A large group of refugees walk through an Afghanistan-Iran border point.

Afghan returnees struggle with unemployment, violence at home

For years, Afghans have moved to Iran and Pakistan to escape conflict, insecurity and lack of economic opportunities. Since last March, the pandemic, economic woes and deportations have forced many back to home. 

The World

Last summer, as the coronavirus pandemic was ravaging cities across Iran, 30-year-old Mohammad Parwiz Amini was in despair.

Amini is from Afghanistan, but he had relocated to Iran to find work, along with his family of five. 

What he found instead, he said, was a country unable to contain the deadly coronavirus, an economy suffering under harsh US sanctions and a public generally unwelcoming of Afghans.

Amini is one of thousands of Afghans who have been forced to return home since last year, either through deportations or tough living conditions that made it impossible to stay. And the prospects for a dignified return for Afghan migrants remain bleak. 

In 2020, the International Organization for Migration recorded its largest-ever return for undocumented Afghan migrants, with almost a million returnees. 

That is almost double the previous year.

Amini said he didn’t want to go back to Afghanistan, even without work in Iran. Logar Province, where he and his family are from, is mostly under Taliban rule, he said, and there is fighting almost every day.

“If you stay there, you’ll end up dead,” he said.

Left with no choice, Amini and his wife decided to pay a smuggler to help them navigate out of Iran and into Turkey. They scraped together about $7,000, their life savings, he said, to hire a smuggler. They were on the move again.

They arrived at the Turkish border at about 3 a.m., Amini recalled. It took little time for Turkish border guards to arrest them.

“They confiscated our belongings and set them on fire right in front of us,” he said.

The next day, the family was handed over to Iranian authorities and moved through different holding centers in Iran for about a month. They were recently deported back to Afghanistan this week. 

That is where The World reached Amini and his family — in Herat, a city in northwest Afghanistan, near the border with Iran.

Speaking over WhatsApp, Amini sounded exhausted from the long days on the road.

The family was at a center for migrants and refugees, run by IOM.

Aziz Rahimi, who has worked for the organization for the past 20 years, said IOM provides families with hot food, sanitary kits, blankets and a limited travel stipend.

Also at the center was Mah Gul Mahmoodi, 25, who had returned to Herat after five years in Iran. Her family lived in Shahrood, a city in the northern part of the country. 

Mahmoodi’s husband used to work as a landscaper, she said, but he hasn’t been able to work lately because he has stomach cancer. Unable to feed her five children, one of whom is disabled, Mahmoodi said she had no choice but to return to Afghanistan.

Her only relative, a cousin, lives in Kunduz Province in northern Afghanistan, so that’s where the family will move next.

Discrimination and deportation

Before the pandemic, Iran was a lifeline for Afghans looking for work, said Nicholas Bishop, an IOM emergency response officer.

Young Afghan men have found work in construction, farms and factories in Iran for years. Remittance payments from Afghans working in Iran is a major part of the Afghan economy. World Bank data puts the number between 3%-5% of Afghanistan’s annual gross domestic product, but Bishop estimates it could be as high as 15%-20%, given that a considerable portion of remittances go through the unofficial hawala money transfer system.

But the pandemic and economic sanctions have left Afghans like 33-year-old Hussein Ali out of work and vulnerable to abuse. Ali worked as a day laborer at a glass factory near Tehran, the capital. He said the factory closed down for a few months because of the pandemic.

While waiting for the factory to open again, Hussein Ali was stopped by the police. When they found out he was in the country without documentation, he said, they beat him and deported him back to Afghanistan.

“People without proper paper and documents are the most defenseless in Iran."

Fatemeh Aman, non-resident senior fellow, Middle East Institute, Washington, DC

These types of claims are common, said Fatemeh Aman, a non-resident senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

“People without proper paper and documents are the most defenseless in Iran,” Aman said.

In 2019, the European Commission reported that there are close to 1 million documented and up to 2 million undocumented Afghan refugees reside in Iran. Those without papers have no formal legal status, it said.

Aman, who has done research on Afghans in Iran, pointed to an incident last May, in which at least 17 migrants drowned in a river near the Iran-Afghanistan border. Witnesses alleged that Iranian border guards forced the victims into the river but Iranian officials have denied the claims.

Aman said even Afghans with the right documents face discrimination in Iran. They have limited access to health care and education, she said; they can’t get citizenship and most can’t buy or sell property.

Sayed Abdul Basit Ansari, spokesman for Afghanistan’s Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation, said the two countries are in discussions about improving conditions for Afghan migrants in Iran.

He said after the drowning incident, Iran agreed to issue electronic identification cards for Afghans residing in the country. Prior to that, it allowed Afghan children without documents to register in public schools.

Still, many continue to be deported and they face insecurity, unemployment and poverty back home.

Mohammad Parwiz Amini, who used to live under the Taliban in Afghanistan, was unsure about his future plans. He said he doesn’t want to take his family back to Logar Province but doesn’t know if he will find work elsewhere.

Ansari, of the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation, said the ministry offers limited vocational training for some returnees.

Bishop, of the IOM, said the situation for families like Amini’s could get even worse given the shortage of rain and snow in Afghanistan in the past few months.

“Afghanistan’s agriculture is heavily dependent on rain-fed agriculture and snow melt... so the humanitarian response plan for this year is suggesting that as many as 17 million Afghans, or about 42% of the total population, will be impacted by drought and famine.”

Nicholas Bishop, emergency response officer, IOM

“Afghanistan’s agriculture is heavily dependent on rain-fed agriculture and snowmelt,” Bishop explained, “so the humanitarian response plan for this year is suggesting that as many as 17 million Afghans, or about 42% of the total population, will be impacted by drought and famine.”

Peace negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan officials have stalled. Violence across the country is on the rise and experts predict a possible drought on the way.

It’s no wonder that Afghans like Amini say they will try to leave once again.

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