KABUL -- Hundreds of dilapidated pickup trucks packed with men, women, and children leave daily from Zaranj, Afghanistan's smuggling capital.
From Zaranj -- the capital of the remote southwestern province of Nimroz -- the vehicles turn south, slogging through the scorching desert and crossing the porous border with Pakistan.
In the border town of Dak, in Pakistan's southwestern Balochistan Province, the smugglers transfer the Afghans to new vehicles. More than 20 people pile into the back of each pickup truck, embarking on an hours-long journey through the vast Balochistan desert and across the inhospitable Mashkel Mountains into Iran.
Many of the Afghan refugees and migrants who make it this far will remain illegally in Iran, taking on menial jobs to earn enough money to send back to their families in Afghanistan. Others will pay smugglers to take them as far as Turkey, from where some will hope to reach Western Europe.
The journey is dangerous. Afghans who have illegally crossed borders in the region have been arrested, beaten, shot at, and even killed by border guards, smugglers, and criminal gangs. Others have drowned or died of illness and exhaustion.
But for many Afghans fleeing intensifying Taliban violence and rising poverty, their dreams of safety and jobs are worth the risk.
The number of Afghans fleeing abroad has surged since the United States announced in April it would withdrawal all its forces from Afghanistan. Ahead of the scheduled August 31 pullout, the Taliban has launched a blistering offensive and captured large swaths of territory from government forces.
The Taliban’s lightning advance has displaced tens of thousands of people and pushed Afghanistan toward the brink of a humanitarian crisis.
"Up to 450 pickups, carrying some 10,000 people, are leaving Zaranj each day," says David Mansfield, an independent researcher who authored an upcoming report for the Overseas Development Institute, a Britain-based think tank that maps the revenue sources of different actors in the Afghan conflict, including the lucrative people-smuggling trade.
"We have seen an almost doubling of departures since the announcement of the U.S. withdrawal, with significant increases following the Taliban's advance and the loosening of security in Iran after its presidential election in June," adds Mansfield, whose research included the use of satellite imagery and interviews with drivers and passengers.
"It's a hard journey through Pakistan and Iran," says Mansfield. "It says a lot about how desperate people are."
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), there has been a sharp increase -- between 30 to 40 percent -- in the number of Afghans fleeing the country in the past month.
Nick Bishop, emergency response officer for IOM Afghanistan, said in a written response* to RFE/RL that the surge was due to "the recent drawdown of international troops and the subsequent rapidly deteriorating security situation across the country."
Before the start of the foreign pullout on May 1, an estimated 750,000 to 1 million Afghan men -- mostly aged between 18 and 26 -- migrated each year via people smugglers or other informal means, predominantly to Iran, Turkey, the Gulf region, and Europe, Bishop said.
"However, the recent spate of widespread conflict has also now driven a noticeably large number of families to flee abroad through irregular channels as well," he added.
The IOM's Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM) estimates that approximately 20,000 to 30,000 Afghan nationals and 600 to 700 families are now migrating abroad every week.
"At these rates, 2021 could see up to 1.5 million Afghans fleeing westward in search of protection, safety, and jobs," Bishop said.
DTM data, collected through surveys with over 33,000 Afghan migrants just before they left for Iran, shows that around 81 percent intended to remain in Iran, followed by 12 percent who planned to travel on to Turkey, some 4 percent to Europe, and just 2 percent to Pakistan.
The main drivers of migration are conflict and lack of jobs, according to the DTM data.
Most of the Afghans who are fleeing abroad are from 14 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. They include the capital, Kabul; the northern provinces of Balkh, Baghlan, Sar-e Pul, Takhar, and Kunduz; the northwestern provinces of Faryab and Badghis; the western provinces of Herat and Ghor; the central provinces of Ghazni and Wardak; and the eastern provinces of Laghman and Nangarhar.
Most of the 14 provinces have been severely affected by the Taliban’s major military offensive in recent months.
'No Prospect For Peace'
"We live in misery," says Hafizullah Naseri, a resident of Kunduz Province who is preparing to flee abroad. "There is no prospect for peace. The war just goes on and on. So we have to go to a safe country."
The 45-year-old says his family of six has sold many of its possessions to pay smugglers to take them to Iran.
The Taliban has captured six of Kunduz Province's nine districts and encircled the city of Kunduz, the provincial capital and the country’s fifth largest city. Afghan security forces have been battling Taliban fighters in the city’s neighborhoods for weeks.
Hundreds of residents have been killed or wounded and the increased number of those who have left either fled the violence or were forced out by the Taliban, which has used abandoned homes as positions from which to fire at government forces.
"The situation is horrible,” says Amir Khan Ludin, another resident of Kunduz. “This is not a place to live. There is war and no jobs. There are hundreds of families like mine who are leaving to go abroad.”
Mohammad Hanif Yar runs a pharmacy in the southern city of Kandahar, the nation’s second-largest city and home to more than 600,000 people.
“Nobody’s life is safe,” says Yar. “Nobody’s family or property is safe. Security is deteriorating day by day.”
Afghan forces and Taliban militants have been engaged in fierce clashes in and around Kandahar for weeks. The insurgents have captured several districts surrounding the city in the past month and carried out a series of attacks on police outposts before breaching the city of Kandahar on July 9.
Yar says he intends to make the hazardous journey to Europe.
“No country will grant me a visa so I will go illegally,” says the 26-year-old. “We understand the risks and difficulties. But we can no longer live with the turmoil and insecurity of war. What kind of life are we living? We also have the right to live in peace.”
‘Looming Humanitarian Crisis’
The UN has warned of a “looming humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan as the escalating conflict brings increased human suffering and civilian displacement.”
An estimated 270,000 Afghans have been internally displaced since January 2021, bringing the total number of displaced Afghans to 3.5 million, according to the UN, which said nearly half of Afghanistan’s 38 million people need humanitarian assistance.
With the war intensifying, Afghanistan’s neighbors are bracing for an influx of new Afghan refugees and migrants.
Pakistan hosts nearly 2 million Afghans, refugees from four decades of war in their homeland.
Pakistani National Security Adviser Moeed Yusuf said on July 13 that the country was “not in a position to accept any more refugees,” adding that the UN should build refugee camps on the Afghan side of the border.
Pakistan has fenced around 90 percent of its disputed, 2,670-kilometer border with Afghanistan, making illegal cross-border travel difficult.
Iran, the most popular destination for Afghan refugees and migrants, hosts around 1 million Afghans, according to the UN. Many Afghans there have no legal status and are deprived of basic rights.
More than 604,000 Afghans living in Iran have been deported or returned home voluntarily in 2021, according to the IOM.
In a move aimed at preventing a new wave of Afghan refugees, Iranian lawmakers in November proposed new legislation that would impose severe prison terms on undocumented migrants and allow security officers to shoot at vehicles suspected of carrying them.
Turkish media reports say that up to 1,000 Afghans have been crossing into Turkey, via Iran, daily for the past few weeks.
Ankara is building a wall along its border with Iran to stem the increasing flow of Afghan refugees and migrants.
Turkish security forces detained nearly 1,500 irregular migrants in the last week, most of them Afghans, near the southeastern border with Iran, officials said on July 19.
The European Union is weighing up a new package of financial aid to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran to help limit the flow of Afghan refugees to the bloc. A European official said the aim was help refugees closer to home and avoid a new flow of asylum seekers to the EU.
Tajikistan has said it is ready to shelter up to 100,000 refugees from Afghanistan. Just over 1,000 Afghan civilians reside in the poor Central Asian nation. Hundreds of Afghan servicemen who had fled to Tajikistan have been flown to Kabul.
The Afghan government on June 11 requested that European countries halt the deportation of Afghan asylum seekers for the next three months due to increased Taliban violence. Finland, Sweden, and Norway have said they will temporarily halt those deportations.
‘Our Families Are In Danger’
Despite the obstacles to reaching a foreign country, Afghans continue to make plans to leave their homeland.
In Kabul, thousands of people line up outside the passport office daily, sometimes for days, to receive travel documents.
Afghans who can afford it are applying by the thousands for visas to leave Afghanistan. Scores of prominent journalists, activists, and former government employees have left in recent months.
Those who are rejected for a visa or do not have the means to travel sell their possessions or borrow money to pay smugglers to take them abroad.
One of them is Yama Ayubi, a 26-year-old who has decided to leave his home in Kabul and emigrate.
“Our families are in danger,” he says. “If we stay, we will fall prey to the terrorist groups that are destroying our country.”
Massud Azizi, an employee of a construction and logistics company in Kabul, harbors dreams of reaching Europe.
“I won’t be granted a visa to Europe,” he says. “So, I will go illegally. We’ve all heard about the risks and dangers. But what else can we do? All of us are in danger. We don’t have a choice.”
*This article has been updated to clarify that the responses from the IOM's Nick Bishop were in written form.
Written by Frud Bezhan in Prague with reporting by RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi correspondents in Afghanistan. Their names are being withheld for their protection