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Afghan Container Deaths Reflect Wider Human-Trafficking Problem

The survivors of the container ordeal were released in Kandahar to return to their villages.
The survivors of the container ordeal were released in Kandahar to return to their villages.
Badshah's face says it all -- the story of dreams he never realized. Inside a Pakistani police station in Quetta, capital of the southwestern Baluchistan Province, he is waiting to be interviewed before being sent home.

Although his hopes of sneaking into Iran and making a decent living have been dashed, he is lucky to be returning to his village alive. Forty-five fellow Afghan men and teenagers died in the same shipping container that was supposed to take them to the Iranian border from Chaman, a dusty border town on Pakistan's Afghan border.

While getting an Afghan passport is an arduous task in itself, for many Afghans like Badshah, securing an Iranian visa is next to impossible. This, together with promises of a job, lured him into paying a couple thousand dollars to a people smuggler. The smuggler promised to take him to Iran via Baluchistan, which serves as a main transit route for drug and people smuggling between Afghanistan and Iran.

But halfway though the arduous journey, Badshah and his fellow travelers realized the mistake they had made, locked inside an airless shipping container.

"We thought that the container would have an exhaust fan. But after a couple hours' journey it was difficult to breathe and we started suffocating," Badshah says. "We started shouting and banging at the walls of the containers with our fists and feet, so somebody would pay attention to us. But nobody did and a lot of us died while a few survived."

When he regained consciousness, Badshah found himself in a hospital in Quetta. He was among the 51 Afghans who were handed over to Afghan diplomats on April 9. Pakistani police are still questioning six Afghans while the 45 dead bodies were taken to Kabul on April 6. Several of the dead were teenagers.

Global Problem

In the Afghan capital, Kabul, Jean-Luc Lemahieu, the head of United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC), calls Afghanistan's human-trafficking problems "enormous." They are also intertwined with the country's drug problem.

Many Afghans who returned from refugee camps in Iran or pakistan are still dispalced.
Lemahieu suggests that poverty, lack of opportunities, high unemployment, and high birthrates push thousands of young Afghans into making dangerous and sometime fatal journeys to seek jobs and security in other countries. Many Afghans believe that same factors also push thousands more into the ranks of the Taliban.

During the past decade, from Australia to Scandinavia, global media have reported on Afghans dying while in search of a better life and security. Many if not all pay money to people smugglers. Last week, Italian rail police reportedly discovered about two dozen Afghan teenagers living in a cramped underground space in Rome's main train station.

Lemahieu says that while many impoverished countries in the world face the problems of human trafficking, Afghanistan's problems have been exacerbated by decades of fighting and displacement.

"It is very difficult to put clear figures to it in a country where we are not sure what the exact population of the country is," Lemahieu notes. "The further they get away from the neighboring countries and from Afghanistan, the more money is involved, the more human trafficking is involved, [and] the more criminal activity is involved."

Economic Desperation

In Quetta, Afghan diplomat Mohammad Daud Mohsini deals with hundreds of Afghans who are arrested in Pakistan and face deportation back to their country every week. "Some make it through here but many are arrested," he says. He sees no solution to the problems, unless security and economic prospects improve inside his country.

The UN's Lemahieu suggests that regional cooperation and transparent border controls could help in improving the situation considerably. He says the latest incident needs to be investigated by the international police organization Interpol because it apparently involved a transnational criminal network.

Though Afghanistan last year adopted a new law against human trafficking, its implementation remains challenging as Kabul struggles to quell the rising violence fanned by the Taliban insurgency in the country. Lemahieu says socioeconomic development inside Afghanistan is the ultimate answer to this problem.

"We need to bring more development to Afghanistan. We need to bring more security and stability in Afghanistan. We need to ensure that incentives continue to exist in this country for the people to remain within their own country," Lemahieu says.

"People don't prefer to go out of their country, they prefer to stay within their culture, [and] they prefer to stay with their community," he adds. "But there is desperation which moves them out of the country. And it is criminal activity which abuses that desperation. And we need to act promptly and very severely against those criminals."

Najibullah, another Afghan rescued in Quetta, says that despite all the hardships in his country, he will not seek a new life on the outside. He has a message for other young Afghans who might be considering paying smugglers to find jobs elsewhere.

"I want to tell my countrymen that they should not rely on and should not trust people they don't know well," Najibullah says.

RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Barakwal Miankhel contributed reporting from Quetta
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.