- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 22, 2001


(Editor's Note: Crude, hand-copied maps are sometimes carried by Afghan migrants trying to reach Europe. Like the charts of ancient travelers, the modern fears and perils are clearly noted: deserts, vast cities, mountains, unscrupulous smugglers and, finally, an intimidating sea. This report views the treacherous route at its beginning and end.)


MILE 46 CAMP, Afghanistan He carefully unfolded the map. The blue paper was limp from being handled countless times. The lines and arrows were still clear, however, traced from a copy of a copy of a copy.

Abdul Azim, 30, a carpenter from Kandahar, ran his rutted fingernail over the 2,100-mile route he has traveled many times in his imagination: Across Iran, over the mountains into Turkey, and by boat to the Greek islands.

"I'm prepared in my mind," he said. "I'm prepared in my heart. I am not scared. I just need one thing."

He looked down at his old plastic sandals. "Boots," he said. "Then I can start on my way."

It's a three-mile hike from the Iranian-run Mile 46 camp to the border, marked by worn-out tires and castoff auto parts on either side of a lone checkpoint. It's a simple matter to bypass the post and cross the wind-packed desert plain into Iran.

There, it gets more complicated.

Iranian authorities have moved to choke off illegal crossings since September 11. Not even top U.N. envoys could persuade Iran to open the frontier.

The country already is reluctant host to more than 2 million Afghan refugees. Some arrived back in 1979 just after the Soviet invasion. Iran wants no more.

Inspectors, meanwhile, are making it harder to hire Afghan workers on the black market.

In Zahedan, a colorless border city in southeastern Iran, captured Afghan migrants are herded to a municipal parking lot converted into a detention pen. Buses come every few days to carry them back to Afghanistan.

Torn plastic bags swirl in the wind and snag on rusty barbed wire. Families sleep on blankets arranged in concrete parking bays or storerooms, each lighted by a single dull bulb. Some children wear dirty Western clothes Sesame Street and Barney that have somehow reached Afghanistan in the last link of a long hand-me-down chain.

A man slumped against a wall and cried. His 9-year-old son tried in vain to console him.

Ahmad Hasanzaheh said his wife was taken hostage by the smugglers who helped them across the border. She was insurance for payment, he said.

The family could not gather the full fee in time: about $150 per person to reach Iran from Herat in western Afghanistan.

"We thought we could get the money from relatives in Tehran," Mr. Hasanzaheh sobbed. "Now everything is lost. What will they do to my wife? I can't even think of these things."

A young man with a dirt-streaked face looked on. He, too, had a hand-drawn map.

"Yes, there's a risk. You can get robbed or die trying to reach Europe," said Shokroallah Shirmohammed, 22. "But staying in Afghanistan is a risk, too. There is no way to make a life anymore. So we try to leave. And we get caught. Then we try again and again and again."

The illegal-immigration routes from Central Asia to Europe's southeastern edge roughly mirror the ancient Silk Road. Where trade caravans once lumbered, there is now a one-way trek west on buses, hidden in trucks or on foot or horseback.

For years, it was mostly Kurds fleeing the heavy hand of Iraqi or Turkish troops. They now have lots of company: Chinese, Sri Lankans, Iranians. In the past year, many Afghans began turning up. The U.S.-led military assault only increased their desperation to reach other shores.

"The whole thing is a tragedy. It's just one big tragedy," said Jean-Philippe Chauzy, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, which helps the displaced with aid and repatriation.

No precise figures are available on the number of Afghans on the move. But Mr. Chauzy concedes there could be "a sharp rise" in illegal Afghan migrants perhaps drawn by rumors of easy asylum review in the European Union and elsewhere.

Greece is the main destination in the European Union.

More than 200,000 illegal immigrants have been caught this year trying to sneak into Greece, mostly via Turkey and other neighboring countries. Perhaps an equal number evaded authorities, experts say.

Afghans also have increasingly hitched onto other migrant waves pushing through Southeast Asia toward Australia.

In August, 433 immigrants, mainly Afghans, were rescued from their sinking boat by a Norwegian cargo ship in the Indian Ocean. Australia refused entry and shipped them to New Zealand and the Pacific island republic of Nauru.

Many Afghans were among the 374 illegal immigrants who drowned in October when their boat sank off Indonesia.

"Today, there are 250 million people on the move," said Stelios Perakis, a professor of international law at Panteios University in Athens. "It is the greatest humanitarian crisis on record."

Greek Prime Minister Costas Simitis has vowed that his country will not become an "unfenced vineyard" for immigrants. On Dec. 5, he urged a more unified EU battle against the flood of migrants.

"Illegal immigration cannot be accepted," Mr. Simitis said. "The forecast is bad, as we are expecting an increase in the flood of people illegally entering the country because of developments in Asia."

The winds in the Aegean Sea reached 60 mph on Dec. 2 a full gale. All ferries to the Greek islands were ordered to remain in port.

Yet, out in the narrow straits between Turkey and the Greek island of Lesbos, a few inflatable dinghies thrashed about in six-foot waves. Thirteen Afghans, who knew only the mountain storms of home, paddled toward the lights of Lesbos that appeared and vanished in the swells.

Thousands of others have tried the crossing on rafts and once even on an old door.

With Greek coast guard patrols strengthened, illegal immigrants often seek the cover of foul weather.

This night was just too much for the tiny vessels. Two Afghans drowned when the boats capsized. Four others were missing and are presumed dead.

A few weeks earlier, another group of four Afghans slipped into the Aegean in a child's plastic boat. They bought it in Istanbul and practiced paddling in the mild Sea of Marmara. This was different. Aegean whitecaps washed over the boat shortly after it left Cesme, Turkey, for the Greek island of Chios, about six miles away.

"I saw death 1,000 times in front of my eyes," said Azim Ansra, 21, from a village near Pol-e-Khomri in northern Afghanistan. "It was very, very difficult and the sea was very, very stormy Every moment I'm thinking I sink into the sea."

After six hours, they stumbled ashore. "I think that I am a good luck man," said Mr. Ansra. But they were quickly arrested. They face deportation to Turkey under a bilateral pact that has been criticized by the U.N. refugee agency.

"There is nothing left in Afghanistan," said Ali Bahazi, 32, another Afghan immigrant who crammed into the craft. "There is nothing to return to . The Greeks have passed the same in their history war, refugees. I am asking these people for help."

A few Greeks have come forward.

In a park in central Athens, some elderly neighbors often bring food to a compound of homeless Afghans. They live in shelters made of sticks, cardboard and plastic.

Five consecutive days of rain in early December turned parts of the park into chilly mud. Some Afghans huddled under a plastic tarp. In the wet ground, they sketched their plans with a twig: an outline of Greece and, farther east, Italy and the routes of the ferries on which to stow away.


•AP correspondents Lisa Orkin and Derek Gatopoulos in Athens contributed to this report.

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