Post by Liza Schuster, Reader in Sociology, City University London. Liza is currently in Afghanistan, exploring how fears and perceptions about the presidential elections and the withdrawal of international forces in 2014 is affecting emigration. This post describes a few days in her voyage over to Afghanistan earlier this year, meeting with Afghani women and men in transit.

On my way overland to Afghanistan in September 2013 to continue research into migration, I stopped in Istanbul. I met up with a smuggler, Asad. He had left Afghanistan seven years earlier, but got stuck in Greece, where he started helping others for a fee until fearing arrest he had fled back to Turkey two years earlier.

Source: BBC news
He takes me to his home, knocking before he opens the door a little, clearly warning the young men inside there was a visitor. I walked into a hot, steamy room painted red, with the red curtains and the windows closed. I greeted the men in Dari and explained that I had worked in Afghanistan and with Afghan migrants, and that I was travelling their route to better understand what they experienced and to write about it. As I talked, I realized I could not interview in these conditions, but thought I might be able to do a focus group. However, as the evening wore on, more and more men arrived making even that impossible. Soon there are 30 men aged from 16 to 35. At least three of them had already attempted the crossing to Mytilini, but been picked up by the police and sent back to Turkey. I heard that tears had been shed two nights ago when they had returned here.
I gave up any idea of asking questions and instead offered to respond to any they might have. Slowly people began to ask questions about Europe – often "which is the best country? Where should I go?" or "what about Belgium? I am going to my cousin" or "what about minors? How old do you think I am?" One man in his 30s stroked his smooth chin and said "I'd pass for 17, wouldn't I?" I studied him seriously and announced that if he could pass for 17 so could I. In spite of the situation, there was much laughter. But as my responses to their questions were invariably not what they wanted to hear, the mood became sombre.
Afghans working in Istanbul. Many are saving to pay smugglers to get them into Greece. (Image: Daniel Etter | Source: NY Times)
To lighten it, people then changed the subject to my time in Afghanistan. They asked where I had been, and what I had thought about their home. It turns out one of the young men is a relative of one of my hosts, and had been a neighbour of mine in Karte Nau. By then it was nearly nine. I took my leave. As Asad accompanied me back to the metro station at Aksaray, I asked if many found work while waiting, and he said some, but there is always the risk that employers won’t pay, knowing the migrants will not be able to go to the police. He was astonished when I told him this happens in Europe too. We talked too about some of the other risks. He told me the story I have heard from a number of different sources too – about the Greek police puncturing the rubber boats before pushing them back into Turkish waters. This smuggler sees himself as helper and defender of his clients, and quoted various prices to me as though he made no commission: $3,000 overland to Greece, $1,500 in boat to Mytilini. He told me the average cost was $10,000 Afghanistan to Greece.
Afghan women in Athens mourned loved ones who were lost crossing a river to Greece from Turkey in a rubber boat (Image: Daniel Etter | Source: NY Times)
At Aksaray station, he took out a map so I could see where I was going, but handed it to me upside down. It was a shock to see that for him it was a piece of paper covered in colours and hieroglyphics that held no meaning, he is illiterate. We arranged to meet again the following morning, but when Asad arrived he explained he had to sort something out but had arranged for someone else to take me to another safe house. I was handed over to Rahim. He was small, rotund, well-groomed and well-dressed – he was certainly better off than most of the young men I had met. As he walked me to a small street near Aksaray, Rahin explained that he had arrived five days ago. He had made an earlier attempt to get to Europe and made it to England, but had then been deported back to Afghanistan. Now he had managed to get his wife and child to Holland – they had flown to Spain from Athens (€3,000) and then travelled in a car to Holland and now he was hoping to rejoin them.

We arrived into a narrow street and Rahim made a call on his phone. We climbed the stairs to the 4th floor and I was shown into a bright one bedroomed apartment where there were 20+ people. Again conditions meant rather than asking questions, I spent a little more than an hour trying to explain the rules governing entry to and residence in Europe. Again there are questions about minors, and I notice about three teenage boys sitting listening. I explain they cannot rely on their youth; if they do not have a well-founded fear of persecution, they may well be deported when they reach 18. After a while, Rahim says we should go – there is another place to visit. I ask if I can go to say goodbye to the women who are all in the bedroom. Five women are sitting or lying on a double bed or the floor, surrounded by four or five children. The women look strained, tired and worried. One, who sits up to greet me from where she was lying on the floor, has a migraine – unsurprising considering what she will have gone through in the last few days or weeks.

Walking to the next place, we meet another big stout man in his early-mid 30s, a contrast with small neat Rahim. In this apartment, the women come out to join the conversation. Explaining that for those past their early 20s and unable to read or write, life will be extremely difficult, a serious man looks hurt and frightened. He says something I don’t catch and the others laugh. He is insisting he is young - he's late 30s, and that he will find work and care for his children who sit at his feet. I tell him as gently as I can that if he is allowed to stay, his life will be difficult, but his children will have opportunities they would not have in Afghanistan or Iran. I give him the number of a father in Paris and hope he will call him for advice. I pass the women the number of a woman who had arrived in Paris and tell them to call her. I try to give as much information as possible. The women tried to insist I stay for lunch but Rahim says we should go. I must continue to Afghanistan, but the urge to stay here is very strong.

For more on Liza's research on return to Afghanistan see her recent article published in Migration Studies, co-authored with Nassim Majidi, What happens post-deportation? The experience of deported Afghans.

To see other photos by Daniel Etter of migrants en-route click here and here.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Schuster L (2013) On My Way to the Field. Available at: (Accessed [date]).