Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 25 November 2020

Afghans in Iran need support, not repression

Thousands of Afghan refugees and workers are being forcible sent back home from Iran. AP
Thousands of Afghan refugees and workers are being forcible sent back home from Iran. AP

In addition to the terrible deaths from Covid-19, one of the great tragedies of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is the damage it has caused to the livelihoods of many – most of all the working poor. From the US to Bangladesh, refugees, and foreign labourers are the often forgotten victims of movement restrictions, job cuts and xenophobic rhetoric resulting from the coronavirus pandemic.

In western Afghanistan, every week many such workers put their lives on the line to cross the country’s border with Iran to find low-wage work in Iranian cities. They do so at grave risk to themselves, not only from possible infection, as the virus has spread rapidly throughout Iran, but also from arrest and assault by Iranian border officials.

Most of them are blue-collar workers, providing basic and essential labour for Iran’s businesses. Instead of being granted protection and recognition for their contribution to Iran’s battered economy, they have been brutally driven out since the onset of Iran’s coronavirus outbreak in February. Over the weekend, several of these Afghan migrants paid for their crossing with their lives.

On Sunday, a search was launched to find the bodies of several Afghan migrants, after reports of them being tortured by Iranian border guards and thrown in the Hari river, which runs along the border. One of the survivors has claimed that at least 23 Afghans were killed. If these suspicions prove correct, the killings amount to torture and extra-judicial homicide carried out by Iranian public servants.

"Our people are not just some names you threw into the river," the governor of the Afghan border province of Herat, Sayed Qatali, said on Twitter, directing his words at Iranian officials.

The frustration and anger of Kabul at Tehran’s forced repatriations has been compounded by an increased number of coronavirus cases in Afghanistan, a country already suffering a multitude of crises. Kabul has officially recorded a little over 2,700 cases of the coronavirus and 85 deaths but experts believe there is a large number of undetected cases as more than half the country is controlled by the Taliban, and conflict is still ongoing. Random sampling by Afghan health officials has indicated that up to a third of Afghans may already be infected. Authorities in Kabul believe a large portion of cases can be traced to deportations from Iran.

More than 250,000 Afghans, including workers and refugees fleeing war, have been forcefully returned from Iran since the beginning of the year. Since February, Iran has become the epicentre for the virus in the region. Authorities initially failed to contain its spread, even fueling conspiracies about the disease.

Our people are not just some names you threw into the river

Governor of Herat, Sayed Qatali

Iran has officially recorded 97,424 cases and more than 6,200 deaths, although the actual numbers are believed to be much higher. And this week, Tehran is set to reopen mosques in one third of the country, as well as schools, despite the widespread outbreak.

Besides depriving workers of a much-needed source of income and businesses of much-needed labour, the hasty return of Afghans without any health care or other precautions risks accelerating the spread of the virus in one of the most vulnerable countries in the world. It will also exacerbate Afghanistan’s broader economic crisis, making migrant workers even more desperate to continue their crossings into Iran. What is needed on the Iranian-Afghan border is the same thing that is needed at borders everywhere during this pandemic: co-operation, information exchange and compassion – not more needless violence and death.

Updated: May 4, 2020 05:15 PM

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