Afghan smugglers hike prices, expand networks after Taliban takeover

Afghan smugglers hike prices, expand networks after Taliban takeover
Taliban fighters stand guards outside a bank, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Feb. 13, 2022. (AP)
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Updated 14 February 2022

Afghan smugglers hike prices, expand networks after Taliban takeover

Afghan smugglers hike prices, expand networks after Taliban takeover
  • Smugglers are exploiting Afghans’ desperation to leave the country, hiking prices after demand grew for their services and borders became harder to cross

LONDON: As a female prosecutor in Afghanistan, Shafiqa Sae knew she had to flee for her life when the Taliban seized power – what she did not realize was just how much it would cost.
Smugglers are exploiting Afghans’ desperation to leave the country, hiking prices after demand grew for their services and borders became harder to cross.
Afghans who have fled to Pakistan since the Taliban takeover on Aug. 15 last year said members of the Pakistani security forces had also milked them for bribes and some landlords had doubled or trebled rents.
“Everyone is taking advantage of our plight to make money off us,” Sae told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad.
The Taliban’s lightning capture of the country has prompted a mass exodus of Afghans fleeing persecution and poverty.
But border closures by Pakistan, Iran and other neighboring countries, combined with the difficulty of obtaining a passport or visa, have pushed many to turn to smugglers.
Those making the risky journeys often take gruelling desert and mountain treks. Some tunnel under border fences. Others use fake IDs.
The Mixed Migration Center, which monitors smuggler prices, said fees had already jumped during the COVID-19 pandemic as travel curbs made it harder to move around, but the scramble to get out of Afghanistan since August had sent prices soaring.
Sae, 26, fled the capital, Kabul, with her mother and seven siblings on Aug. 25 after a foreign benefactor paid a smuggler $5,000 to get them out.
The prosecutor’s family are Hazaras, a predominantly Shiite minority who were targeted by the Taliban when they last ruled from 1996-2001.
The Islamist group’s return to power left Sae in fear of her life. Not only had she helped put Taliban members behind bars, but she had been active in protests against the group and was a vocal advocate for women’s rights.
Before leaving Kabul, Sae’s mother was fitted with a fake cannula and intravenous drip.
Pakistan still allows Afghans to cross for emergency medical treatment without visas, and the family hoped the border guards would take pity.
The trick worked, helped by a few dollars slipped to the right people.
Once across the border, the demands for bribes mounted. Fourteen checkpoints later and they were $300 poorer.
In Islamabad, Sae said their landlord was charging them three times the local rate. They had also handed him $700 to pay off the police as it is illegal to rent to Afghans without visas.
People smugglers now charge Afghans an average of $140-$193 to reach Pakistan via the border town of Spin Boldak, up from $90 a year earlier, according to data from the Geneva-based Mixed Migration Center.
Average fees for Iran via the smuggling hub of Zaranj are $360-$400, compared to about $250 previously, it said.
Charges vary depending on the length and difficulty of the route, the wealth and ethnic background of the person making the journey, whether they have contacts, and the number of people demanding bribes.
Several Afghans interviewed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation cited much higher fees than those reflected in data collected by the Mixed Migration Center.
One woman said she was recently quoted $1,000 for the trip to Islamabad with her two children.
Abdullah Mohammadi, an expert at the Mixed Migration Center, said smugglers were usually part of well-established organized criminal networks.
However, with Afghanistan hammered by an economic crisis and severe drought, farmers desperate for money to feed their families have also become involved.
“They know what they’re doing is wrong, but say they don’t have any other options,” Mohammadi said.
“The criminal networks are benefiting because they can use these people to expand their operations.”
The Taliban also benefit. The BBC reported that smugglers openly ferrying Afghans from Zaranj to Iran paid local Taliban about $10 per pickup truck.
The Norwegian Refugee Council reported in November that up to 5,000 Afghan refugees were fleeing to Iran every day, although many are deported.
Most go via Pakistan, but Mohammadi said smugglers were increasingly using a shorter, more precarious route which requires climbing over or tunneling under barriers erected on the Iranian border.
Although there is a higher chance of getting caught, the route is often favored by Hazaras who risk attacks by militant groups on the traditional routes through Pakistan because of their ethnicity.
Smugglers can charge Hazaras about a third more than non-Hazaras because of the increased risks from the Taliban, Jundallah and other militia, Mohammadi said.
Journalist Ismail Lali, 28, said smugglers were making a fortune out of the crisis.
“People are so desperate to leave that they can just charge them whatever they like,” said Lali, who is also a Hazara.
He paid a smuggler $700 in August to take him to the Pakistani city of Quetta, including bribes, but friends report the fee is now $800.
“It’s become a lucrative business for smugglers, and also for the Pakistani police,” he added.
Since arriving in Quetta, he said he had paid police $200 in bribes after being repeatedly stopped and threatened with deportation. He dares not go out now.
A senior police inspector in Quetta said officers were under strict instruction not to harass Afghans.
Security forces who staff checkpoints did not immediately respond to calls.
Migration experts expect some Afghans in Pakistan and Iran to move toward Turkey and Europe in the spring.
In January, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) launched a $623 million appeal to support Afghans in neighboring countries and their host communities.
It has also urged countries to keep their borders open and halt deportations.
The UNHCR said Iran had returned more than 1,100 Afghans a day in January. Smaller numbers have been deported from Pakistan.
They include Sae’s mother and three sisters, who were sent back in December.
The Taliban have already visited the family in Kabul to ask after the prosecutor’s whereabouts.
Sae rarely leaves her Islamabad apartment, terrified of deportation.
“Either the Taliban will kill me, or the prisoners they have released will kill me,” she said.


Dutch court to announce ruling in MH17 murder trial on Nov. 17

Dutch court to announce ruling in MH17 murder trial on Nov. 17
Updated 15 August 2022

Dutch court to announce ruling in MH17 murder trial on Nov. 17

Dutch court to announce ruling in MH17 murder trial on Nov. 17
  • The Boeing 777 was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was hit over Ukraine’s rebel-held Donetsk region

AMSTERDAM: The Dutch court handling the murder trial of four suspects in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014 said on Monday it would hand down its verdict on Nov. 17.
Prosecutors say the one Ukrainian and three Russian defendants, who are all at large, helped supply a missile system that Russian-backed separatists used to fire a rocket at the plane on July 17, 2014. All 298 people on board were killed.
The prosecution is seeking life terms for all suspects.
Lawyers for Oleg Pulatov, the only defendant who has chosen to participate in the proceedings through counsel, have argued that the trial was unfair and prosecutors did not properly examine alternative theories about the cause of the crash or the involvement of Pulatov.
The other suspects, named as Igor Girkin, Sergey Dubinsky, and Ukrainian national Leonid Kharchenko, are being tried in absentia. Under Dutch law Pulatov, while he is also at large, is not considered to be tried in absentia because he is represented through lawyers he has instructed.
The Boeing 777 was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was hit over Ukraine’s rebel-held Donetsk region by what international investigators say was a Russian-made surface-to-air missile. The eastern region has also become a key focus of Russia’s nearly six-month-old war in Ukraine.
Most of the victims on board MH17 were Dutch nationals. The Dutch government holds Russia responsible for the crash. Authorities in Moscow deny any involvement.
The MH17 case has seriously strained the Netherlands’ diplomatic relations with Moscow, even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine that started on Feb. 24.


Afghan refugees in the UK told to find homes on real estate portals

Afghan refugees in the UK told to find homes on real estate portals
Updated 15 August 2022

Afghan refugees in the UK told to find homes on real estate portals

Afghan refugees in the UK told to find homes on real estate portals
  • UK government is still providing hotel accommodation to 9,500 Afghan refugees, with only 7,000 having been rehoused

LONDON: Thousands of Afghan refugees who have been housed in hotels in the UK following the Kabul evacuation last year have been told by authorities to look for new accommodation on online real estate portals.

The UK Home Office has told refugees to find accommodation on Rightmove or Zoopla, The Guardian reported.

On the first anniversary of the Taliban takeover, the UK government is still providing hotel accommodation to 9,500 Afghan refugees, with only 7,000 having been rehoused.

Although charities have welcomed government moves to end the use of hotels to accommodate the refugees, charity officials are concerned that many will fail to find suitable accommodation in the private rented sector and may end up homeless.

Afghan families with children will struggle to find affordable accommodation that is large enough using the housing benefit provided.

Charities also highlighted the fact that refugees may not be able to negotiate their own rental agreements due to language barriers, and would not have paperwork such as passports and bank statements that are required to rent a property.

Home Office sources say that in addition to encouraging Afghan families living in hotels to look for their own housing, they aim to offer each family two choices of accommodation somewhere in the UK. However, it is not known if they will be given a choice of location.

The Home Office said the accommodation offers would be “good, decent proposals,” but that if families rejected the offers, they would be provided with a further two months of hotel accommodation. It did not say what would happen if the families failed to secure accommodation after that.

Home Office sources say they are trying to encourage Afghan families to move to other parts of the UK, such as Wales, but this may be problematic for families with children who are attending school in large cities such as London.

Waiting lists for council housing are long, especially for larger properties that can accommodate Afghan families with three or more children.

Despite Afghan families having the right to rent under immigration rules and landlords being able to check this using an online tool, some are reluctant to rent to people who do not have a British passport, or evidence of life in the UK such as utility bills and payslips.

A letter sent to Afghan refugees from the Home Office says that not all councils will accept a request to put families on social housing waiting lists, urging them to start looking in the private rental sector.

“Not all councils will support you so it’s important to check,” the letters said. They urged the refugees to search for multiple properties to increase their chances of finding accommodation as the UK housing market is “very competitive.”

Eva Tabbasam, director of Gender Action for Peace and Security, expressed concern about the plans.

“Afghan families couldn’t have imagined that one year after arriving they’d still be warehoused in unsuitable accommodation, without space, privacy and stability. There is also a serious risk of homelessness for these families if suitable accommodation is not offered under the current Home Office plans, Tabbasam said.

“The government has had a year to sort things out — instead, it’s getting worse. If suitable accommodation was readily available for the 9,500 people still in hotels, families would already have been moved into it. We don’t yet know what kind of move on accommodation families will be offered,” she added.

London Councils’ executive member for communities, Claire Holland, said: “Boroughs are very concerned by the lack of alternative housing options for these families — a particular challenge in the capital due to the chronic shortage of affordable housing here.”

A Home Office spokesperson said that the use of hotels to house those resettling from Afghanistan is a temporary solution.

“We continue to work with over 350 local authorities to move Afghan families from hotels to permanent accommodation as quickly as possible,” they said.

“To support the resettlement of Afghan families, local authorities are given £20,520 ($24,789) per person over a three-year period. They have the flexibility to use this funding to contribute toward renting accommodation, including deposits, letting fees and furnishing.”


3 injured in shooting at amusement park near Chicago

3 injured in shooting at amusement park near Chicago
Updated 15 August 2022

3 injured in shooting at amusement park near Chicago

3 injured in shooting at amusement park near Chicago

GURNEE, Illinois:Three people were injured in a shooting in the parking lot of an amusement park north of Chicago that sent visitors scrambling for safety, authorities said.
Officers responded about 7:50 p.m. Sunday after 911 calls reporting shots fired at Six Flags Great America, about 45 miles (72 kilometers) north of Chicago, the Gurnee Police Department said.
“The shooting ... was not a random act, and appeared to be a targeted incident that occurred outside the park,” police said in statement posted to Facebook.
According to an initial investigation, police said a white sedan entered the parking lot and drove toward the park’s front entrance. People got out of the car and shot at another person in the parking lot before driving away, police said.
Additional detail about the suspects, including the number of people who fired shots, wasn’t immediately released. Police were investigating.
A 17-year-old boy from Aurora, Illinois, had a thigh wound and a 19-year-old woman from Appleton, Wisconsin, had a leg wound, police said. They were taken to a hospital and their wounds were described as non-life-threatening. A third victim had a shoulder injury and declined to be taken to a hospital.
In a statement, Six Flags Great America said park security responded immediately along with Gurnee officers.
WGN News in Chicago spoke with Laurie Walker and her daughter, Grace, who were inside the park when the shooting occurred. Walker said they were waiting in line for an attraction around 7:50 p.m. when she noticed people running.
“There is an active shooter, get down, get down,” Walker said she heard someone shouting. “We didn’t know what was going on, so we get down.”
Walker and her daughter climbed two fences to get where she could call her husband. Walker told WGN she was able to leave the park a short while later.
Gurnee is in Lake County, about 5 miles south of the Wisconsin border. It’s about 20 miles north of Highland Park, where seven people died in a mass shooting during a July Fourth parade.


Aid to Afghanistan should resume: Ex-British Army chief

Aid to Afghanistan should resume: Ex-British Army chief
Updated 15 August 2022

Aid to Afghanistan should resume: Ex-British Army chief

Aid to Afghanistan should resume: Ex-British Army chief
  • Lord Dannatt: ‘We went there to help the Afghan people and now we’re just watching them suffer’
  • Withdrawal of aid followed Taliban takeover of country last year

LONDON: International aid to Afghanistan should resume amid a growing humanitarian crisis in the country, a former chief of the British Army has told Sky News.

The withdrawal of aid in the wake of the Taliban takeover last year has “led to babies dying and people going hungry,” Lord Dannatt said, adding that a rollback of women’s rights by the Taliban should not deter Western governments from donating to Afghanistan.

Aid is still transferred to the country, but through NGOs and charities rather than national governments.

“We quite unnecessarily withdrew in precipitate haste a year ago, but then I think absolutely outrageously have cut aid to Afghanistan,” Lord Dannatt said.

“People are starving. We went there to help the Afghan people and now we’re just actually watching them suffer — I think it’s outrageous.

“And I think (UK Home Secretary) Priti Patel and other members of the government should take no pride in what is happening. They should be starting again — as should the Americans who are principally responsible for what happened.

“(They) should be significantly increasing their aid packages again to allow the people to have food and to thrive in Afghanistan,” he added.

“Having cut off aid to Afghanistan — that is why babies are dying in hospitals, that is why people are starving up and down the country.

“Now, is that right? As I said before, when we spent 20 years building up Afghanistan … why should we suddenly stop helping the people now because we don’t like the Taliban?

“Yes, their human rights record is not good, they have stopped girls going to secondary school. But is that the right price to pay for the majority of Afghan people to be starving and babies to be dying? I don’t think so.”


US-led Kabul airlift conducted amid ‘chaos and confusion’: Report

US-led Kabul airlift conducted amid ‘chaos and confusion’: Report
Updated 15 August 2022

US-led Kabul airlift conducted amid ‘chaos and confusion’: Report

US-led Kabul airlift conducted amid ‘chaos and confusion’: Report
  • Almost 1,500 Afghan children evacuated without their parents in ‘tragic outcome’
  • ‘Very little was done to prepare for a Taliban takeover of the country’

LONDON: The US-led evacuation from Afghanistan in August last year was unplanned and hampered by “chaos and confusion,” a new report has claimed.

A year after the airlift, which led to “tragic yet avoidable outcomes,” a 121-page report by Republicans in the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs has highlighted organizational failures that “led to 13 dead service members.”

The report claims that choices made by the Biden administration mean that “American lives are still at great risk, there are increased threats to our homeland security, tarnished standing abroad for years to come and emboldened enemies across the globe.”

Some of the most damaging findings in the report include data showing that almost 1,500 Afghan children were evacuated without their parents, and that only 36 US consular officers were in Kabul to process the more than 100,000 people seeking to escape the country.

A key failure was made in the run-up to the withdrawal, with the Biden administration lacking preparation, the report claims, arguing that officials waited until Taliban forces were outside Kabul before taking action. “Very little was done to prepare for a Taliban takeover of the country,” it said.

The Biden administration also “failed to make any effort to prioritize the evacuation of US-trained Afghan commandos and other elite units who possess sensitive knowledge about US military operations.”

At the time, US President Joe Biden hailed the evacuation as an “extraordinary success” that transported more than 124,000 Americans and Afghans to safety.

“We completed one of the biggest airlifts in history ... more than double what most experts thought were possible,” he said.

“No nation — no nation has ever done anything like it in all of history. Only the US had the capacity and the will and the ability to do it.”

But the report claims that officials within the government privately criticized the airlift as a “strategic failure” and an “ugly final phase” of the war.

The report also claimed that Biden acted against the advice of top-level military figures, who favored continued deployment in Afghanistan.