena Bjelica 13 min

AAN has done a series of twelve in-depth interviews with families of Afghans who recently travelled to Europe. The conversations provided a fascinating insight into the practicalities of both the decision making processes and the journey, the complex interplay between economic and security considerations and the mixed feelings families often have once their loved ones have finally, safely, reached Europe. In this second instalment, AAN’s Jelena Bjelica focuses on what migrants’ families relayed about the details of the journeys, the routes taken as well as practical preparations.

This series of three dispatches is based on twelve interviews done for a joint project with (and funded by) the German Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FESand resulted in a joint study titled “’We Knew They Had No Future in Kabul’: Why and How Afghan Families Decide to Leave” published on 27 April 2016.  The data collection was conducted in the spring of 2016 with selected Afghan households to explore the decision-making processes at the family level of a small number of migrants. (1) The three dispatches present the main findings and place them in a wider context. The first dispatch in the series focused on the main motives and decision making processes and can be found here. The third dispatch will take a closer look at what happened has since the migrants arrived in Europe and lays out the hopes and concerns their families have now that they are there. 

From Afghanistan to Turkey

All the family members of the migrants interviewed for the study said that their relatives who had travelled to Europe had gone through Iran and Turkey. Most went directly, entering Iran via the western Afghan provinces of Nimroz and Herat.

The shortest distance between Afghanistan and Turkey, as the crow flies, is 2,947 kilometres via Iran. Additionally, the land route from Afghanistan via Iran and Turkey is traditionally also used for smuggling opiates to Europe (this route is sometimes referred to as the “Balkan route.” (see UNODC’s map on the opiate flow from Afghanistan). As the brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand explained, many perceived the route via Iran as the usual route from Afghanistan to Turkey.

[…] He first went to Iran and then Turkey. Iran was chosen because it’s the route that everyone else takes. (Brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand)

Some migrants had an Afghan passport and a valid Iranian visa, for instance, as described by the brother of a 29-year old migrant from Herat, who fled Afghanistan with his family:

He went legally to Iran with his passport and then with smugglers. I don’t know about the smuggler contact. He had some savings and sold his car; maybe his wife sold her jewellery too. Maybe he borrowed money, I don’t know – he wouldn’t have said, he’s proud. He didn’t borrow money from the family.

Others made a detour via Pakistan because of tougher security along the border between Afghanistan and Iran:

They told us they went to Iran from Pakistan as it was difficult to go directly to Iran due to tight security [as they did not have a visa for Iran]. From Iran, there was another illegal route, but in the end they decided to return to Pakistan, then back to Iran and on to Turkey. It took them 15 days to reach Iran. They had to stop a lot and on the way there was hardly any food. It was a long journey. (Mother of an 18-year old and a 15-year old migrant from Kabul)

All but one migrant in the sample had not been issued with a Turkish visa. In some cases, the smugglers who organised their travel advised them and their families not to bother getting a passport, while in other instances, families said they did not have enough money to obtain visas (although applying for a Turkish visa through legal channels would be relatively inexpensive) and therefore had to rely on the (illegal) overland route.

Crossing the Aegean Sea

All but two migrants travelled to Greece from Turkey by boat. Of the two who avoided the sea route, one migrant (from Baghlan) travelled overland from Turkey to Bulgaria, then Hungary and finally to Germany. His brother explained that the smuggler chose this route. A 27-year old migrant from Kandahar who returned to Afghanistan and who was interviewed directly, said he decided to try the land route, as he did not feel the smugglers had made sufficient arrangements for a safe boat trip. He was, however, arrested on the Turkish-Bulgarian border.

We moved through Iran quickly, but in Turkey we had to move more slowly. We arrived in Istanbul after several weeks. From there, the smugglers took us to Izmir, but we did not want to get into the boat as the sea was rough and the weather was bad […] We heard from others about an alternative route so we decided to try the ‘land route’, moving first to Erdine, from where it would only be a very short trip by boat along the coast to Greece, avoiding Bulgaria. (27-year old migrant from Kandahar)

Many of the migrants who did travel by boat spent a long time (anywhere between several days to several weeks) on the Aegean Sea coast, as they often had to make several attempts to cross the sea to Greece. After each failed attempt (for instance because the engine broke down or the boat took on water), the migrants would return to Turkey and wait for a new opportunity to sail. Two interviewees, the mother of the two migrants from Kabul and the brother of a migrant from Sar-e Pul, explained what happened on the Aegean coast to their loved ones:

During the trip from Turkey to Greece, their boat hit a rock and sank but they were rescued. They spent a month in a camp in Turkey and were taken care of by UNHCR. They again tried to reach Greece by boat, but the boat’s engine stopped working. Fishermen rescued them again. The third attempt was also a failure. Only on their fourth attempt did they make it to Greece. (Mother of an 18-year old and a 15-year old migrant from Kabul)

He faced tough problems and only just reached Europe. He saw companions drown in the sea, when a storm hit. Some were rescued. He said, “We walked for about 20-22 hours to Turkey. Then, a storm caused the boat we were on to sink and a Greek vessel rescued us.” I don’t remember, but two Iraqi or Syrian people, who were in the same boat with my brother, died. (Brother of a 23-year old migrant from Sar-e Pul)

An interviewee from Takhar described how his brother called home and asked his mother to pray for him to cross the sea safely:

When he was about to cross the sea, he called my mother and asked her to pray for him. He told her: either I will make it or I will drown. (Brother of a 25-year old migrant from Takhar)

The Western Balkan route

According to a European Parliament report, throughout 2015 the Western Balkans route was the busiest. It starts in Turkey, heads west into Greece and then into the Western Balkans, at present primarily via the former Yugoslav Republics of Macedonia and Serbia. Some of the region’s aspiring EU candidates, particularly Kosovo and Albania, have been a source of irregular migration themselves, with outward border crossings peaking in 2014 and early 2015. Increased migrant flows from outside Europe, however, have shifted this trend, now turning the region into one of transit. It appears from the interviews that all of the migrants took this Western Balkan route.

Most of the information, however, that family members of the migrants recalled was focused on the journey through Iran and Turkey, with few being able to give much detail on the journey within Europe, either in terms of conditions along the way or the time it took for their family member to reach the country where they are now. For the interviewees, the accounts by their relatives of the routes taken after having left Greece were rather blurred and many had only a vague knowledge of European geography, in particular when it came to Southeastern and Eastern European countries. The brother of a 25-year old migrant from Maidan Wardak described his brother’s journey through the Balkans in temporal terms:

From Turkey he went to Austria through different countries, but I don’t remember the names of the other countries through which he travelled. I think he spent one and a half months travelling through all of these countries, 20 days of which he spent in Iran. The main reason for choosing this route was that it was cheaper than the other options and the decision was made to use this way because it was the only one we could afford. (Brother of a 25-year old migrant from Maidan Wardak)

The Balkan route is notorious for human trafficking and migrant smuggling (see the 2008 UNODC report on trafficking and smuggling in the Balkans). The porous borders between the former Yugoslav Republics were the result of ongoing hostilities between the newly established states. The relatively new police and customs departments there did not cooperate with one another, while traffickers and smugglers worked closely along ethnic lines. Since the end of war in the Western Balkans in the early 2000s, new regional forums have been established (such as the Migration Asylum Refugees Regional Initiative – MARRI, see also this LSE paper on regional initiatives) to improve cooperation between the former republics.

In 2015, the states along the Western Balkans route created a humanitarian corridor. The open borders policy, as well as the relatively moderate political discourse and public attitudes, made them ‘refugee-friendly’ countries, despite reported cases of mistreatment, according to a European Parliament report. The state authorities of Serbia, Macedonia and later Croatia (after Hungary closed its border with Serbia in the summer of 2015) even organised border-to-border transport for refugees in their respective countries. The news of the humanitarian corridor reached Afghanistan and may have encouraged their families to send their relatives on the perilous journey:

[…] the media were broadcasting reports of people leaving for Europe. We said, “Let’s trust God. You will arrive somewhere.” (Brother of a 23-year old migrant from Sar-e Pul) 

He used Facebook on a daily basis to read about the situation along the route and he read that the border between Turkey and Greece was open. He might have been motivated by this. He is currently in Belgium. (Brother of 30-year old migrant from Helmand)

Difficulties along the way

Based on the information their families provided, all the migrants had set out between the (early) summer and late autumn of 2015. The families had often only sketchy details of how long the trip had taken, but it was clear that many of the travellers had been forced to interrupt their journey along the way. In Iran and again in Turkey, several had to wait for smugglers to arrange for their onward passage. In one case, a migrant worked in Turkey for seven months to earn money for his onward journey.

He had to leave for Iran, then Turkey [where he stayed some seven months because he didn’t have enough money to travel to Germany]. He found work in Turkey and eventually spent that money, together with money sent by the family, to travel on to Germany. (Sister of a 22-year old migrant from Kunduz)

Even for those passing through, the stay in Turkey was often long as most migrants entered the country on foot through the mountains. In many cases, they did not tell their families the extent of the difficulties they faced along the way, in order not to worry them. Some family members said they had asked not to be told any details because they would be too upsetting.

However, the mother of the two migrants from Kabul described how smugglers left her sons without food or water during the 15-day walk through the mountains between Pakistan and Iran:

They were told they would walk in the mountains for two to three hours. But in the area between the Pakistani and Iranian border, the boys had to walk for 10 hours per day, without any water for 15 days. The boys told the smuggler they could not go on without food or water. In the mornings, they were given some bread and a bottle of water for the whole day. One day, a boy who was part of their group collapsed and later died from exhaustion. My boys then asked for more water but were usually only given a little bit of muddy water once they ran out of bottled water. (Mother of an 18-year old and a 15-year old migrant from Kabul)

The brother of a 20-year old migrant for Baghlan shared a similar story:

He told me that he had been stuck on the border between Iran and Turkey for 20 days. I think the smuggler could not get him through the border on one particular day. The smuggler hid him in a desert area with 30-35 other people. In this area, there was a lot of trash and different kinds of animals. My brother said that the food they had lasted for only a day and that for the next three days they had nothing. He said if the smuggler had not shown up on the fourth day, they might all have died.

Other migrants told their families about difficulties that included instances of arrest, mistreatment and perilous journeys by boat. They described the hardships of being at somebody else’s mercy when it came to getting food, water and shelter. Some migrants told their families that the trek over the mountains around the Iranian-Turkish border had been horrible. Others said they had been mistreated either by the smugglers or the local authorities, as described by these two interviewees:

He said he was arrested with two smugglers along the Turkish border with Iran and mistreated. We didn’t have any news from him for almost two weeks. He then had to spend almost one month in a migrant camp in Turkey where the conditions were very bad. (Brother of a 30-year old migrant from Helmand)

My brother said a local smuggler in Iran beat him, along with a group of 50 Afghans; he gave them electric shocks and took their money and luggage. (Brother of a 17-year old migrant from Nangarhar)

A good smuggler is hard to find

The interviewees, most of whom had been involved in the preparations of their family member’s journey, described how in most cases the family contacted a smuggler to discuss their options, get assurances that their loved ones would be taken care of, and agree on a price. (2)

Finding the money and the smuggler was necessary. From the time of the initial discussion until he left, I made sure we found a good smuggler who would succeed in getting him to Europe. (Brother of a 20-year old migrant from Baghlan)

I discussed the issue with the smuggler […] There was no need to get a passport for my son, I was told. When my son got to Turkey, I paid the money to the smuggler. We were in touch with the smuggler while my son was in transit, and if something happened to him, the smuggler would report it to me, I was told. (Father of a 19-year old migrant from Kabul)

In Kabul, we found a smuggler and told him that only after the boys reached their destination would we pay him. The smuggler’s mother-in-law lives in our neighbourhood, and her son-in-law knows a lot of people and has connections to many other smugglers along the route to Europe. (Mother of an 18-year old and a 15-year old migrant from Kabul)

With a few exceptions, most families discussed at length the difficulties they faced in getting the funds together. For many, it required borrowing money from relatives and friends and/or mortgaging their homes. Payment arrangements, as well as the cost of the journey to Europe, seemed to vary widely: from 1,500 US dollars to more than 8,000 US dollars per person. (In some cases the price mentioned only concerned the journey to Turkey, with the families not specifying how much their sons or brothers had paid for the boat trip from Turkey to Greece. For the humanitarian corridor in the Western Balkans, where the governments organised the onward journey, no smugglers’ services would have been required).

I discussed the issue with the smuggler, who said payment from Kabul to Turkey was 1,500 USD. (Father of a 19-year migrant from Kabul)

He spent almost 8,000 USD getting from Mazar to Germany. (Brother of a 23-year old migrant from Sar-e Pul)

Some families said that their brothers or sons would contact them when they needed money while on their journey, and that they would provide them with instructions on how to pay:

He had already talked to the smuggler and paid him 1,500 USD. He paid this money to the smuggler to take him to Turkey. When he got to Turkey, he told his friends he needed more money. These friends then informed us and we sent him the money he needed, which we borrowed from our relatives. (Brother of a 25-year old migrant from Maidan Wardak)

Some migrants’ families were able to negotiate that payment would only be made once their family member had reached Europe, while others paid after each leg of the trip was completed (generally Iran, Turkey and Europe). The mother of the 18-year old and 15-year old from Kabul said that the smuggler told the family:

Whenever your boys call and say they are in Iran or in Turkey, then you can pay the money for this part of the journey.

The brother of a 25-year old migrant from Takhar said that several different smugglers had been involved in his brother’s journey to Germany:

He spent a total of 4,000 USD in order to reach Germany […] We first sent him to Nimroz then smugglers took him to Iran for 600 USD, another smuggler took him to Turkey for 700 USD, then to Greece and from Greece to Germany. It took two months for him to reach Germany.

The brother of a 17-year old migrant from Nangarhar described how he made a deal with the smuggler for his brother:

I took him to the smuggler and we made a deal and agreed that payment would only be made once he had reached his final destination. The money would not be paid if there were three failed attempts by the smuggler to get him there.

The 27-year old migrant from Kandahar (who was able to give the most detailed account of his journey), was repatriated and decided not to return to Kandahar and based himself in Kabul. He said he paid increments of 2,000 to 3,000 US dollars for each leg of the trip. He also said that smugglers set up a chain of hiding places along the way and they provided the migrants with food and water along the way.

On the way, we had to stay with the smugglers in apartments provided by them. We moved through Iran quickly but in Turkey we had to move more slowly. We arrived in Istanbul after several weeks. From there, the smugglers took us to Izmir. (27-year old migrant from Kandahar)

Although the interviewees knew only a fraction of what their family members had endured during their journeys and were thus unable to provide detailed accounts of their relatives’ travels through some parts of Europe (especially through the Western Balkans), it is clear that all the migrants used this relatively new and shorter migration route (when compared to the route via Libya to Italy). The Balkan route, although not devoid of peril, is considered safer than travel through Libya to Italy, as it is mainly a land route. For those migrants coming from the Middle East and Afghanistan, Turkey is within easier reach than Libya. However, there are now new challenges along the road, in particular in the Western Balkans, which include new fences along borders and unanticipated reactions and changes in policies by the primary destination countries, which burdens the transit countries (such as Greece). This is what has most likely led to the emergence of new, secondary routes in the region.


(1) The study consisted of twelve in-depth, semi-structured interviews that took place across Afghanistan’s regions as follows: four interviews in Kabul and Wardak province; four interviews in Takhar, Sar-e Pul, Kunduz and Baghlan; one interview in Nangarhar; two interviews in Helmand and Kandahar; and one interview in Herat. The ethnic composition and urban/rural population ratio in the provinces was taken into account in the selection of interviewees. The respondents were selected and located through a referral system where AAN researchers reached out to their networks looking for families where at least one member had left for Europe in 2015. Respondents were interviewed about the departure of their family member(s), how decisions were made prior to their departure, details of the trip to Europe and thoughts on the future of the migrant in Europe. In addition, basic household information was collected for each of the families. For a shorter summary of the study, published jointly with FES, see here.

All migrants included in the study were male, with one exception where a whole family – husband, wife and young children – travelled together. In one case, two young brothers from one household travelled together, and in one case a migrant who had been forcibly returned, was interviewed directly. All migrants included in this study were between the ages of 15 and 30. Most of the interviewees giving information about the migrants in question were brothers and fathers (there was one mother and one sister).

(2) The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime and its protocols on human trafficking and smuggling, and manufacturing and smuggling in arms from 15 November 2000 are signed by all states on the route that the migrants described (only Iran has yet to ratify it).


Europe human trafficking migrants migration Refugees smuggling