Criminal gangs kidnap and torture Afghan citizens as they attempt to cross the Iran-Turkey border en route to Europe as they flee the Taliban, according to a BBC investigation.
Once they are kidnapped, they send videos of their mistreatment to the migrants' families and demand a ransom for their release.
Warning: This article contains descriptions of violence and sexual assault that some readers may find disturbing
Moored at the top From a mountain with chains around their necks and padlocks, a group of Afghan migrants plead for their release.
“Whoever sees this video, they kidnapped me yesterday, they are demanding $4,000 for each of us. They beat us non-stop day and night, says a man with a bloody lip and a dusty face.
Another video shows a group of completely naked men, dragging themselves in the snow while someone is holding them up. spanks from behind.
“I have a family, don't do this to me, I have a wife and children, have mercy, please”
These disturbing videos are evidence of rising crime, with gangs in Iran kidnapping mainly Afghan migrants trying to reach Europe.
The migration route from Afghanistan to Iran, and on to across the border into Turkey and the rest of Europe, it has been used for decades. In fact, I myself was part of the same journey 12 years ago when I was fleeing Iran for the UK, where I was granted asylum.
But the route is now more dangerous than ever.
An opportunity for criminal groups
Those trying to cross from Iran to Turkey walk for hours through dry, mountainous terrain with no shade trees , making it difficult to avoid security forces patrolling the area.
As hundreds of thousands have fled Afghanistan since the Taliban took power in August 2021,criminal groups have seen an opportunity to profit from the huge increase in the number of people making the trip.
Often in collaboration with smugglers, these gangs kidnap people from the Iranian side of the border and extort money from them. Many times these vulnerable groups have already paid large sums of money to ensure safe passage.
The BBC team heard stories of torture in at least 10 locations along the border. An activist who has been documenting these abuses for the past three years said that at the worst moment he received up to two or three videos of torture a day.
Returned by Turkish authorities
In An apartment in Istanbul, Turkey, we met Amina, who had a successful career as a police officer in Afghanistan, but fled the country when she realized the Taliban was about to retake power, having previously received threats from the group.
Soft-spoken and wearing a purple headscarf, she told me about her experience at the border when she and her family were returned by Turkish authorities to Iranian territory and taken hostage by a criminal group.
“I was very afraid, I was terrified, because I was pregnant and there was no doctor. We had heard many stories of boys being raped, he recalled.
His father, Haji, “This was the situation I found myself in. By sending these videos they were warning me. If I didn't pay the ransom, they would kill my daughters and son-in-law," he said.
Haji sold his house in Afghanistan to pay off the gang and free his family. They then tried again to enter Turkey, this time successfully.
But the eight-day ordeal at the border proved too much for Amina and she lost her baby.
Aside from the gangs, Amina and the others face another major obstacle in their path: the wall.
Snaking more than half the length of the Turkish-Iranian border, this wall is three meters high and fortified with barbed wire, as well as electronic sensors and EU-funded watchtowers.
Turkey started building the wall in 2017 to prevent migrants from crossing into the country, but they keep coming through.
Amina and several others told us they fell into the hands of violent gangs on the Iranian side after Turkish authorities forced them to leave. crossing the border at night, claims that have also been documented by international human rights groups.
Mahmut Kagan, a Turkish human rights lawyer who represents asylum seekers, said that this practice, which is illegal under international law, you are helping gangs exploit people.
“These deportations are closely related to deportations because they create a fragile group open to all forms of abuse,” he said.
Turkish authorities did not respond to a request for comment. of the news on these accusations. Faced with similar allegations from human rights groups, the government has denied returning migrants to Iran and has said that any activity to prevent illegal entry into Turkey falls within the purview of border management.
Before the wall was built, many locals used to smuggle goods across the border for a living. That trade has largely disappeared now, meaning some have turned to kidnapping or smuggling migrants.
A repeating family story
In Van, the closest Turkish city to the border with Iran and a migrant smuggling hub, we met a young Afghan man named Ahmed in a barn-turned-den while negotiating the next leg of his journey with smugglers.
It was Ahmed, then still in Afghanistan, who took the calls from the gang demanding ransom.
“I said we had no money. The kidnapper was beating my brother. We could hear it," he recounted.
Ahmed sold his family belongings to pay for his release. But the experience was not enough to prevent him from attempting the same journey himself six months later, desperate to make a living after the economic crisis that followed the Taliban takeover.
In the Afghan capital, Kabul, we met to Said. He had been promised a false document that would allow him to cross into Turkiye. Instead, he tells him, he was betrayed by his contact and sold to a gang, who tortured him and demanded a $10,000 ransom.
“He was very afraid . They could do anything to me. Gouging out my eyes, selling my kidneys, ripping out my heart,” he said.
After hearing the gang discuss how they could rape him and send the video home to his family, his fear grew.
In the end, he escaped after paying $500.
We asked the Iranian government what was being done to crack down on gang activity along the border, but received no response.
The BBC is prohibited from reporting inside Iran, so we were unable to cross the border to investigate further.
Weeks after our interview, Said contacted us to say he was on the move again and had arrived in Tehran again. That was eight months ago and we haven't heard from him since.
Others we met who came to Turkey, like Amina, are trying to look to the future with optimism.
“I will not give up. I know I will be a mother. I know I will be strong,” she assured.
*The names of some interviewees were changed in this article for your safety.