Out of work, Afghan policeman finds a new job: Human smuggler

As a police officer in western Afghanistan, Hakem enjoyed a steady if meager paycheck. He had five children to support, and when his three-year police contract expired, he went looking for a more lucrative job.

He found the closest thing to a growth industry in Afghanistan: human smuggling.

Deteriorating security and an economic crash are fueling the biggest exodus from Afghanistan since the late 1990s — and a proliferating network of smugglers.

Of the more than 1 million migrants and refugees who reached Europe over the last year, according to the United Nations, a quarter were Afghans.

Their journey often starts in this ancient trading city. It continues with a march of up to 12 days through the sparse desert of western Afghanistan and across the border into Iran.

His angular face lined and weather-beaten, Hakem, 40, estimated that since going into business nearly two years ago, he has guided 500 people out of Afghanistan. The perils of the job include arrest, illness and gunfire from Iranian border guards, he said.

Hakem spoke on condition that his full name be withheld. He agreed to meet in a hotel lobby, where he gulped down hot tea and compulsively checked a cellphone that held two SIM cards — one with an Afghan number, the other Iranian.

His story could not be independently verified. The smugglers of Herat work in the shadows — they don't advertise publicly and rarely speak with journalists — yet they seem ubiquitous.

"Most people are not leaving by choice, and they're not leaving happily," said Hakem. "They go because they can't find work or they're worried about security."

Although the Afghan government opposes the mass migration and has attempted to crack down on smugglers, the industry has grown vast and institutionalized in the western part of the country.

The smugglers essentially operate as travel agents, selling itineraries tailored to the physical fitness of their voyagers.

Hakem works with a partner. Most of their customers are young men whose families have sold their houses or pawned jewelry to raise the roughly $800 he charges for the journey, including food and lodging along the way. Hakem sometimes offers small discounts for children or those in dire financial straits.

"We don't have any restrictions," he said. "As long as the person can walk, we will take them."

Hakem used to travel the migrant route himself during the stifling years under Taliban rule. He would leave his home in the eastern province of Ghazni and slip into Iran for months at a time to work construction jobs.

He and his partner now set off after dark, usually with groups of about 18 migrants, walking south from Herat into the desolate provinces of Farah and Nimruz before attempting to cross into Iran. He carries parcels of fried chicken, because it keeps well, and buys bread, yogurt and other staples as they walk.

He knows which villages have empty houses where they can rest, or villagers willing to rent out rooms by the night.

His fee includes a guarantee: If for any reason travelers don't reach Iran on the first attempt, they can try again and again until Hakem delivers them across the border.

Before they leave Herat, travelers deposit their payment into a hawala account, an informal money-lending system widely used in the Muslim world. Hakem receives his fee only after the migrant reaches Iran and calls in with a password, releasing the money.

He and his partner pocket a total of about $150 per traveler, which he described as minimal considering the danger.

They face little trouble from the Afghan border police, who routinely look the other way. Border officers say they are more interested in intercepting drugs than stopping desperate countrymen from fleeing. In the rare event that the police arrest Hakem or his customers, a small bribe usually results in their release.

The bigger worry is on the other side of the border, where Iranian guards are known to open fire on migrants. In 2013, Iran issued an apology after border guards shot and killed 10 Afghans who were entering the country illegally.

Hakem said he has come under fire from Iranian guards three times, though he has never been hit. Using his training as a police officer, he coaches his travelers to lie face down to evade the Iranians' spotlights and to crawl to avoid gunfire.

Once they get across the border, Hakem hands over his travelers to another smuggler on the Iranian side. His work is done.

When Afghans die on the way to northern Europe — as three did in Greece last month while attempting to cross a river into Macedonia — word quickly travels through the transnational network of smugglers back to Herat.

"I worry about it 100%," Hakem said. "I take all these young guys to Iran and I don't know what's going to happen to them. When I hear stories of drownings like that, I can't eat."

Still, there is no shortage of young men willing to take the risk.

Six travelers had already signed up for Hakem's next trip and were waiting for his call to leave. Business was so good, he said, that he hadn't been home to see his family in Ghazni in almost two months.

Seated next to him in the hotel lobby was a balding, paunchy man in a long blue tunic. He had been quiet for an hour.

Asked who he was, the man said that he was an official with the Afghan border police and Hakem's friend.

"This is a very difficult time in Afghanistan, and he is providing a service for people," the man said. "It's not something the government can stop."

shashank.bengali@latimes.com

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A version of this article appeared in print on April 09, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "An Afghan route to survival - To make ends meet, one former policeman takes up human smuggling - BACK STORY" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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