Afghan migrants in Iran: Living dangerously for livelihood

Afghan migrants in Iran: Living dangerously for livelihood

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Sometime in April, I was in contact with Faizullah Kakar, an eminent epidemiologist and the immediate past Chief of Staff to Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani on public health issues arising out of the coronavirus pandemic. 
Within days I approached him once again, as news of the drowning of Afghan migrant workers from Herat province – after Iranian border guards reportedly forced them into the Harirud River – attracted my attention to the plight of economic migrants and refugees in Iran.
Such highhandedness is not an aberration, as reports of arbitrary detention, dehumanizing treatment in detention camps and police excesses trickles out from time to time, all of which tarnishes Iran’s famous hospitality. The most recent case of three Afghan refugees being burnt alive after their car was shot at by Iranian police reveals the very thin line between life and death for hundreds of poor subaltern migrants, risking their lives for livelihood.
Ironically, Iran used to be one of the best countries to be a refugee in – information I collated from a Danish Institute for International Studies study paper. By 1983, the Iranian government seemed to have taken a conscious decision of initiating a policy of repatriating as many refugees and migrants as possible – with UNHCR assistance – keeping in mind contemporarily geo-strategic and economic realities. A mix of initiatives involving voluntary repatriation of registered refugees, forced deportation of undocumented migrants, and withdrawing subsidies and state benefits like healthcare provisions and free education, was taken up to this end.
I asked Kakar what compelled economic migrants to seek greener pastures in Iran despite the volatility, and how Iran’s deportation of a large number of refugees affected Afghanistan’s COVID-19 preparedness.
Kakar informed me that for a wide range of reasons, between January 1 to April 12, 2020, a total of 243,200 Afghans had returned from Iran across the border to Herat, with numbers peaking at 10,000 per day in mid-March. The Afghan government and humanitarian agencies screened and isolated returnees suspected to be pathogen carriers.

Undoubtedly, the Harirud River incident adds a new dimension to Afghanistan-Iran bilateral relations, at a time when Iran needs the help of its neighbors to stay afloat amid crippling economic sanctions. Afghanistan has already turned into an unofficial hub of Iran’s informal economy. 

Seema Sengupta

Kakar felt that Iran’s superior socio-economic infrastructure still holds the key to a continuously trickling migrant outflow, apart from relative immunity from the continuous violence that Afghans have to endure back home. Kakar also listed electricity, roads, and hospitals in Iran where these migrants shed sweat, with their footprints traced to construction, farming, and menial jobs. Kakar feared economic instability and the 50 percent unemployment rate back home could compel a sizeable chunk of Afghan deportees to sneak back into Iran once again. He underlined how some migrants – and smugglers as well – used Iran as a launch pad for reaching out to Turkey and Europe.
Undoubtedly, the Harirud River incident adds a new dimension to Afghanistan-Iran bilateral relations, at a time when Iran needs the help of its neighbors to stay afloat amid crippling economic sanctions. Afghanistan has already turned into an unofficial hub of Iran’s informal economy.
The more Iran’s foreign currency reserves deplete, Herat might well turn out to be a silent savior for Tehran. When I reached out to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, he reiterated the official version that no Iranian functionaries were responsible for the killing of Afghan migrants, which happened beyond Iranian territory, and referred to Iran’s fraternal relations with Afghanistan to underline the his leadership’s readiness for a joint probe.
It is understandable that both the nations are treading a cautious path – the reason why the report has not yet been made public. Moreover, I understand the findings will reflect consensus on the cause and remedy. I also delved into the nuclear angle to ascertain if deportation can be a political pressure tool. I asked Ambassador Seyed Hossein Mousavian, an eminent Iranian scholar and nuclear issue expert, whether the nuclear crisis and crippling sanctions have changed Iran’s attitude towards Afghan refugees and if they are being used as a tactical pressure point.
Mousavian denied emphatically that there had been any shift in Tehran’s refugee policy, and asserted: “Iran hosted millions of Afghan refugees even during eight year war with Iraq, when a million Iranians were killed and injured and millions displaced.” He took pains to explain how civilizational, historical, cultural and religious bonding continues to strengthen Iran’s ties with the Afghan people. Besides, Mousavian also denied that Iran is tactically countering the US via Afghanistan, because he felt the Americans are already in a quagmire in the Hindu Kush.
When I started digging around the migrant issue, I could not have imagined that it was actually a story about broken aspirations and lost dignity. Only the restoration of peace and stability in Afghanistan can bring some hope in these lives. But the fact is, it will take decades to rebuild Afghanistan. Until then, why not make some stop-gap informal arrangements to prevent illegal trespassing and simultaneously address these issues of livelihood?
– Seema Sengupta is a Kolkata-based journalist and columnist.

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