Their journey starts with a humanitarian visa for Brazil: one of the few remaining exit routes for Afghans fleeing Taliban rule.
It ends, after a perilous trek overland through Latin America across at least 11 countries, with scaling the border wall and jumping onto U.S. soil.
More than a year after the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Kabul, at the orders of President Joe Biden, the number of Afghans crossing the U.S.-Mexico border to seek asylum in the United States has soared.
Hundreds of people each month are risking their lives to get there on a human smuggling route notorious for kidnapping, robbery, and assault.
U.S. border agents apprehended 2,132 Afghans last year — a close to 30-fold increase over the prior year — with nearly half arriving in November and December, U.S. government data show.
Reuters spoke to a dozen Afghans who braved the journey. Eleven said they made it to the United States; Reuters has not been able to confirm the whereabouts of one person a reporter interviewed in Mexico. All said they were unable to start new lives in Brazil and instead headed north by land to the United States.
Several refugee advocates and former U.S. officials said the increasing number of Afghans attempting the route reflected a failure both to address the humanitarian crisis inside Afghanistan and to provide adequate support for those who leave.
The United States has been slow to process visas, they say, and together with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)should be doing more to help other countries to assist Afghan refugees.
“Just getting out of the country is hard. And then if you do, it doesn’t mean that you’ve reached safety,” said Anne Richard, who served as the U.S. assistant secretary of state for population, refugees, and migration from 2012 to 2017.
The State Department said in response to Reuters questions that it has tried to speed up visa processing for “the brave Afghans who stood side-by-side with the United States over the past two decades” and that it has offered support to governments to avoid “irregular migration.” It declined to comment on individual cases.
UNHCR said the humanitarian Brazilian visa program, which offers two-year residency and the right to work, study, and apply for refugee status, is “an extremely important contribution” but said shelters in the country are “overwhelmed.”
The Brazilian government did not respond to requests for comment.
About 4,000 Afghans have entered Brazil on humanitarian visas since the program began in Sept. 2021, the U.S. State Department said, with a significant uptick in the final months of 2022.
Last year, 2,200 Afghans crossed through the lawless jungle region between Colombia and Panama known as the Darien Gap — the only land route from South America toward the U.S. border — with nearly half crossing in November and December. In all of 2021, just 24 Afghans crossed, according to Panamanian government data.
The Taliban administration’s spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment about the escalating exodus. In recent weeks, Taliban spokesmen have said that Afghanistan is the “home of all Afghans” and that those who have left can come back.
Copyright 2023 Thomson/Reuters