The long walk from poverty to hope

Afghans head for the UAE to escape war and hunger. They cover thousands of kilometres, but many do not survive the journey.

Ras Al Khaimah, 23rd November 2009. Overlooking the town and the Hajar mountain at Shaam.  (Jeffrey E Biteng / The National)  *** Local Caption ***  JB06-Shaam.jpg

RAS AL KHAIMAH // By the time they were picked up by the Army, Hamidula and Haji Qurban had travelled almost 1,600km. The men, who had started from their homes in northern Afghanistan, are just two of the illegal migrants who are caught almost every week after crossing the border from Oman.

With nothing but the clothes on their back, they had crossed the Strait of Hormuz from Iran and traversed the steep cliffs of the Hajjar mountains. Last year, 170 illegal migrants were caught in RAK, the majority from Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. They often travel thousands of kilometres, through several countries, without papers, money or means of transport. Many do not survive. Hamidula, 20, and Haji Qurban, 25, were caught in a raid by the Ministry of Interior on illegal migrants in the Nakheel neighbourhood.

They first met in RAK as labourers, building houses for Dh40 (US$10) a day. They travelled through four countries before coming to the UAE. "In my country, we are having war and we don't have any jobs," said Haji Qurban. "People are living in hell." His village, bordering the Jowzjan and Balkh provinces, grows wheat and corn but the region has suffered from drought for years. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 6,500 people in the west and north of Afghanistan left their homes because of drought and poor harvests in 2008 alone.

The Afghan Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD) says that nearly one in five people, 19 per cent, in Jowzjan "receives less than the minimum daily caloric intake necessary to maintain good health". This difficult life and a shortage of work pushed Haji Qurban to leave his home. He never had the opportunity to study. The literacy rate is 31 per cent in Jowzjan and only 40 per cent of children between six and 13 are enrolled in school, according to the MRRD.

Instead, he began work as a labourer when he was nine or 10. After his father died when he was 15, he and his older brother had to care for their mother, three younger brothers and two sisters. Hamidula faced similar challenges in his village in the province of Samangan. The eldest of five, he is the family's main breadwinner as his father is too old to work. Marriage, he says, is an unaffordable dream.

"Every day is about survival," he says. "Life is expensive and we can't afford to live there." The MRRD reports that only five per cent of households in Samangan have electricity and seven per cent have safe drinking water, though this drops to four per cent in rural areas. In 28 per cent of the province there are no roads. While Samangan and Jowzjan are relatively stable compared with other parts of the country, violent crime has increased since the US-led invasion and warlords are becoming more powerful.

No one is left untouched by the war. "There is bombing from aircraft and shooting," says Hamidula. "It's been 20 years and now we are waiting to see what will happen. Sometimes it is daily, sometimes it is weekly or monthly." Like many migrants, both men worked in Iran before they came to the UAE, where they can earn an average US$323 a month, four times higher than Afghanistan, according to a 2008 study by the UNHCR.

Afghanistan's reputation as a cheap and reliable source of labour quickly found them work in Iran, a contrast to the 18.5 per cent unemployment rate of Afghanistan. The trip from Iran to the UAE is relatively easy and cheap, though far from risk-free. Although wages in the UAE are not necessarily higher than in Iran, the Gulf's reputation for wealth tempts migrants to make the dangerous journey. Haji Qurban was about 16 when he left Afghanistan to work in Pakistan. However, like hundreds of other migrants, he struggled there and went illegally to Iran, where he worked for two years before coming to the UAE.

He paid a smuggler Dh1,500 to take him by motorboat from the Iranian city of Bandar Abbas to the sheer fjords of the Musandam peninsula, a distance of about 100km. Hamidula paid Dh1,800. The waters are patrolled by Iranian, Emirati and Omani coastguards, but the fjords of Musandam offer protection for the smugglers. "I don't know where they dropped us," says Hamidula. "In a mountain area. I was walking for two days."

Haji Qurban worked for two months in the UAE before he was caught. Hamidula worked in the UAE illegally for one year, as a bricklayer in Sharjah, Dubai and RAK. Once caught, they were ordered to pay Dh10,000 or spend 100 days in jail. "My father he is already an old man and I have small brothers," says Hamidula. "If I stay here three months in the UAE, I don't know what will happen to them. We came here only for them."

Both Hamidula and Haji Qurban completed their journey and found work in the UAE. Many others are not so lucky. Saeed Amir, Saleh and Saeed Jan walked to Ras al Khaimah from Bala Murghab, on the northern border of Afghanistan. They were caught in the mountains near RAK last spring. They are in their mid-twenties. In addition to the drought and poverty in Samangan and Jowzjan provinces, Badghis has witnessed its share of war.

In the Bala Murghab district, home to 133 villages with a population of about 109,381 people, the MRRD report says that war has destroyed basic infrastructure and livestock have perished from disease. After years of war, the men say they were desperate to escape and live peaceful lives. "Between the government and the Taliban, they are always bombing our village. It's one or two times a week," says Saleh. "Nato comes and drops bombs on our village. Then the Taliban comes. There is no solution.

"It's not safe. Every day someone dies from bombs and shooting. After the Taliban left, our problems increased. "If there is any problem in the city between the Taliban and the government, we know the planes are coming. When we know they are coming, we go one hour away from the city. We hide. Many of our cousins and family have died." Saeed Amir fled the violence two years earlier to work illegally in Bandar Abbas. After a month of manual labour, he was deported by the Iranian authorities back to Afghanistan. He convinced his friends to accompany him for a second chance at illegal employment.

Their journey follows a typical route used by migrants. The men travelled across Afghanistan to Spin Boldak, a border town with Pakistan in the south-east of Kandahar province. In Pakistan, they travelled from Chaman to Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province. From Quetta, they travelled south to Pakistan's Pangjur district and across the border to Iranshahr, a 25-day walk. Once in Iran, they travelled by foot to Bandar Abbas.

"We worked in Bandar Abbas for a month," said Saeed Amir. "Then we had no work. We thought, where will we go? When we were there, we heard about the UAE. Then we decided to go. We heard the Gulf is a rich place." From Bandar Abbas, the men could cross the Strait of Hormuz within hours and enter the UAE by crossing the Hajjar mountains from the Musandam Peninsula in Oman. The trip was not as simple as they expected, however. "We spent eight days in the mountains," said Saeed Jan. "We thought it would be three days. We took three fish each, bread, water and the clothes we are wearing now. We wore running shoes and used rope to climb the mountains."

The lost men hiked at night, continuing when their food and water ran out. On one night, they were caught by torrential rains and forced to take shelter in an old mountain house made of rocks. A few days later, as they finally approached the RAK border and their dream of reaching the UAE, they were caught by the Army. But if the situation becomes too desperate at home, they might risk another attempt to enter the UAE again.