KABUL, Afghanistan -- Across Afghanistan, a mass exodus is unfolding as the Taliban press on in their brutal military campaign, which has captured more than half the country's 400-odd districts, according to some assessments. And with that, fears of a harsh return to extremist rule or a bloody civil war between ethnically aligned militias have taken hold.
So far this year, about 330,000 Afghans have been displaced, more than half of them fleeing their homes since the United States began its withdrawal in May, according to the United Nations.
Many have flooded into makeshift tent camps or crowded into relatives' homes in cities, the last islands of government control in many provinces. Thousands more are trying to secure passports and visas to leave the country altogether. Others have crammed into smugglers' pickup trucks in a desperate bid to slip illegally over the border.
In recent weeks, the number of Afghans crossing the border illegally shot up around 30%-40% compared with the period before international troops began withdrawing in May, according to the International Organization for Migration. At least 30,000 people are now fleeing every week.
The sudden flight is an early sign of a looming refugee crisis, aid agencies warn, and has raised alarms in neighboring countries and Europe that the violence that has escalated since the start of the withdrawal is already spilling across the country's borders.
"Afghanistan is on the brink of another humanitarian crisis," Babar Baloch, a spokesperson for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said in July. "A failure to reach a peace agreement in Afghanistan and stem the current violence will lead to further displacement."
The sudden exodus harks back to earlier periods of heightened unrest: Millions poured out of Afghanistan in the years after the Soviets invaded in 1979. A decade later, more fled as the Soviets withdrew and the country fell into civil war. The exodus continued when the Taliban came to power in 1996.
Afghans currently account for one of the world's largest populations of refugees and asylum-seekers -- around 3 million people -- and represents the second-highest number of asylum claims in Europe, after Syria.
Now the country is at the precipice of another bloody chapter, but the new outpouring of Afghans comes as attitudes toward migrants have hardened around the world.
After forging a repatriation deal in 2016 to stem migration from war-afflicted countries, Europe has deported tens of thousands of Afghan migrants. Hundreds of thousands more are being forced back by Turkey as well as by neighboring Pakistan and Iran, which together host around 90% of displaced Afghans worldwide and have deported a record number of Afghans in recent years.
Coronavirus restrictions have also made legal and illegal migration more difficult as countries closed their borders and scaled back refugee programs, pushing thousands of migrants to travel to Europe along more dangerous routes.
In the U.S., the growing backlog for the Special Immigration Visa program -- available to Afghans who face threats because of their work with the U.S. government -- has left roughly 20,000 eligible Afghans and their families trapped in bureaucratic limbo in Afghanistan. The Biden administration has come under heavy pressure to protect Afghan allies as the U.S. withdraws troops and air support amid a Taliban insurgency.
Still, as the fighting among Taliban, government and militia forces intensifies and civilian casualties reach record highs, many Afghans remain determined to leave.
A surge of Afghans have flocked to Zaranj, a hub for illegal migration in Nimruz province, where smugglers' pickups snake south down the borderlands to Iran each day.
In March, around 200 cars left for the Iranian border each day from Zaranj -- a 300% increase from 2019, according to David Mansfield, a migration researcher and consultant with the British Overseas Development Institute. By early July, 450 cars were heading to the border each day.
Those who can afford it pay thousands of dollars to travel to Turkey and then Europe. But many more strike pay-as-you-go deals with smugglers, planning to work illegally in Iran until they can afford the next leg of the journey.
"I need to get a passport and get the hell out of this country," said Abdullah, 41, who like many in Afghanistan goes by only one name.
Abdullah, who drives a taxi between Kabul and Ghazni, a trading hub in the southeast, remembers speeding toward the capital when fighting erupted recently, picking up a group of Afghan troops who demanded a ride along the way. Two days later, his boss called to say that Taliban fighters had asked about a taxi driver seen evacuating security forces -- and had recited Abdullah's license plate.
"Trying to leave legally is costly, and if we go illegally, it is dangerous," he said. "But right now the country is even more dangerous."