Why Iran Is Deporting Scores of Afghan Refugees

Caught on the border, many are vulnerable to extortion, abuse, and regional tensions.

An Afghan man rests in the sun on the road inside the Shahid Nasseri refugee camp near the city of Saveh, Iran, on Feb. 8, 2015.
An Afghan man rests in the sun on the road inside the Shahid Nasseri refugee camp near the city of Saveh, Iran, on Feb. 8, 2015.

It had been more than three decades since 48-year-old Zahra, who asked to be identified only by her first name, left Afghanistan with her husband to escape the increasing violence that would plague her country for many years to come. “I was married at 13 years, and soon after my husband and I moved to Iran seeking a better life for the family we wanted to start,” Zahra, now a widow of many years, told me this past December.

She was surrounded by her three children, aged between 12 and 17 years. Two days before we spoke, the family of four had been detained by the Iranian police. In a matter of hours, their lives were turned upside down. “We were on our way to Mashhad to attend a wedding when we were stopped. They arrested us. Our refugee cards were canceled. We didn’t get to defend ourselves. I begged them to not send us back, but they didn’t listen,” she narrated her ordeal as she sat on a hard bench at the edge of the large reception hall for refugees in Islam Qala, a town in Herat province, on Afghanistan’s western border.

The enormous structure, opened by the Norwegian Refugee Council in April 2019, supports an equally massive humanitarian operation sheltering hundreds of the thousand or so Afghan refugees who are sent back from Iran every day. They are dropped off at a spot known as “Zero Point”—a neutral location between the two countries—where several international organizations work alongside Afghan government agencies to help reintegrate them.

According to data from the International Organization for Migration, as of the first week of this past December, a total of 451,073 Afghans returned from Iran in 2019 alone. Of these, 254,343 were forced deportees. “We have three categories of returnees—documented voluntary returnees, undocumented voluntary returnees, and forced deportees.” The forced deportees are the most vulnerable cases, continues Mobeen Sofiya Qaderi, the manager of the reception center and an official at the Afghan Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation.

Qaderi is responsible for smooth coordination among the many international and Afghan agencies working at Zero Point. And lately, the hours have been long. “They start the deportations a little after noon daily,” he said of the Iranian police. “Once the Afghans get here, we first give them a hot meal, since many have spent days in detention, possibly facing hardship and mistreatment.” After that, he said, “we register them and try to better understand their needs, whether its health care, shelter, and even transportation to families or relatives around Afghanistan.”

According to Qaderi, women and children like Zahra and her family are worst affected by the deportations. “Of the forced deportees this year, 1,172 were women, and 140 were unaccompanied,” he said. “Another 1,752 were unaccompanied children, sometimes young girls 16 to 17 years of age, who report to us of being sexually abused by the authorities,” Qaderi added, recalling several cases of young girls separated from their families and forced to return to Afghanistan after spending days in detention.

As she waited her turn to register herself and her children at the reception center, Zahra found a seat closer to the doors facing the crossing at Zero Point. From her vantage point, she could see across the border into Iran, her home for nearly 35 years. “We didn’t even get to bring back our belongings,” she said as she cried silently. The cacophony of the large room filled with hundreds of others did not seem to affect her; there were more immediate concerns on her mind. “We have some distant family in Farah province. We will request them to shelter us until we can figure out our fate. We have nowhere else to go.” This was her children’s first time in their parents’ homeland. Zahra had hoped they would return to see family in happier times, not in the terrifying circumstances in which they now found themselves.

Close by, her oldest child, 17-year-old Ali, was frantically calling anyone and everyone he knows in Afghanistan who could help. Unlike his mother and siblings, he seemed determined not to let the shock of their situation overwhelm him. As the oldest male of the family, Ali takes his responsibility for them very seriously. “I am going to find a way to get my family to safety, and tomorrow, I will smuggle my way back to Iran, to our home,” he told me. He had already reached out to human smugglers to help, an arrangement that would possibly cost the family thousands of dollars they don’t have.

The rapidly declining security situation in Afghanistan, coupled with a weaker economy there, compels many deportees to make fresh attempts to make it back over the border. While there are no accurate numbers on how many make the journey back, those working at Zero Point suspect that over 50 percent of the deported will try, some several times and despite inhumane treatment from the people smugglers they hire. “The anecdotal evidence we are receiving from returnees,” Nick Bishop, a program manager at the International Organization for Migration, told me in Kabul in December, “shows abuse by people smugglers, who hand them over to criminal groups, where they are placed in captivity and have to pay ransoms to be released.” In recent weeks, he said, “we have seen families of 18 persons and another of seven members who were taken in by smugglers and then forced to pay an exorbitant ransom fee after being held in captivity for eight days.”

In the process, most of the Afghans lose everything but the clothes on their backs. Their serious social problems also come with them. Many Afghans in Iran work as undocumented laborers, and they are prone to exploitation and abuse. “There are cases of people working as bonded laborers where employers … may not even pay in hard currency but sometimes with drugs,” Bishop told me. Indeed, drug addiction among returnees from Iran remains extremely high. “In some worst cases, they simply hand them over to the authorities when it’s time to pay their salaries,” he added. Those detained in Iran for deportation are treated badly, physically abused, and extorted for money.

After the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, many Afghans voluntarily returned home from Iran in hopes of rebuilding their lives in a more stable Afghanistan. However as the security situation started to deteriorate after 2009, an increasing number of Afghans started to leave for Europe via Iran. As this number steadily increased, there was also an increase in deportations from Iran, with a noticeable spike from 2014 onward.

The deportations may also be a way for Tehran to remind Kabul of its dependence on its Western neighbor. Afghanistan imports close to $2 billion of goods annually from Iran, making it the country’s largest trade partner. Iran has also been keen to maintain influence in Afghanistan’s security. It has also recruited Afghans into the Fatemiyoun Brigade, an Afghan militia that is part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s Quds Force, to fight in Syria.

Despite the precariousness of the refugees, humanitarian workers guess that tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of Afghans still try to make it to Iran each year. Why? “If you were an Afghan, you would know the answer to that,” Qaderi said. “Because you are not Afghan, it is hard for you to imagine why someone would risk so much to find a safer place to earn a few hundred afghanis.” As a former displaced person himself, he is familiar with the trauma and pain of leaving home for an uncertain future. “When you have no work, no food to feed your family, when you are deep in insecurity, and when people around you are hurt and killed for no fault of theirs in a war you did not start, then you will understand why Afghans chose the miserable life in Iran.”

Ali, reflecting similar sentiments, explained his resolve to return to Iran, “It is not safe for us here. The security is worse than when my parents left. And as a result, there is also no work,” he said in between calls to distant family in Afghanistan and to friends to help him arrange funds for his journey back. “One of my uncles was picked up by the Taliban 10 years ago, and no one has heard from him since. We suspect he was killed, but we can’t even give him a funeral.”

As tensions heighten in the Middle East after the United States’ killing of the Iranian military commander Qassem Suleimani, humanitarian workers worry about the fate of Afghans caught along the border. Although Kabul has assured the United States and Iran that Afghan soil will not be used to launch strikes against any country, the already exploited Afghan refugees remain under threat in a country where they sought shelter.

Ruchi Kumar is a journalist in Afghanistan.

Hikmat Noori is an Afghan journalist based in Kabul.

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