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Afghans targeted by surge in online smuggling and visa scams

‘You’re just constantly reporting one, and several others appear in their place.’

Afghans gather outside the passport office in Kabul after Taliban officials announce they will start issuing passports  again, in October 2021. Jorge Silva/REUTERS
Afghans gather outside the passport office in Kabul after Taliban officials announce they will start issuing passports again, in October 2021.

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Last August, shortly after the Taliban returned to power, Yahya* noticed a disturbing trend. Whenever the 24-year-old Afghan journalist opened Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or TikTok, his feed was crowded with posts claiming to be able to help him flee the country. 

Promises were wide-ranging: “Legal Migration from Afghanistan to Russia and Russia to Europe without any advance payment”; “Turkish family visa obtained in 2 weeks”; “From Kabul to Moscow and from Moscow straight to Sweden. Legally, reliable and cheap.”

At the time, thousands of people had turned the backroads leading to Hamid Karzai International Airport into a shantytown, where they camped in the dirt and mud night after night in the hope of escaping Afghanistan. 

But while the crowds outside the Kabul airport soon dissipated, corrupt people smuggling and fake visa operations continue to proliferate and claim victims, preying on the desperation of Afghans who are struggling to survive amid a spiralling economic crisis.

There are no hard figures, but the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD), a Vienna-based organisation working with Afghan refugees on these issues, told The New Humanitarian it is spending increasing time and budget on reporting such scams – with social media giants like Meta and ByteDance seemingly unable to police their platforms. 

A growing number of Afghans, the ICMPD says, are losing thousands of dollars to scammers plying a trade in useless, fake visas. Others pay far more to be smuggled out of Afghanistan, only to find themselves stranded in foreign countries with none of the support they paid for to reach their agreed destination.

After the Taliban took over, the prices shot up: “They went from demanding $2,000 to $8,000, even $10,000, per scholarship.”

“You’re just constantly reporting one [scam], and several others appear in their place,” Samim Ahmadi, an ICMPD project manager based in Afghanistan until 2021, told The New Humanitarian. “You could spend weeks on end doing nothing else, and there will always be new ones all the time.”

Bezhan, who only wanted to give his first name for security reasons, attends a university in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif. He said students are popular targets and explained how the smuggling economy has shifted in tandem with the growing scale of desperation.

“All it took was a Google search and you’d find dozens, if not hundreds, of websites and Facebook pages” claiming to offer scholarships to Italy, Germany, Russia, Turkey, and other nations in exchange for about $1,000-$2,000. After the Taliban took over, he said, the prices shot up: “They went from demanding $2,000 to $8,000, even $10,000, per scholarship.”

Bezhan was fortunate. His aunt, who had been evacuated to Britain as the Taliban took over, convinced him that the offers were too good to be true. Some of his friends weren’t so lucky: Several have been defrauded by corrupt operators.

“We managed to get the ones [in Mazar] closed with the help of the Taliban,” Bezhan said. “But in Kabul, there are still dozens of offices all over the city, all operating from websites and Facebook posts.”

An Afghan now living in Canada, who also withheld his name for security reasons, told The New Humanitarian he too had dissuaded relatives from believing such posts but that several members of his family had been ripped off by smugglers and are stuck in a neighbouring country, hoping – somehow – to be evacuated.

A global problem that’s hard to rein in

The targeting of vulnerable would-be migrants and refugees in this way isn’t new – nor is it unique to Afghanistan.

In recent years, the US embassy has warned of visa frauds targeting Syrian refugees, UNHCR Philippines has drawn awareness to scammers pretending to be the UN’s refugee agency, while the American Bar Association has a special project aimed at stopping immigration assistance scams due to their prevalence in the United States. 

As the situation continues to worsen in Afghanistan, more and more young people are being bombarded with offers of help to leave the country. Smuggling rings are hard to penetrate, and the online nature of these schemes makes it even trickier to track down the perpetrators, according to ICPMD, an Afghan refugee group in Turkey, and aid workers from several other organisations The New Humanitarian spoke to.

Yahya, the journalist in Mazar, said scammers often look for ways to bypass online protections and target the widest possible audience: “You could tell that they had reached out to people who were active and had gained trust on these Facebook pages to post for them.”

As of 2019, more than half of Afghans have access to the Internet via mobile phones. This has led to a boom of social media influencers with hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube. The vast majority of accounts are genuine, but Yahya says some also peddle false claims as part of attempts to increase their followings.

Aid groups in Afghanistan, as well as local refugee organisations run by Afghans in Turkey and Greece – where many end up – are trying to spread awareness and combat the scams.

But companies like Meta, ByteDance, and Google are inundated with reports of questionable content, so the process of getting something fraudulent taken down can be long and drawn out, as they have to confirm the content violates their platform's Terms of Service. And even if it does, depending on the severity of the breach, the account could end up having only some posts taken down or only being restricted instead of taken offline altogether.

“Every swipe was someone showing an email or telling people they could help them get out. At that time, everyone believed those posts.” 

Because the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate is sanctioned and isn’t recognised as the official government of Afghanistan by Western countries, Taliban officials can’t simply call Meta or Google to lodge an official complaint.

The New Humanitarian reached out to Meta for comment but didn’t receive a reply by publication. The Kabul police department also failed to reply to a request for comment.

On average, Ahmadi said the ICMPD alone receives 200-300 inquiries a month about potentially fraudulent visas. All come from Afghans online, via Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp and other platforms.

Alee Siddique, an Afghan influencer with more than 470,000 followers on Instagram and TikTok, recalled how scam posts were all over TikTok and Facebook after the fall of Kabul. 

“Every swipe was someone showing an email or telling people they could help them get out,” Siddique told The New Humanitarian. “At that time, everyone believed those posts,” he said, adding that the scams are still everywhere and people continue to fall for them.

Often the fake visa agencies – run both online and through brick-and-mortar offices in Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan, according to the ICMPD – appropriate variations of the names of organisations, like the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to try and trick people.

“They even distribute [supposed] visas,” said Ahmadi. “But if you look at them closely, you can tell that something is off about them – but you only know that if you know what an actual visa looks like.”

Smuggling rings – with ad budgets 

A quick glance at Facebook pulls up numerous pages like the one advertising an agency called simply Mazar – it boasts a knock-off Amazon logo and no real website.

Its Facebook page – listed as a “personal blog”, and followed or liked by some 20,000 people – is filled with bucolic tourism photos of Russia, France, and Canada and posts promising: “Get a one-year Russian business visa without need for an Iranian residency from Tehran.”

A man who answered the phone number listed on the page when The New Humanitarian called said he could arrange everything from “an entirely VIP smuggling service from Moscow to France, taxis the entire way” for just over $14,000, to helping a person obtain a one-year Turkish business visa for $7,000. He takes cash payments in a physical office in Kabul.

Other websites that default to the Russian language claim they can assist residents of 80 countries, including Afghanistan, obtain tourist and Schengen (free-travel) visas to EU nations. But rather than connecting Afghans with valid visas, such companies simply operate as smuggling rings – taking large sums of money in exchange for moving Afghans through risky, illegal crossings. 

“They are exposed to exploitation of different forms, physical harassment, forced labour or even death.”  

Ahmadi, of the ICMPD, said that once smuggled abroad by these rings, Afghans often find themselves stranded, confused, and chased down by authorities in foreign countries. 

“During the course of these journeys, they remain at [the] mercy of the smugglers. In most cases, this act of irregular migration turns to trafficking cases,” he said. “[They are] exposed to exploitation of different forms, physical harassment, forced labour or even death.”  

Despite the ICMPD’s best efforts, Ahmadi said monitoring such pages, posts, stories, and websites is extremely difficult, not only because of the sheer time it takes, but also due to the opaque tactics of the criminals and the hesitancy of Afghan refugees to report them.

He said the first challenge when trying to understand how these operations work is earning the trust of those who have been scammed as they are often stuck in difficult circumstances in foreign countries.

Victims often fear the ire of a new host government or a criminal smuggling network. “People are wary to say who they are or where they’re calling from,” said Ahmadi. “It’s only after a lot of effort that some of them will tell us exactly where they got the information.” 

While the best course of action is raising awareness in the public and drumming into people that they can only trust direct sources in foreign embassies and well-known NGOs, even that isn’t straightforward, according to Ahmadi.

The US Embassy in Kabul has an entire webpage with tips to help you tell if you’re being targeted by an online scam, as does the UN. The US Embassy has also put out Facebook warnings about fraudulent online schemes.

Cautionary tales

One Afghan, who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the situation, told The New Humanitarian his sister’s family had handed over nearly $3,000 in cash at a premises in Kabul for four Turkish visas – only to discover the documents were fakes. 

“What do you do after that?” asked the man. “You’ve lost your money, and you can’t rip the page out of your passport – who will accept your passport after that?”

Yahya said family and friends in Afghanistan – concerned about the constant reports of abuse and torture of Afghan journalists by the Taliban – often send him WhatsApp contacts of people who claim they can help him leave the country. But having witnessed far too many people relying on gossip, rumours, and unproven claims as surefire bets out of the country, he said he is wise to the dangers.

In the weeks after the Taliban took over, thousands of Afghans made the 740-kilometre journey from Kabul to Mazar, where Yahya lives. Many had pinned their hopes on dubious claims from shady would-be smugglers and con men.

“Every day, there were dozens of posts saying everything from, ‘Send us your CV’, to ‘For $1,000 we can help you’,” Yahya told The New Humanitarian by phone from Mazar. But his profession served him well in seeing through the claims: “I’m a journalist. As soon as I saw them, I could tell there was something suspect about them.”

Last November, four female activists were killed in Mazar. The husband of one of the victims, Forozan Safi, told local media his wife was lured to her death by a call from an alleged human rights organisation.

Both Yahya and Tamana Ayazi, a human rights worker and filmmaker from Mazar, told The New Humanitarian there were reports at the time of Mazaris receiving mysterious phone calls from people claiming they could assist at-risk individuals or help people get on board evacuation flights to the United States and Germany. 

“After that, everyone kept saying to one another, ‘until you’re absolutely certain to whom you’re speaking, don’t talk to anyone,’” said Ayazi.

*Yahya asked to be identified by a pseudonym due to fears over his safety.

Edited by Abby Seiff.

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