Europe is unprepared, though another wave of migrants may come
- Europe is concerned with the Syrians and Turkey, while there is another crisis zone of a similar size nearby: Iran.
- About the same number of Afghan people live in Iran as many Syrian migrants live in Turkey. Their situation is at least as bad, if not worse than Syrians.
- We traveled to Iran and moved into a small town inhabited by Afghan people in order to find out about the seriousness of the danger that Afghan people may set off towards Europe in an even larger number.
- No matter that, due to the serious steps taken, the number of migrants decreased in Europe, the migration crisis is far from being over.
I did not expect that I would have a first-hand experience of the pressure that makes Afghan people set off towards Europe. I spent less than five days with an Afghan family living in Iran, and I would already have undertaken the march in the desert of the Turkish-Iranian borderline accompanied by some evil-looking human trafficker. I felt so, even though I did not starve, I was not deprived, there was a roof above my head, my Afghan hosts looked after me and catered for me. In spite of all these, or rather because of these, the claustrophobic feeling settled on me.
My original plan was only to see why crowds of Afghan people come from Iran to Europe. But then my interpreter the Afghan Dariush invited me to his family living in a small town beside Tehran, and all of a sudden I was not only observing the life of Afghan migrants but became part of it. But before delving deeper into the world enclosed by defenselessness, fear, and cooked sheep's heads, let us have a brief survey of why exactly I came to Iran if I was interested in Afghan people.
Last year, talking with Afghan people in transit through Hungary It caught my attention that most of them mentioned Iran when talking about their previous places of residence. It turned out that the people fleeing from Afghanistan do not only travel across Iran but also stay there for a shorter or longer while. Some spend only a few months, others even years in the Muslim state before continuing their journey to Europe. The statistics of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have outlined an astonishing picture:
About 1 million Afghan people live in Iran officially, but since no accurate immigration system works in Iran, their number may as well reach 3 million, as claimed by the Iranian Ministry of the Interior. That is to say, Iran is in exactly the same immigration situation as Turkey. 2-3 million Syrians live in Turkey, and with the worsening of their situation they set off to Europe. Meanwhile in Iran, Afghan people live in similar proportions, who, by the way, yielded the second largest group of the immigration crisis in Europe already last year.
How do Afghan people live in Iran? Why will they not go back to their own country? Are they feeling at home, or could they soon start the next wave of the immigration crisis?
I am nobody and have nothing at all
Plenty of Afghan people work in Iran. Afghan laborers work at constructions, they are the cleaners and security guards. I have an enterprise of my own. But all in vain, actually we can't have anything, we can't have possessions. We are second-rate people in Iran.
After some small talk, words began to pour from my host. The war made the 48-year-old man escape from Afghanistan 35 years ago. Since then, he has started a shoe manufacturing workshop. He has five employees.
Tea was served by his wife in his spacious, carpet-covered living room. His name Hadji is an alias: only those can have it who have been to Mecca on a pilgrimage. The man did not exactly look indigent, but he said: “In the world I would be called an entrepreneur, but in Iran I am actually nobody and have nothing at all. Afghan people can't have possessions here. They can't buy an apartment or a car, not even a bicycle. Nothing can officially be on our name. I couldn't have a business either.”
Since 3 million afghan people live in the country, naturally a black economy built on has them developed. “My house is on the name of an Iranian man, my car is on another one's. I pay them to be able to buy these from my own money. At the same time, all these can just evaporate any time. I've heard about a case when the Iranian stooge fell out with the Afghan owner of the car, and simply took the car away. Or they simply put the owners out of their house, and in these cases we can't do anything, the police would just laugh at us.”
At night, Hadji gets in his car and runs some circles in the outskirts of the town. During daytime he does not dare to go out of the town's boundaries. He can easily run into a police control, which can have serious consequences.
Whacking for the bad Afghan
“We mustn't travel out of town. If you get caught but you are registered at the police you get one stroke. If you don't even have a paper, you get ten,” explained Soltan, working in the shoemaker's workshop down in the house's basement. It was the parents of the twenty odd-year-old cobbler who left Afghanistan; he was born here, but no matter that he has lived all his life in Iran, that did not entail any rights. By the way, Iran keeps Afghan people on a level of life which is deprived of rights.
“I have registration papers,” explained Bagher the luckier condition, while he was hammering soles on the patent leather shoes with ultimately classic motions. “I scrape the money together to get them every year,” he said, while polishing the finished shoes and putting them one after the other in boxes inscribed Massimo Dutti.
If the dear reader buys Massimo Dutti shoes at any time, they may be produced by Bagher in this sooty-walled basement room. At that moment, however, what interested me even more than the patent leather shoes with gold straps was why so much money was needed to be scraped up for an identity card with a photo. “These papers expire every year, and it is very expensive to validate them again. We are only four in our family now, because my son has left for Germany. That costs us 7 million rials a year,” said Bagher, while hammering the sole of the next shoe. “It is about 220 dollars. Almost a month's pay,” whispered my interpreter. “And women don't work here.”
“But even though you get registered, you can't leave the town even with papers,” continued the angry Soltan:
We are locked up in the town.
But the system regulating the Afghan people's lives is not so simple. As it turns out from the talks we had, corruption and police trespasses are a natural part of the procedure, which you have to take into account just like the sizable fees.
Bud Spencer gets deported
Don't think that anybody can get a paper like that. My wife has one, but to me they didn't give one.
Rezaid beckoned to me to get closer. “I don't know why.”
The beefy man looked so bizarre next to the sawing machine as if he was featured in a funny Bud Spencer film. The only difference was that his adventures would better fit in a realistic drama.
“I was on a bus and a policeman got on, he checked my identity, and since I had no paper, I was at once taken to the Askarabad camp. No matter that I told them that my wife and child were waiting for me and that I had been living here for 13 years. They allowed me no more than to call them on the phone. My wife brought money because in the camp I had to pay for my food too, along with the cost of the deportation. It cost 2 million rials (63 dollars) to take me back to Afghanistan. My wife brought all the money we had at home. I spent two weeks in Afghanistan, and in the end I was smuggled back to Tehran for 800 dollars. All our money, all our savings were spent on it. We were saving up for years in vain, now we can start all over.”
Imagine that you're in my place, that this is what you've achieved in life. An illiterate child with no future whatsoever.
I met the lowest level of the deprivation of rights in Tehran. That is because those refugees who have nobody in Iran, who are poor and quickly need work come to the capital. It was not difficult to find some Afghan guys in their twenties who let me have a glimpse of the depths of the precariousness of existence.
“We worked at a construction like most Afghan people. There was one Iranian man in our group, otherwise everything is built by Afghan people here.” We were sitting in a park, and they kept lowering their voices when someone passed by. “We have no papers, nothing. If they check our identity, they'll take us back right away.”
My life in Little Afghanistan
That was already the third day I had spent among the Afghan people, which at the beginning was one of the most cosy feelings in the world. The Afghan families are large, and slowly it appeared that at the border of the town where we were staying everybody was at least a cousin, an uncle, or an aunt, and of course grandparents of different levels. It was Ramadan, the Muslim lent, whose evening endings we celebrated at some of the relatives or neighbors. I immersed among the lines of the vast texture of kinship where everything could be arranged. It was obvious that the Afghan people existed within this safe network. There always was a relative or acquaintance who arranged for work, a lift, or other help. But however protected the setting was, it was just as suffocating. In the street, hurrying in an unknown neck of the woods, we took the shortest route. We did not speak to anyone, if I stopped to look around, they urged me saying it was not a safe place, Iranians lived there, we should move on. Claustrophobia fell on me, I felt this closely woven context locked me in, it separated me from the outside world.
Everybody had a horror story about Iranian people. Although later, already in Tehran I met mostly friendly, casual, and helpful Iranians, the fear of Afghan people is not unfounded. In their isolation they only meet the police, corrupt officials, or people who try to make profit of the Afghan people.
“Once a cab driver robbed me. He took my money away and then threw me out of the car,” remembered the guy in Tehran, who had fled to Iran from Afghanistan half a year before. “What could I do? I have no papers, and it would be me who the police punishes.”
“It happened that the shopkeeper did not give me the small change. He shooed me away, and I couldn't do a thing,” told about the daily inconveniences an Afghan man, who had served in the military and walked on crutches.
“You can't negotiate your pay, though we get less than the Iranians. If you don't like it, you can go away.” The boy who worked at the construction was slowly shaking his head. Seven of us live in a room, I couldn't afford another kind of accommodation. When I came to Iran, I thought I could collect money enough to travel to Europe. But my earning is only enough for my livelihood and to send some to my family. I couldn't even go home anymore.”
Time speeds up in Europe
From the above it is understandable that the Afghan people kept mentioning Europe almost with religious awe. “My children left seven years ago,” Hadji the wealthy Afghan workshop owner livened up as we began to talk about the future. “Then my sons were 16 and 14 years old. One of them goes to university now, the other works at a mayor's office.
My sons achieved more in six years than I have in my entire life. They have a driving license, an apartment, a car, all on their own names.
There is a member in every family who lives already in Europe. “I sent my son to Europe last year,” Bagher looked up from putting soles on the shoes. “He was 15 years old. I worried about him so much, I was going crazy when they were sailing to Turkey. But he wanted it so much that I let him go. He would have studied informatics, and he couldn't have gone to university in Iran. The youth have no future here. They are already in Sweden now with his uncle, and go to a language course.”
Everybody knows about the sealing of the European frontiers, but they talk about it like about a temporary inconvenience. A large part of the youth are waiting for the opportunity to leave. And the migration zeal is not kept hot only by the above listed objective reasons. It was astonishing to hear what a psychological burden was put on the young people by the fact that part of their contemporaries have already got to Canaan.
“I almost got to Germany. But from Macedonia I couldn't go any further. We kept getting stuck at the borders. The third time we didn't manage to escape, we got caught and were sent back to Greece.” The work stopped in the shoemaker's workshop, the young men were listening to the 18-year-old boy's story frozen. Javal was taken to a Greek camp among refugees from all around the world. “I was 16. Suddenly I found myself among a bunch of adults, and most of them I couldn't even talk to. They were from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iraq, and Africa, everywhere.”
After three weeks he agreed to being passed to his domicile. Of course, Javal was not taken to his real home, Iran, but Afghanistan. “It was the first time I had been to Afghanistan. I didn't know anybody there, I had nobody living there,” he said, pointing out that the rationality of European laws sometimes yields totally surrealistic solutions.
In the end, eight months after the beginning of his journey and four thousand dollars less in his possession, he arrived back home in Iran.
Ten of my friends got to Europe.They say all's going well for them. It broke me psychologically that I had stayed at home. It took me five months to get over it. I was even thinking about killing myself.
Javal turned back to the table and went on fixing the gold straps on the patent leather shoe. Healmost only said it to himself: “But then I decided to try again. It's Europe where I imagine my life.”
Aren't you afraid that Europe is not exactly like you think it is?” I tried to make a more balanced image. My words sounded false. From the perspective of a gloomy, illegal shoemaker's workshop it felt pretentious to talk about the difficulties of European life.
“In the beginning it will be difficult, but there is a system that makes it possible to progress. My friends have got driving licenses, they work, they can buy things for themselves. And people don't talk to them in a humiliating way only because they have Asian eyes.”
Of course, there is no need to be afraid that every single Afghan person living in Iran would set out on the journey. But during the course of one week it became clear that those who stay do it mainly by necessity. Some of them are afraid, others have spent all their savings on their children's journey, while Hadji simply felt too old to start a new life.
I also have three daughters, I would like to help them get to Sweden too. But I'll stay. My life has already been destroyed here in Iran.
Iranian women in red chador?
Iran is one of the most controversial countries in the world. On the one hand, the Afghan people who fear the though regime are right. Those press news on the hard Islamic dictatorship that give accounts of beatings with sticks, the subjugation of women, the total lack of the freedom of speech and that of the press are also right. Yet, in the streets of Tehran, the atmosphere is far from being like in North Korea. Although women are obliged to wear a hijab, they do it with such creativity that some look fashionable even according to European standards. I saw a woman wearing a red hijab and a crimson dress, who could easily have been the protagonist of an Italian film of the 1960s.
Officially women can only go out to the street accompanied by family members, but in spite of that boys and girls walk in the street hand in hand. Morals have loosened up to a point that no matter that during Ramadan (the 40-day-long Muslim lent) it is forbidden to eat and drink in the street, everywhere in the capital I saw people eating or drinking not exactly in secret. Iranian house parties are legendary: the atmosphere behind doors is no different from the parties known by us.
The situation is, of course, far from the libertinage of New York. “You can live a free life, you can go quite far, but if you get nabbed, you are in big trouble,” characterized the situation an Iranian university student. This sort of openness only characterizes the cities, anyway. The countryside is still ruled by chador, bigoted religious orders, and rules unrealistic up to a level of the Christian Democratic People's Party in Hungary.
Talking with businessmen it also became clear that although the expectations are great after the exoneration of sanctions, its effects cannot yet be felt in everyday life, nor in the economy. Tourists can also sense the distance from the world when they cannot withdraw money from the ATMs, as these are not yet connected to the global banking system.