Crooks prey on Afghans desperate to leave their country

AISHA SULTANE is a 25-year-old Afghan woman who worked in her country’s parliament until mid-August. It was then that Kabul, the capital, fell into the hands of the Taliban. Since then, she has been in hiding, moving between parents’ houses with her younger sisters. The family has reason to be afraid. Their father was an officer in the Afghan army (he was killed in a suicide bombing). Their brothers, also in hiding, served in the special forces. These ties do not tie them to their new leaders.

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Their mother and an older sister were able to flee to Canada in the chaotic evacuation following the Taliban takeover. Ms. Aisha Sultana (not her real name) would love to follow. So when a friend sent her the phone number of a Canadian immigration officer, she jumped at the chance. The man on the other end of the WhatsApp chat promised he could bring her and her sisters to Canada for just $ 2,500 each. Their lack of passports was not an obstacle. And only $ 500 had to be prepaid, with the rest not due until they arrived in Canada.

It was too good to be true. Although the phone number appeared to be Canadian, it was actually a virtual number purchased from Google Voice, which allows people to set up a North American number from anywhere in the world. Photos his owner posted on Instagram, apparently of him hosting refugees he helped get to Canada, were stolen from former Canadian Michael Levitt deputy who sat on the Foreign Affairs Committee. The first time Mr. Levitt heard of it was when he was contacted by The Economist.

Such scams have long existed in other poor migrant-exporting countries. Ghanaian criminals even set up a fake US embassy in Accra that issued (unnecessary) visas to the victims. They are now proliferating in Afghanistan, which offers a rich selection among former government officials, militants and army officers desperate to leave. Many of those approved for evacuation to Britain, Canada or America find themselves trapped in Kabul. They are vulnerable to tricksters who promise, for example, safe passage to Qatar for $ 3,000 per person. Someone using the name Noor Bagam claims to be an official at the Canadian High Commission in Pakistan and says she can bring families to Canada for $ 5,000 per person. Travel agents charge $ 200 to apply for Pakistani e-visas, which are free, promising better results. In reality, most are still refused.

Mrs. Aisha Sultana was lucky. She took a bite of the hook, but was unable to send any money. His scammer demanded payment in Bitcoin, or via Moneygram, a money transfer service, to a Ponik Natalya in Russia. She couldn’t either, because withdrawals from Afghan bank accounts are frozen. But she was still furious to realize that she had been given false hope. Since she backtracked, “he’s still texting me every day and asking for money.” She ignores the messages, but remains desperate to leave.

In the grim calculation of daily life in Afghanistan, however, losing a few thousand dollars can be the best fate. In recent weeks, several prominent women activists have been murdered. One, Forouzan Safi, a 30-year-old feminist from Mazar-i-Sharif, a northern town, was lured out of her home by someone claiming to be able to help her leave Afghanistan.â–

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Pas d’issue”