Staying in a theocracy whose rulers subjugate women was not an option, but trying to get to destinations in Europe and beyond comes with unthinkable perils of its own.
ATHENS — Hariana* always knew that fleeing Afghanistan would not be easy. But it turned out far worse than that.
Now 29, she fled to Iran with her family two years ago, but was sexually assaulted by her employer in Tehran. That prompted her to leave on her own for Europe. Hariana found herself as the only woman following a smuggler on a perilous journey that would be on foot, by bus and by sea.
"Once on the bus I looked around and got scared," she recalled. "The trafficker told me to get off. He wanted me for himself."
The woman got off, but managed to escape the trafficker — and then called for help from the local police. That would be nearly as dangerous.
It was only the intervention of a cousin living in Turkey and found on Facebook that allowed her to leave the police station and continue her journey. By sheer coincidence, the man was going by the police station on his way to work and managed to convince the officers to let Hariana go.
40 years of conflict
Today the young woman is in Athens as a "free woman," a fact she emphasizes by wearing a pair of leggings and her hair in the wind, without a veil.
Even before last year's return of the Taliban, Afghans had become one of the largest refugee groups in the world, with more than two and a half million refugees, according to United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates.
About 120,000 Afghans arrived in Europe following the hasty U.S. withdrawal in September 2021, and about half have had their asylum claims accepted, with Italy ranking second after Germany in the number of evacuated people accepted, according to the European Parliamentary Research Service.
But the impact of 40 years of conflict in Afghanistan, including the last two decades of international presence, has resulted in a very high number of internally displaced people, as well as a steady flow of asylum seekers, both internationally and in neighboring countries, such as Pakistan and Iran.
According to the UNHCR, 2.2 million Afghans live in Iran and Pakistan with the necessary documents, while the number of undocumented refugees has been estimated to be over 3 million.
Risk of sexual slavery
Over months of interviews with departing Afghans and refugees in Turkey and Europe, what emerges is the extraordinary danger that women traveling illegally face. This involves the very high risk, largely off the radar, of becoming subjected to trafficking or sexual slavery.
These episodes are rarely reported to the police.
Dozens of NGO testimonies and transcripts also point to a pattern in which women, and particularly ethnic minority Afghans, are subjected to violence, deprived of their liberty, and deprived of their documents. These episodes are rarely reported to the police because of cultural or language issues, but also because of the difficulty in receiving adequate protection.
The length of the journeys to reach Europe — trips that can take years — makes it premature to understand the direct impact of the Taliban's takeover and the resulting restrictions on women's freedom. But for many of those who decide to undertake the long journey from Afghanistan to Europe, their luck runs out long before Hariana's.
Becoming victims of trafficking and sexual abuse, especially at the hands of traffickers or fellow travelers, is the first danger asylum-seeking women encounter. The phenomenon is so widespread and notorious that it has generated real survival techniques among women.
"Ninety percent of traveling women experience violence," says Aila, 31, an Afghan refugee in Greece and former local worker with the international NGO Médecins Sans Frontières.
"I remember traveling with a 10-year-old girl and her grandmother. During the trip the grandmother died and the little girl was given to the trafficker," Aila recalls. "Did they rape her? Of course. She was a woman to them."
"When your life is in the hands of the traffickers," Aila continues, "it is not up to you to decide who to be with, what to do, where to go: it is the trafficker who decides. Even if you are with your family and the men in your family, he can threaten you with a weapon and if he wants to separate you from them he will do so."
Afghani women shopping at a market in northern Afghanistan.
Forced marriages of very young girls in Afghanistan are still far too frequent, especially in rural areas, a custom that also exposes girls to greater risks of sexual violence. No one is excluded, and word of mouth has led to the development of 'survival' techniques to limit risks, such as disguising oneself as a man.
During her journey, Aila wore a short jacket, jeans, and sneakers — what boys were using. "I kept my hair hidden under my cap. And when the trafficker gave me his hand to get on the boat he said 'hey boy' and I didn't answer." Never talking to traffickers is the second 'trick' dispensed by Aila.
These are not isolated incidents of violence but a well-established pattern in which traffickers exploit the vulnerability of weaker individuals, whether they are very young women or mothers.
Sexual slavery across borders
Once they arrive in Europe, the lack of money, documents and protection creates new risks of sexual abuse, which can become a form of payment to cross borders or to go to another EU state, and not infrequently lead to real cases of sexual slavery.
This is what happened to Freshta, not yet 30 years old.
It took her years between Iran and Turkey with her sick brother before she managed to arrive at a refugee camp in Greece and finally find herself in Athens, hosted by a friend. But her attempt to find a job and become more independent soon turned into a prolonged series of abuse and violence. Her chance of asking for concrete help was radically reduced by her illegal status and lack of documents.
"One day I was in a café with my friend and she introduced me to this man. All we knew was that he was a smuggler, an Iraqi national."
He, himself a refugee, knew well how vulnerable women like Freshta are. "He started following me, he kept saying I should go with him."
Her constant rejection was futile. In return came threats to kill her brother who was still in the camp.
One day, despite Freshta's attempts to protect herself by hiding at her friend's house, the man found her. He hit her in the head and threatened her with a knife to the stomach, forcing her into his car. That's when Freshta became a slave.
He told me there was nothing I could do.
"When I woke up he was not there. I was in pain and didn't know what to do, I was in shock. I went to the bathroom, washed, dressed, and cried." When he returned, the trafficker told her that she could go out during the day, but that she now belonged to him and if she told anyone what had happened he would kill her.
After she tried to escape again, he locked her up in the house for weeks, raping her repeatedly. Freshta wound up pregnant. "He told me there was nothing I could do, because he had become a Greek citizen and I was nothing, I didn't even have papers."
It took many weeks and the help of an association to enable her to report the incident and have an abortion. She has now been moved by the Greek government to a secure facility in a secret location.
Ethnicity and class discrimination
Freshta's testimony stands out, as the Athens-based NGO worker explains, because "there are many cases of sexual slavery like this that go unreported for fear of stigma and lack of documentation."
The perpetrators may also be fellow countrymen, usually of different ethnicities, and to a lesser extent belong to other nationalities. The lack of resources is also exacerbated by a new form of "classism" within the refugee community and the way resources are allocated, as reported by Afghan women met in Athens.
"Refugees who came to Europe through the evacuation program (following the Taliban takeover) consider themselves 'different' from those who arrived here on foot, with traffickers. And they are also treated differently by the authorities," says Aila.
While for men the lack of documents, money and family network leads more easily to labor exploitation, for women it translates easily into sexual exploitation.
Other women are "passed from trafficker to trafficker," Aaila says, while the association also reports cases of forced prostitution just outside the camps. Of particular concern to her is the short time given to women in shelter facilities, the limited space available, and the general weakness of the support network in proportion to the severity and spread of the problem.
"When I was asked if I wanted to report the man [who kept me enslaved] I said yes, but only if I had a safe place to stay first," says Freshta. "I was so desperate that when I left, I left all my belongings behind."
*The names of the women victims of violence were changed to protect their identities.
This reportage was funded by JournalismFund.eu as part of its promotion of independent journalistic investigations into the exploitation of Asian victims of human trafficking and forced labor in Europe.
You can read the full story in Italian here.
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